Thursday, June 24, 2010

Forza Azurri anyone?

We remember so fondly our Italia 1990 team (indeed one might say that Bobby Robson's boys changed the profile of football in English culture) not because of their mediocre performances in the group stage, their subsequent near-run-things against Belgium and Cameroon, but because of their glorious failure in the semi-final penalty shoot-out against old foe Germany.

For that reason I'm glad England have drawn the Germans again in the last 16, and that, should they somehow overcome them, they could then have to renew hostilities against the Argies (and Diego Armando Maradonna in particular).

Of such fixtures is a Mundial made, not comparatively insipid match-ups against the likes of Ghana, where there's not much more at stake than pride and a prolongation of the footballing fiesta back home.

The World Cup is the greatest sporting event on Earth. And what a contrast it makes with the noble yet ever so pompous and fascistic ideals of its only real competitor, the Olympic Games. For in spite of FIFA's rather tedious 'Fair Play' anthem, we all know that this is sublimated world war, an arena where it is acceptable (in fact downright pleasurable) to express the kind of xenophobic sentiments which would be completely unacceptable in any other circumstances.

It has been fascinating to watch the Americans starting to catch the bug in 2010. For one doesn't have to be a loyal week-in week-out soccer fan (I'm not) to appreciate the naughty pleasures of this tournament.

Of course they still tend to labour under one or two misconceptions, such as the notion that things would be somehow better without controversy (cheating, poor refereeing etc), for these things are surely fundamental to the intensity of the experience. Yesterday when England played Slovenia I chuckled as the Chapin commentators surmised that the German ref was being biased in England's favour, while their equivalents in the UK ranted that the opposite was in fact the case! (Really, a German referee. Only someone over here could imagine the existence of some sort of pact of European solidarity on the football pitch.)

Andrew Leonard's article in Salon suggests that Landon Donovan's late winner against Algeria will help America transcend the culture war which has broken out since the Jabulanis started flying in South Africa. Let's hope not, eh?!

The very idea that international football can somehow foster lets all get on together, multicultural values is of course complete nonsense, and both the left and the right in the US should quickly disabuse themselves of it. It's a silly doctrine that briefly gripped the French after their win in 1998, and just look at them now.

If this was universally understood to be just a 'sport', why would politicians take such a keen interest?

Anyway, Donovan produced one of the great World Cup moments to send the USA through and to the summit of Group C; deservedly so, because they produced a lot more excitement than England across the three games and were denied victory against Slovenia by the kind of 'erratic' decision we love so much.

David Beckham's place in the pantheon was guaranteed by a similar late intervention. England were down a goal in injury time in their final qualifying match against Greece for the 2002 World Cup, a scoreline that would have denied them top spot in the group, and thus condemned them to a play-off. Up stepped Beckham for one last free kick...

Or perhaps it's his sending off against Argentina in 1998 that most grabbed our attention? In the World Cup you're either a hero or a hate-figure (as Wayne Rooney is discovering) and it's best not to wish for the alternative.

Talking of hate-figures, Italy is down a goal to Slovakia as I write and heading for bottom of their group behind New Zealand. Yes, that's New Zealand, whose squad features at least one part-timer who works in a bank. I took this pic of Italian ex-pat preparations for the great spectacle in London last month. How I'd like to be hanging around outside
Bar Italia in Frith Street this afternoon; just for a bit of therapeutic gloating, you know. (It wouldn't be such a bad place to be if they make some sort of heroic late comeback either.)

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