11 July 2006

Short of a goal

I promised myself I would declare this column a football-free zone. My apologies. Anyway, by the time you read this the World Cup will be over.

The tournament has the peculiar quality of condemning thirty-one nations to tears, recriminations and national despair. Well that’s not quite true. Gallant teams from Trinidad and Tobago or Togo – where finding the price of an air fare for the players was a problem – will have been happy just to have made it to the finals.

But the super-rich teams ­– national minimum wage around £50,000 a week, and everyone a household name – seemed to believe that destiny was on their side.

Several of FIFA’s chosen referees were incompetent, including the sole Englishman. We also had a barking-mad Russian.

Before the competition English hopes were ludicrously high. There had been the lavish optimistic pre-departure party at ‘Beckingham Palace’. A week into the tournament we had a glimpse of the tragic Michael Owen returning to his more modest abode – a slightly scaled down version of the Slieve Donard Hotel.

There were the paint-the-town-red over-dressed and under-dressed wives and girlfriends – the WAGs. David Beckham’s gigantic portrait looked down on Europe’s main cities – to advertise his new ‘fragrance’ for men.

Only one thing was missing. The lads couldn’t perform on the pitch.

Then there was the inscrutable Sven. He took fewer striker/forwards than any other manager in the competition. One of them was the juvenile Theo Walcott who had not quite made it to his own club team. With perverse wisdom Sven did not risk him in any game.

And yet, we were led to believe that Sven could pull something out of the hat. There was no something and no hat. Facing Portugal he had designed an attacking formation that didn’t actually work. Every screaming English fan could spot the blunder, but not Sven.

So why was his salary fifty times greater than his opposite number in his native Sweden, against whom England could only scrape a draw?

Before matches Sven admitted to being tense and unable to speak to his players. There’s dynamic leadership for you. His assistant Steve McClaren acquiesced in all of Sven’s odd decisions and yet it is he who will take over his job for the next four years.

At least England didn’t resort to the kind of cheating perfected by other teams. Wayne Rooney’s sending off was skilfully engineered by the Portuguese players and particularly by Cristiano Ronaldo, his Manchester United team mate. (In Sun language, ‘the world’s biggest winker’.)

In an odd way captain David Beckham has grown in stature – I even thought his stumbling resignation statement had a kind of elegance.

Perhaps he has learned that having everything is never quite enough.

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