¡VIVA INGLATERRA! E ¡VIVA FUTEBOL!
Mickey Blue Eyes
It would be hard to find a country on this island Earth which cannot play organised football at some level. If intelligent life exists elsewhere in our galaxy it would be surprising if it fails to play something similar, though what the final game form - let alone the participants and spectators - might look like is an open question. Even Arthur C. Clarke dodged that one, unless you count bone-throwing and head-bashing in 2001.
However, we mere mortals on terra firma have to settle for World Cup Brazil 2014. The fabulist jamboree is back. In turn, it is a rehearsal for Olympics Rio 2016. All in all, quite enough spectacle, which in the former case, and in my more deluded romantic and idealistic moments, I see as solely a festival of football enjoyment with a welcome absence of tiny-mind club hatreds. Factor in England's chances and you get a touch of humour too: at the time of writing FIFA rank us with Colombia, one of the homes of moron nose sherbet. Then again, if Greece could win Euro 2004 at 80 to 1 odds, what if........But No, do not tempt fate. Your ego would take a fearful bruising even before a strait jacket is strapped on. The hope does you in every time.
As in Britain and elsewhere there are socioeconomic facts of life to face. For good or ill the World Cup resonates around a world teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. The footy figures speak for themselves: since the first tournament in1930 the total attendance is 34,299,741, average game attendance 44,430. It attracts revenues running into billions. Obviously, people want to see it and to participate in it. At that scale, in these circumstances, surely the questions all fans should ask are: Is it all worth it? If yes, why? And, what does it accomplish?
Like it or not, other realities intrude. In June 2013 a million Brazilians protested the cost of hosting the Confederation Cup. More recently, many tens of thousands in eighty cities protested the overall estimated US$14.5 billion cost (likely to be much higher) of the World Cup. They say the red carpet is laid out for the rich while the most vulnerable and poor are swept under it. The protestors want to see the money better spent on health, education, housing and welfare. Former footballer and now congressman Romário de Souza Fariahas said, "It's the biggest heist in the history of Brazil." To underline his opinion there are reports of widespread corruption in the award of construction contracts. In fact all professional sports are at moralistic bay everywhere, an infected symptom of the kind of society we have, the system that employs and grips you.
During the tournament the Brazilian government plans to deploy 157,000 police to stop or contain protests. A million residents of slum favelas will be displaced; incredibly, there is even a government plan to promote turismo nas favelas, described by campaigners as "poverty pornography". And when you see the disparities of wealth, that five percent of their country owns eighty percent of the wealth, that millions live in desperate hardship, that the favelas are riddled with organised crime and drug dealing, you would have to be blind or stupid not to concede the protestors have more than a good argument.
Meantime, Brazil police and military baton peaceful dissenters with the kind of brutality and tear gas almost normal in South America. Then for similar reasons you see the same thing in Europe and the USA......No, given our circumstances, we have nothing to boast or kid ourselves about. The margins are small and likely to narrow in the immediate future. Brazil is on target to displace Britain as a major economic world power sometime during the next decade, which brings us back to the earlier question.
Brazil's top division averages 13,000 per game, its professional game acknowledged, like ours, as institutionally corrupt. Their official population is almost 200 millions. So much for a hotbed of football. There are twelve new or rebuilt stadia for the tournament (FIFA original terms of reference called for eight), projected construction cost US$3.5 billions, four times the original estimate, all of which will be met by tax payers despite initial promises of private finance. The 70,000 capacity Estadio Nacional Mane Garrincha in Brasilia is one of them. However, no Brasilia club plays in either division of their National League. Their biggest local club plays in the state league, which averages 1,000 per game. There are similar arguments against new stadia in Manaus, Cuiaba and Natal.
The argument in favour says such tournaments add development, infrastructure and free advertising of the "national image". Yet it did not apply to South Africa 2010, which was an economic failure despite previous projections; the parallels with Brazil are obvious, though not exact. And so-called "image" can turn on a single adverse incident such as murder or mugging of a tourist; a full blown horror like the Munich Olympics 1972 - always a lurking nightmare - would render superfluous the whole nonsensical "market consultants" manufacture of "image".
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) rank Brazil as the seventh largest economy in the world with a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of US$2435.20 billions. The United Nations, World Bank and CIA put it at the same level. So it is safe to say Brazil is a rich country which can well afford to run a fair, sophisticated society and host the World Cup, even one as badly organised and funded as this one. So their government best remember it takes more than a paranoid, shit-stirring hammock lawyer or, gawd help us, accountant to start a mutiny......it takes a sufficiently unhappy crew. And plainly a hefty number of Brazilians are very unhappy indeed. Also, new allegations of corruption have surfaced at the award of World Cup 2022 to Qatar. Welcome to the real world where everything is for sale, even you, and, don't kid yourself, your morality: capitalism in action.
So with all that as background, again: Is it all worth it for a game of football? Your answer, I suppose, hinges on how much of a rôle empathy plays in your character and whether you can forget the favelas, associated crime, poverty, and authoritarian government thuggery. See how far you get.
By now it is taken for granted English mainstream media journalists and presenters will be asinine á là the appalling ITV commentaries of Clive Tyldesley and Andy Townsend; splendid TV pictures and novel camera angles will be ruined by commentaries more suited to adolescent textspeak or a soap opera plot line or the grotesqueries of "social media" - Bang-up job there, teachers and parents; soon all contemporary conversation will be reduced to four words sentences. "Punditry" will be no better, not while morons like Robby Savage are employed in it. Athletic mundane will be described as "exceptional" or, so help me, "fantastic" or "amazing". There will be tedious bullshit about sambas. Brazil will be dubbed "The Spiritual Home" of football, a monumental stupidity that ignores the game is not, never was, and never can be "spiritual". It is a secular, corporeal game. It belongs to everybody, which is why it so popular. If Brazil is anything it is the home of industrialised slavery, since more African slaves were kidnapped to there than even to North America; the physical evidence for it is in every favela, street and football team.
Newspapers will go beyond the pale of absurdity. Semi- and full-blown artificial hysteria will be the general order of the day. You will throw large cushions at images of Esther McVey, the new tory Foghorn Leghorn. In England it will rain. Canary Wharf will be filled still with liars and cheats. Politicians will lie and bare their teeth in coached, false smiles. Still the World Cup will go on and everything will be all right......won't it?
And if England actually perform well media stupidity will race in tsunami waves across the Atlantic South to North and flush into your living room as TV sludge of tenth rate hyperbole. Ominously, pre-tournament TV programmes were trashy: the standard plethora of 50 best of... idiot tackiness usually fronted by tedious Essex modules or others from inside the M25 ghetto, only there to save on travel expenses and destroy the English language.
Presenters, pundits and journos will never understand we fans watch the game in spite of them and their peculiar Londoncentricity, not because of them. Meanwhile, half of football fans long ago stopped reading "news"papers; plainly they are the intelligent half. All of which begs the question of the usefulness of hacks. But it takes all sorts, and after a while you have seen and heard most of them.
(Talk of which reminds me to digress slightly: More years ago than I care to remember the Daily Mirror had a tabloid hack named Frank McGhee, a notorious Manchester United fan who was an unwilling schmuck for much hilarity on Merseyside. His weekly column bore the strap line Frank Talk. At the time of World Cup Chile 1962, pre-university, pre-computers, for a few weeks I worked part time in a design office as I acquired the craft and art of hand drawing. England were due to play Hungary in Group 4, which drew the Frank Talk headline of ENGLAND TO BEAT MAGICAL MAGYARS! This was too much for some of the lads; in between spasms of juvenile mirth, to my adolescent delicious horror they cut the piece out and scrawled across it, "Oh fuck off Frank" and despatched it to him. England lost 2-1. The lads never did get a reply. So I learned early that informed fans opinions are at least as good, if more pungent, than any number of self-promoting media schmucks. After the 1985 FA Cup final, which we lost 1-0 to Manchester United, McGhee predictably called the perfectly justified sending off - the first in a Final - of United's Moran "a savage injustice". The last I heard of him he was bleating in the Observer after we beat the same team 1-0 in the 1995 Final.)
Me, I support Everton and England in equal measure. There is plenty of room for both, assuming your mind is compos mentis, broad and fluid enough. Once either team pulls their shirts on I am as irrationally biased in their favour as the next fan. A playing triumph by either has me waving my arms and shouting as foolishly as any other plebeian denizen of the Lower Street End. However, I do draw a line in front of the English Defence League, the BNP, UKIP and their assorted tattooed, baldy, racist, Essex Sun-reading, tory-voting, obese Little Englanders in Summer Twat kecks. There is a difference between short-lived bias and plain insanity.
Even before Roy Hodgson took them to boot camp in Portugal it was obvious Our England Boys are an ambiguous mix of fading old pros and raw if promising youth. This is why we England fans long ago dropped optimism in favour of faint hope. Our twenty-three man squad simply does not have enough oomph, though it would be nice to be proved wrong. In our dreams we imagine golden oldies will finally seize the day and inspire the kids to marvellous athletic things. But I doubt if we (somehow world ranking 11th) will be much better than disparate in a group containing Uruguay (ranked 6th), Italy (ranked 9th) and Costa Rica (ranked 34th). Anything beyond the round of 16 would be a surprise. Anything beyond the quarter finals would cause wild palpitations. A place in the final would raise mainstream media to new lows. Normally hard core hetero Englishmen would hug each other and believe in faeries.
Through my utterly biased Evertonian eyes, in a small way our national team is summed up by Wayne Rooney, who is indeed a great player......though not now as great as promised when he first took our breath away in Royal Blue. These days he seems to lack the bullish determination we prefer in the English game. Perhaps he just needs a good mid-football-life kick in the arse. It may be wishful fancy but I cannot escape the notion of a better destiny had he stayed with us. He has never looked right in a red shirt and never will. Then along came Ross Barkley and at club level a promise that even submerged lingering memories of Wayne. Now, too, John Stones apparently has all the natural embryo talents and temperament to go with it.
Eventually perhaps this overlap will be the spontaneous combustion we hope for: Rooney as the old(!) veteran who protects and encourages the youngsters and then delivers the coup de grâce himself. Our two other established Evertonians, Phil Jagielka and Leighton Baines, are of just the right age and talent to keep the defence steady together with Gary Cahill and Steve Gerrard, always presuming the latter can stay on his feet. Everyone else but Luke Shaw seems iffy to me, too vulnerable to enemy flashes of natural skill. Spain, for instance, would simply pass us to death if they hit top form.
It scarcely takes a genius to think England's first match against Italy will show how good, bad or indifferent are our prospects. Win that well and it will raise a few eyebrows, mine included. The general expectation is a loss, a draw at best, with a distant prospect of sweaty victory. As usual, the Italians will be capable of everything and nothing, all of it underpinned by wildly irritating catenaccio. Uruguay probably will run true to type; anybody mildly acquainted with their form - in every sense of the word - will know what that means. Costa Rica are an unknown quantity. If the rankings mean anything the qualifiers are likely to be Uruguay and Italy.
Yet surprises are possible. The last World Cup had two such packages in Mexico and Ghana, both of whom played freely, went through the group stage, and then got steam-rollered by physically harder teams in the knock-outs, though Ghana only lost on penalties to, guess who, Uruguay......cheated, some say, by Señor Goofy of analfield. Nobody forecast they would do well, which made their games all the more delicious. Spain were worthy if slightly staccato campeónes del mundo, lost their opener and conceded only one goal throughout, but they were easily the best champions since Brazil 1970. England were wretched, scraped through their group, and then were routed by Germany. France were even worse, finished bottom of their group and thereby delighted les Rosbifs everywhere. Italy failed to win a match. Germany were no great shakes despite slaughtering Argentina, yet still made it to the semi-finals. Holland completely lost their heads in the final. So in comparison it was an encouraging tournament for non-European teams. A repeat of such surprises will be welcomed by all true football supporters. If all else fails you can always get your pulses racing by ogling that Brazilian female assistant referee or those Copacabana female beach beauties with body shapes made in heaven. There are always compensations.
England's pre-tournament friendly games were no reliable guide. Peru (world ranking 42nd) fielded their near-enough second eleven and were soundly beaten 3-0 at Wembley; it was nice to see Ross Barkley and John Stones get on the field but I am at a loss to see what ten minutes can tell you. Midweek, a 2-2 draw with Ecuador (28th) in Miami was useful only for a fitful second string run out; Ross Barkley and Oxlade-Chamberlain impressed, but the rest, particularly defenders, showed how the squad is short of quality......the analfielder Sterling even managed to get himself sent off for a needless foul. Three days later versus Honduras (30th), also in Miami, it finished 0-0; the only use of the fixture was a run out against a team of ale house bashers who we failed to beat even when they were down to ten men (then again, we do have to play Uruguay: the experience may prove useful after all). In toto, a waste of time except for interesting meteorology in the final game. If we cannot beat Ecuador and Honduras........
(Relevant aside: attendances in Miami were 21,534 and 45,379 respectively. Fort Lauderdale Strikers and Tampa Bay Rowdies both average just over 4,000. The University of Miami grid-iron team get an average over 90,000, while Miami Hurricanes pro grid-iron team average 58,000. Plainly the World's Beautiful Game has a long way to go in the United States of Amnesia. David Beckham could lose a lot of money if he fails to get his proposed "franchise" formula right.)
From this you will gather I have not the faintest idea who will be World Champions, anymore, I suspect, than you. But the world's best teams and players will again be on show. We hope they give us a World Cup to remember, one as good as the unforgettable 1970 tournament, replete with great players, teams and matches, one the kids can love as much as they instinctively love the sport itself. Forget self-serving media hype, treat the games as harmless athletic fun and that is what they will be. Preferably without stupid paper clappers that sound like massed baby rattles at a Deep South revival meeting fronted by Elmer Gantry. If you are offered such a clapper, take my tip and burn it publicly, then piss on the ashes.
You cannot of course forget the favelas, establishment corruption, organised crime, poverty and police thuggery........can you?
Come on, England.