That was the week that was, the best first week of a World Cup certainly since Espana ’82 when the entrants were increased to 24 and the competition grew to another level. It’s already, as some of us predicted, an open tournament, with no clear favourites. Before it began Paul Wilson wisely noted most teams, including England, had a chance and flair and progressive football may yet be rewarded. There have been high-quality clashes, games with end-to-end action, plenty of goals including a couple of world class ones, a degree of unpredictability, new rules that have benefited the games, and even, largely, good officiating, with the referee decision to let play go on in dying minutes of stoppage time in the Switzerland game as good as a decision as the soft penalty the hosts were awarded on the opening night was disappointing.
There are two certainties during any football World Cup: (1) People around the world will be united with a passion and interest in the global game. This is exemplified in bars in cities the world over every four years. Just as telling, in an hour plus bus ride through ethnically diverse and far from affluent towns in west London this morning, England flags were a constant with people wearing their colours for the nation where they live and work. Meanwhile, there is another category of people that always seem to pop-up while millions immerse their soul in a love of the game: (2) the passive-aggressive sneering cynics who look to discredit football at every given opportunity. What a blow for that second group this last week has been.
We can smell these naysayers from afar, as annoying and distinct as exhaled smoke. There are the landlords in pubs who originally don’t plan to show football but seeing their takings fall they begrudgingly turn their TV set on, presumably previously there as a fake decoration like a library book in an O’Neill’s pub or in case war breaks out and there is an address to the nation; having turned the telly, like a modern-day Basil Fawlty, they then insist on turning the volume down to zero, as football is beneath them. These are the type of people who have sneered at working-class kids like Beckham and Rooney earning money they can only dream of, but never mention golfers, motor racing drivers, or bankers or barristers or any other profession where having a more advantageous start in life may have played a part.
There are the middle class comedians who come onto Twitter during England games pretending the rules are totally alien to them and asking if they should cheer for Great Britain. These wits are actually paid to write comedy in their professional lives, although often it is the new type of sit-com – the ones with no jokes. They don’t like football yet feel obliged not only to watch it but to micro-blog as a forum for what they think is their well-tuned comedic eye. Within minutes they are experts and are criticising the analysis of ex-internationals who have been there and then done it. The sweepstake, like an unsophisticated ITV football poll, was designed for these soulless people who won’t/can’t love sport per se, but want to feel included. It requires no knowledge, no skill, yet it gives them a stakeholding in something they have utter disdain for. Most of us without a genuine interest in something don’t feel the need to weigh in with an opinion. If Alan Shearer starts tweeting about the merits of Saturday night talent shows and making jokes about Eurovision Song costume choices we are all in trouble, but he doesn’t – he sticks to what he knows, and as with his punditry of Euro 2012, when his passion and football knowledge really come to the fore during live games, he has been excellent during this World Cup so far.
And there are the ones who talk about bread and circuses, usually the same ones who tried to pour cold water on the magnificent London 2012 Olympics which did more to create a feeling of an uplifted united society in Great Britain than any single policy has done since the creation of the welfare state. They talk as there was a straight choice in investing in the hosting of a major sporting event or eradicating poverty, as if not being awarded a Games or a World Cup would suddenly lead to the redistribution of wealth. The global love of football has given more publicity around the world to the vast injustice suffered by Brazilians, the exploitation of workers in Qatar (which we can be fairly sure exists outside work on a specific project) while everyone who has an interest in the game continues to champion accountability of world football’s governing body, who have so far got away with an unethical approach football not least because high-powered clowns dismiss the people’s game as a circus.
Meanwhile, within the space of a week, nations, who have had teams that have struggled to achieve at previous world cups but have now done themselves justice, are instantly lifted. Chile’s performance against a toothless Spain side wasn’t a total shock but for a country of whom Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar dared to ask the people “Are you happy?” in 1980 when the junta were in charge, citizens went missing and there was a daily curfew at 8pm, there was genuine joy expressed through flags flying in every city its ex-pats were in last night.
Spain become the third holders in four tournaments to exit at the group stage, seemingly replacing the false number 9 that previously served them well with a faulty number 9, Diego Costa, who while industrious with runs into the inside left channel in the first half against a Dutch back three, looked like he’d struggle to finish his dinner. With the Netherlands and Australia, Spain and Chile were arguably in the group of death. Holland have shown real cutting edge in the final third and an ability to vary their shape proving the wing-back is not dead yet in the modern game. Van Persie’s lobbed header from Daley Blind’s cross proved both of those points as well as being one of the memorable all-time World Cup goals. Tim Cahill scored one of his own yesterday and Australia’s credible performances should have been no surprise after their win against Croatia in one of the best group games in 2006; they had Holland on the ropes twice but lacked the composure to get a third goal the rest of their play deserved.
It is not the only tough group. Mexico have also put in two excellent performances and their clash with Croatia could yet be the best match of the final group games. Giovanni Dos Santos, having already clocked up 76 international appearances at the age of 25, looks as dangerous as a number 10 than the much fancied Neymar. Brazil benefitted from a bad referee decision to escape with victory against Croatia and started off like a house on fire against Mexico, but the Mexicans held their shape and were the better team in the second half.
Cameroon have been the weak link in their group, history repeating as they have displayed past traits of indiscipline, with reckless fouling earning red cards. The same also applied to Uruguay, also in a tough group and upset by an excellent display by Costa Rica. England deserved better than the defeat against Italy, paying for not scoring when on top with tiredness and collective inexperience leading to not maximizing the possession they had in the last 15 minutes. The shape, tactics and players selected by Roy Hodgson all look good though, a sharp contrast from 2012, and England could still get on a roll if they get their first win against Uruguay tonight.
Like Uruguay and Cameroon, Pepe of Portugal picked up a predictable red card as Germany made light work of a seemingly tough fixture. With the USA winning late against Ghana, a now weakened Portugal may struggle to get out of the group.
Another usual suspect, Wilson Palacios also saw red after reckless fouling handed France the initiative. The indiscipline has been predictable and welcome for the gamblers, while Uruguay, Cameroon, Portugal and Honduras remind us there are both winners and losers, saints and sinners. With Switzerland riding the late cynical Ecuador foul, the two European sides now look best placed to get out of that weaker group.
Also in weaker groups, Belgium managed to get past Algeria, the Russians drew with South Korea, the Ivory Coast also came from behind against Japan and Columbia swept aside Greece. The less said about Iran v Nigeria the better. But even this World Cup can be allowed a blip.
This first week in the World Cup 2014 has been an exciting week for The People’s Game and a reminder that Football is our Land of Hope and Dreams.
Mel Gomes is the author of the e-book Glory Nights from Wankdorf to Wembley which documents the escape of travelling to watch sport. It is available to preview for free and download in full from Amazon and Smashwords. More details, including photos and links to reviews, here.
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