So it’s to be
France v Italy. They say that the most important components of drama
are conflict and subtext. This should have plenty of both.
up with both sets of semi-finals. They helped me to crystallise my
feeling about this World Cup, which is that it’s been great from most
points of view; except in relation to everything to do with England,
all of which has been big pants. So it’s been a roaring success and a
massive downer at the same time.
the way Italy played in extra time, for example. I’ve never seen an
Italian team so committed to attack. Why? Because they obviously didn’t
fancy a penalty shoot-out. Fabulissimo. But why couldn’t England do
something similar against Portugal?
well. I’ve been saying for some time that football was taking on too
much importance in England and that something needed to happen to get
the game back in perspective. Perhaps this will be it. I had thought
the likeliest thing would be Chelsea winning so many titles so easily
that it would put everyone off. I remember making these arguments to
Jon Riley and saying that I was a Chelsea supporter now, on Maoist
grounds. He said, ‘I think that’s more Pol Pot-ist.’
The function of a World Cup is to produce a masterpiece. Without it, a tournament can have drama and excitement and passion and all those other good things, but it lacks the ingredient which keeps it in the memory for years afterwards. It needs a Brazil v Italy 1982, a Brazil v France 1986, a West Germany v Netherlands in 1988 (actually that was the European Championship; same point, though).
Last night we got our masterpiece and...I missed it. I’d gone out for dinner and taped the game. I still haven’t watched it yet.
On the other hand, I did once stand beside Alessandro del Piero, who scored Italy's clenching second goal last night, at a hotel check-in. This was ten years ago. I’d gone to Turin, invited by the Slow Food foundation. The flight got in at night and we went straight to the hotel. It seemed oddly lively—there was a crowd outside, the lobby was full of men in suits hanging about, it took an age to get registered at the front desk, the bloke getting the attention of both receptionists looked oddly familiar, a bit like Alessandro del...the penny dropped. Juventus were staying at the same hotel, on the night before a home game. (Staying in a hotel the night before a home game was once seen as a ridiculously decadent foreign practise; now all the Premiership teams do it.)
Therer were a remarkable number of hangers-on attached to Juventus— agents, journalists, advisers, middle-men of one sort or another. They all seemed to spend all their time in the lobby, waiting for whoever or whatever it was they were waiting for. The area where they did this was directly opposite the lifts, so every time you went down in the lift, as the doors opened, you would see a little surge of expectation as the doors opened, followed by brutal disappointment, mirrored on every face, as they realised it was just some civilian. It was a lesson in just how much disappointment it’s possible to cause simply by being oneself.
Fred Trueman's death on Saturday made me think, as I often do, of his old team-mate Ken Taylor. Ken played in the great Yorkshire team of the late fifties, the one captained by Brian Close; he opened the batting, came on to bowl at the first change, and was the star fielder. In fact he was the only fielder in front of the wicket on the off side when Trueman bowled. (When Geoff Boycott came into the team as a young 'un, he—Boycott—was at first a lousy fielder. By his own account, he asked Taylor to coach him, which Ken did, and that was how he became the competent fielder he remained throughout his career.) Ken played cricket for England a few times. He was also a professional footballer; he was centre-half for Huddersfield in the days when they were a first division team. Today he would be rich and famous. As it was, he played during the period of the maximum wage, and made enough money to live on while he was playing, but no more. After his retirement he trained at the Slade and became an art teacher. That was how I met him: he arrived at the school I was sent to in Norfolk about the same time I did. At the age of 10 he taught us football, and at the age of 16 and onwards, cricket. He taught us art, too, or those of us who were teachable, a group which didn’t include me.
I often think of Ken Taylor when I’m watching sport. I think of him when I read about players earning £100,000 a week, and wonder what he thinks about that. The sums seem obscene to me; they seem obscene to a highly well paid recent pro like Waddle; God only knows how they must strike someone whose salary was legally held down to below that of a skilled manual labourer.
He taught me very many specific things, from how to block a low skidding shot at football to how, if you’re fielding in the covers, you should start square of the wicket and gradually move round as the batsman gets his eye in and the ball gets softer and slower. High-level sport is all about detail; we were playing the opposite level of sport but his eye for detail was the same. His art was like that too, very precise. He was a warm man who gave little praise, but when he did praise you remembered it.
Since I began writing this, I Googled Ken and learnt a few things I didn't know, one of them being that the man who admitted him to the Slade was Sir William Coldstream. I also learned that the manager of Huddersfield when he played for them was Bill Shankly (and that Ken had an England Under-23 cap in football, to go with his cricket caps). Blimey. So he played cricket with Brian Close and Fred Trueman, was coached in football by Bill Shankly, and was taught to draw by William Coldstream.
One of my most vivid memories of Ken is from my last year at school, my second in the cricket first XI. We were unbeaten for the whole season, and only had one close squeak when, in what should have been a drawn game, our batting for some reason collapsed. Everybody suddenly got out to crap shots. I was left at the wicket with Eddie Thorne to bat out the last hour or so. (I liked Eddie; he and I were hockey fullbacks in the second team. His dad and his uncle were a. identical twins and b. generals in the British Army—though one of them was a brigadier and the other a major general.) It was tea time and there would have been a few hundred people watching. We blocked out the hour. I faced the last ball, and no doubt over-excited by having ‘saved the game’, waved my bat over my head after I’d done so.
Eddie and I came off the field feeling pleased with ourselves. I thought this would be an occasion when Ken Taylor gave some of his rare praise, but I was wrong. When I went in the dressing room, he shook his head, and then said the single most revealing thing I’ve ever heard about the psychology of professional sport. Remember he’d learnt his football from Bill Shankly, and been a member of the Yorksire side which won the County Championship seven times; he was a graduate of two very hard, and very successful, teams. He said:
‘When you celebrate like that, it makes you look like you didn’t think you could do it.’
Not a school of thought which has many adherents these days.
If you spend some time out of the country, or reading other countries’ sports pages, what you notice when you come back to reading ours is that English sports writing is compulsively moralistic. Everything is seen as a moral issue. Victory is a triumph of character and will; defeat is a failing of character and will. This theme is always present in the way people talk about sport, but no-one stresses it as remorselessly as we do. Look at the New York Times or L’Equipe and you will occasionally encounter the idea that one team beat another because they were, you know, better. The main reason one football team beats another is because they are better at football.
At least, that’s what I usually think. But the England team’s performance in this World Cup has been a severe test of my view. It’s hard not to see their failure as in some sense a failure of character. Richard Williams is very firm-spoken on this point in today’s Guardian. He says that England got what they deserved, and the reason Hargreaves—who was born in Canada and moved to Germany at 16—was England’s best player is because he’s never lived in England.
I find the idea that they’re a bit spoilt hard to dismiss. They look and act spoilt. But they don’t look as if they’re not trying, and there was nothing fake about how upset they seemed to be on going out.
1. I can’t remember exactly where it is but there’s a great moment somewhere in Beckett where someone launches their boot ‘among’ someone else’s testicles. Christopher Ricks used to cite this as an example of Beckett’s brilliant use of dead-seeming language. Wayne Rooney probably isn’t much of a Beckettian (or a Ricksian, come to that) but he certainly knows how to put his foot among an opponent’s goolies.
2. When was the World Cup last an all-European affair at the semi- final stage? I'll have a nerdy look at the reference books later, but off the top of my head I can’t remember when. Does this make it less interesting? Probably it does, a bit.
3. I now want France to win for a whole set of reasons. The non- footballing ones are that they are the most racially mixed team left in the competition, and also that they are the oldest. These days I find it important to support the oldies. The footballing reason for supporting them is that they come closer than anyone else to playing the beautiful game. And then there is Zidane, who is both a footballing reason and a non-footballing one.
4. Footynomics: Portugal v England was the third example of a smaller, poorer country beating a richer, more populous one. But it was on penalties, so I’m arguing that it doesn’t count.
Note that in one sense England’s penalties were better than Portugal’s. Two out of four of theirs missed the goal altogether; all four of England’s were on target. Normally that would be enough to win you a shoot-out. But Riccardo guessed the right way to move every time, even on the penalty Hargreaves scored and (if memory serves) on the one Carragher put in and then had to retake. So perhaps ‘guessed’ is the wrong verb. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a keeper move the right way on five consecutive penalties. This makes it official: God hates the England football team.