Tuesday, June 29, 2010

'Ere we go, 'ere we go, 'ere we go again

Like most technological and cultural trends, I’m somewhat late to the blog party. But this week I sailed my maiden voyage as a blogger.

It felt good. It felt good to get things off my chest about England’s dejected world cup ejection. Did I move any arguments on? No. Of course not.

That wasn’t the point. In joining the cacophony of caterwauling about the anti-climax that was England’s World Cup, I merely added to the phalanx of comment on the subject.

When my partner asked if my blog would only be about football I said no. And so it was going to be, until I read further blather from Joseph 'Sepp' Blatter, the preposterously resilient FIFA president. Forced into an embarassing mea culpa on Frank Lampard's disallowed goal, Blatter is quoted as saying that, on the subject of goal-line technology: "We will naturally take on board the discussion [on technology] and have the first opportunity in July at the [FIFA] business meeting." That sounds to me like nothing more than a crumb. Master politics from a master politician.

The argument for technology "to assist referees" has bounced around like a ball going in off the crossbar for too long now. In 1966 at Wembley, when apparently the world was coloured black and white, a Russian linesman gave Geoff Hurst a goal when a ball just about went over the German goal line. On Sunday, Frank Lampard's ball didn't just cross the line, it passed through the line and set up camp a full yard inside the German goal. Indeed, I'm surprised the ball didn't need FIFA accreditation to get that far into the ground.

The technology exists: various companies have offered solutions, from RFID chips in the ball to cameras more powerful than those that read your number plate and tell you what you've had for breakfast. Tennis has embraced it. As have the rugby codes. But not football. Not the world's most popular sport. Not, in the World Cup, the world's most viewed event. An event that has generated over $1.6 billion in sponsorship revenue for FIFA in the four years since 2007. An event that will generate almost $3.5 billion in advertising revenue. With such sums sloshing about, FIFA has a duty to all concerned in the game to ensure it is not only professionally financed, but professionally administered.

Refereeing at this World Cup has been a joke, with the inconsistency of decisions merely the warm-up act to the top billing of comedic calamity like that experienced by Mexico and England - decisions Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles would have laughed in unison at for their shere ineptitude. I'm not laughing.

On the FIFA website, Blatter has admitted to personally apologising "for what happened" to England and Mexico, who both suffered from refereeing blunders. Even so, Blatter and his cohorts have repeatedly dismissed the idea of technology to prevent such errors. There has even been suggestion that human error was part of the fun of football.

It's not. It makes a mockery of the whole point of football: unlike American baseball, in which, much like an episode of Seinfeld, when nothing happens it is considered a stroke of tactical genius, football is about scoring goals. For those who haven't cottoned on, one team wins by putting the ball over the line more often than the opposition. It's not rocket science. But apparently it now requires rocket science to prove something that basic has happened.

"Still," Blatter snorts, "it’s not the end of the competition, it’s not the end of football." No, it's not the end of football. No, it's not the end of the World Cup either. Most right-minded observers would agree that England were probably not good enough to go past Germany and, even with the score at 2-2, they would have been unlikely to gain any advantage, in normal time, in added time or in the dreaded penalties.

But it is important. It does matter. To bring up Bill Shankly's oft-misquoted and oft-used statement: "Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that." And it is.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Redefining schadenfreude: England’s balls-up

Let the wailing and gnashing of teeth begin. Actually, it has well and truly begun already. England are heading home from South Africa, heads bowed, and the media left to rant and rave about six million-a-year Fabio, his 23 overpaid superstars, and the failure to raise their game beyond plain ordinary.

Had they beaten Germany yesterday, we’d have been hailing it The Greatest Thing Ever. We’d have declared a national holiday; streets would have been named Capello Way and Gerrard Gardens (Wales already has Barry Island); bunting would have adorned every dwelling; the Cross of St. George would have flown from every rooftop south of Hadrian’s; and our glorious tabloid press would have fizzed with glee in trotting out the usual slew of lame and lazy taunts echoing events of 70 years ago.

Instead, there is castigation and retort, rumblings and retribution about Uruguayan incompetence, FIFA intransigence, and managerial stubbornness. Oh, and not to mention the fact the ball was too round, amongst an ever-lengthening list of excuses that fail to accept that, simply, England weren’t up to it.

Refreshingly, it is the German press who are enjoying themselves the most: “Now we are quits,” snorted Die Welt, reflecting ongoing Teutonic nark about some linesman’s error 44 years ago. Others, benevolently, even went so far as to suggest that a refereeing blunder meant the result was meaningless. Alas, sweet sentiment, but of little consequence. The better team won, point.

Who knows how long the English grizzling will last this time: probably longer than a Garth Crooks comment. As the knives sharpen for Capello’s inevitable discussion with the FA (ergo, another expensive failure heads off to lucrative pastures new) England fans are left to lick their wounds.

To be honest, we shouldn’t feel wounded. Embarrassed, yes, but nothing more. The game against lowly Slovenia not withstanding, England’s brief appearance at this World Cup was mostly poor. The game against a spirited United States should have been the kick in shorts they needed. Apparently not. For what followed became etched in footballing lore – for a few days at least - as The Worst Football Game I Have Ever Seen™. Except it wasn’t. Worse was to come. And it came in the form of a showdown against the exotically-coiffured Joachim Löw’s team of young Jäger.

Defensive blunders were coupled with ineffective attacking which, in turn, was marred by the inflexibility of a system and a coach who refused to budge and change things when it was needed. Joe Cole may not have been the fittest player on the bench, but his effort, commitment and, if nothing else, his open-mouthed lolling, would have made something of a difference, somewhere.

Lampard’s goal-that-wasn’t may be the focus of some ire, but really we should have no complaints. England really had no expectation of going all the way at this World Cup. Yes, we all dreamt it [again], some even thought it possible. Yes, they qualified fairly (please note M. Henry), but they weren’t exactly convincing during the run-up (“shouldn’t worry, they’re only friendlies, they don’t count”). Blind faith always prevails when it comes to England.

England, like the uppity French and the gravitationally challenged Italians, flattered to deceive yet again. Rooney failed to live up to his Player of the Year accolade and not even the goal-that-wasn’t did anything to help Lampard’s reputation as arguably the best midfield engine in the world…er...when he’s not wearing an England shirt.

But it would be wrong to single out individuals. Whether they played badly or were played badly, it’s a team sport, and the team failed to live up to reputation, let alone expectation.

I hope our collective hubris has been dealt a fatal blow by this result. I’m glad the nation got behind the team; I’m glad the pubs were full and the supermarkets empty; I’m glad houses and cars alike were proudly flying the flag. But really.

To use my favourite footballing prefix, at the end of the day we just don’t know. “Football,” maintains Danny Baker, “is chaos”. You can’t predict it, you can’t pre-program it. You just have to endure it.