Eat your heart out, Premier League, international football is alive and vibrantly relevant – though England, France and Spain don’t seem to have got the message
• World Cup 2014: the big winners
For some owners, managers and fans of clubs, international football is a pest that needs exterminating. Countries borrow clubs’ employees, clog up the fixture list and get in the way of lucrative tours to new markets. Even some players, such as Stephen Ireland or, allegedly, several Englishmen with whom Harry Redknapp has worked, consider the international game to be an irritant. A boring, unpopular World Cup would have suited such folk nicely. But instead, Brazil 2014 has rekindled many people’s fondness for international football. In your face, the Premier League!
The happy paradox of the World Cup is that while it has proved that international football remains relevant, it has also helped show that nationalism is an anachronism. Insisting that players attach their identity to one country and one alone could be construed as obscenely reductive and fundamentally evil, but most people are brighter than that and see the World Cup as an opportunity to discover and celebrate other countries and cultures rather than asserting supremacy over them. Most of the media coverage has reflected this and the atmosphere around the stadiums appears to have been festive, with fans free to mingle with each other, a fact that allowed one warm-hearted Scot to revel in his kinship with Uruguayan brethren.
Alas, some types of segregation persist: the economic strain, for example, has been plain to see. Also, it is a shame that the main protagonists, the players, do not get to fraternise with counterparts as much as everyone else. Perhaps the tournament organisation needs to be reviewed so that in the future all players stay in an equivalent of the Olympic village? They could still travel to various cities for matches but return to a shared base with shared facilities, an arrangement that would surely foster love and humanity and also, indeed, level the playing field a little.
This would all feel weird, of course. After all, there would still be no women, other than the pretty ones that cameramen continually invite us to drool over on the big screens. So how about from now on one country simultaneously host the men’s and women’s World Cup, much like the Olympics? This would mean more mingling, action, more fun, fewer days with no football and slightly less waste, as each palatial new stadium would get a few more matches each. You know it makes sense.
It seems that the thing English football’s leaders have done most successfully is condition the country not to expect success, while accepting lavish salaries for themselves. The Football Association’s Greg Dyke warned early doors that England could not realistically aspire to get in the way of better nations in Brazil and Roy Hodgson deftly kept England fans focused on a very low bar, saying how “pleased” he was to have “given them something to cheer about” after the 0-0 draw with Costa Rica. There were some bright spots amid England’s winless excursion but it seemed as if that was down to the individual talent of some players rather than the wisdom of anyone above them.
They were supposed to be a rising force, it turned out they were the New England.
Roger Milla’s jig is a distant memory: the modern image of Cameroonian football is Samuel Eto’o scowling, Alex Song whacking an opponent from behind for no good reason, Benoît Assou-Ekotto aiming a headbutt at a team-mate for no good reason, or all of the players threatening to go on strike for the very good reason that they fear they are not going to get paid. For many years mis-management has hindered the development of football in Cameroon and poisoned the atmosphere in the camp, leading to sad fiascos such as the one the Indomitable Lions served up in Brazil. That is symptomatic of a deeper governance problem in the country. Clubs in Cameroon’s domestic league are now considering a boycott unless they get the share of the World Cup dividend they believe they were promised; maybe this was the final straw and change is coming.
Strumming an acoustic guitar as he played with the pretty flowers in his hair, Didier Deschamps explained before the tournament that he wanted to cultivate happiness within his squad. The divisions and strops of the past had undermined Les Bleus and another outbreak of in-fighting was to be avoided at all costs. Samir Nasri paid the price. The chipper French swaggered to the quarter-finals but as soon as things got really challenging, their bonhomie abandoned them and we were back to the listless France of the last two major tournaments. There was no whining this time, but thy still went out with a whimper. And despite that, there is still no clamour for Nasri to return. He, and his girlfriend, are just not well liked.
Even before the tournament there were signs that ITV were going to struggle. First Roy Keane decided he had better things to do than play the resident naysayer, then the babbling Adrian Chiles burst forth to seize the microphone as the station tried and failed to avert wholesale panic when a thunderstorm interrupted England’s friendly with Honduras. Once the tournament got going, ITV achieved the impressive feat of making signing Fabio Cannavaro look dumb, as the Italian’s inability to express himself freely in English created a problem for which his incessant geniality could not compensate. Meanwhile, save for when goalline technology sent Jonathan Pearce spinning into a Chiles-style glossolalia, the BBC had a strong tournament, with Rio Ferdinand proving an especially welcome addition to their panel.
He has tried to hide. But we know he’s still there.
Not only was an exceptional generation exposed as past it, but the value of their legacy was brought quickly into question: over the last seven or eight years, Spain could probably have done to many teams what Germany did to Brazil in the 2014 semi-final, but they usually preferred to admire themselves instead.
Brazil. Big Phail.