I tipped Belgium to win the World Cup before the Finals began. Should they win against France in the semis, having decisively outplayed Brazil, they might reasonably feel that they have been in three finals.
“Football, bloody hell” Alex Ferguson’s wisest words can be quoted again: Germany were a surprise, Spain and Argentina less so. I was disappointed that neither Nigeria nor Senegal progressed, and it would have been good to see more of Mexico too.
My first World Cup final was in 1966. We were on the beach on Elba and family lore is that the Italian family next to us told my father that they didn’t care who won, as long as it wasn’t the Germans. In 1970 I do remember watching some games – we had just got a colour tv and I was a keen left-winger at primary school. I do remember the 1974 final (we had been to the wonderful Olympic Stadium the previous year). I have no recollection of the 1978, 1982 and 1986 finals: I was travelling, at university and starting my first professional job respectively. I bought my first tv in Honduras for the 1990 finals. The chief agricultural extension officer in Taulabé invited his staff and me to his house to watch Cameroon (with a cameo appearance by the great Roger Milla) vs Argentina who at that time were automatically supported by most Central Americans. They were genuinely shocked at the Cameroonian performance and result which they were unlucky not to repeat against England, a game that I saw with a Brit forester in the Pizzaria Venezia on the main highway out of Siguatepeque. I don’t remember the 1994, 1998, or 2002 finals: busy travelling for work, and busy with a young family. As an aside I was doing field work in May 1999 with a group of Bolivian foresters and we were keen to get back to watch the Champions League Final, but we had taken an age to get around the perennial road block near the airport and so the game was all but over when I was dropped off at my hotel in Santa Cruz… I saw some of the games in the 2010 finals and 2014 finals while working in Nairobi. The first were marred by the vuvuzuelas and the treatment of Nelson Mandela, and both by England’s abject performances.
I saw my first and only World Cup qualifier game – Liberia vs Congo in 2005. I bought a couple of tickets for the roofed VIP stand, with one for my regular taxi driver (a Nigerian who stayed on when ECOMOG left) since the game was held at the Chinese stadium just outside Monrovia and I would be guaranteed a ride back into town after the match. Like most authorities UNMIL were instinctively nervous about football and did not want a mob in the city centre; the police had themselves rioted a few weeks earlier. We were conspicuous in the VIP stand until George Weah arrived with his sons and their friends to a great cheer from the crowd. His Congress for Democratic Change party would wipe the board in Monrovia, although he lost in the presidential run-offs against the West’s favourite Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson (a result that seemed fixed to me). There was a spectacular downpour just before the scheduled kick-off, which did little to improve the pitch. Liberia almost scored from the onset, but the Liberian forward seemed as surprised as everyone else to find the ball at his feet on the edge of the penalty area and the ball was still rising as it went out of the stadium. And that was it, Congo won 2-0. George Weah kindly came over to chat at half-time, we talked about football and forestry. While living in Monrovia I caught up – somewhat belatedly for sure – with the reach and influence of football. Football replica shirts were everywhere (Arsenal and Barcelona seemed most popular – in part for the colours, in part for their African contingents – but Newcastle too), and the day after the 2005 Champions league final the kids on the Mamba Point beach were mimicking Jerzy Dudek’s antics. In early 2007 I was with a FAO team working on an agricultural strategy and we were travelling from Ganta on the border with Guinea down to Harper in the south-east bordering the Cote d’Ivoire. On the map it looks like a major road, in parts after Zwedru it was literally little more than a logging trail. South of Fish Town we stopped in a small hamlet to stretch our legs: the Ghanaian agronomist and I heard the telltale throb of a generator and found in the tin-roofed shack about 20 good folk enjoying a cool drink and a Premier League game pirated off a DSTV satellite.
With hindsight the arc of my football viewing life has coincided with the demise of the “semi-feudal” management of football – described by Jon Henderson in When Footballers Were Skint – to today’s late neoliberal capitalism phase characterised by inequalities of wealth, income, opportunity and outcome amongst nations, clubs and footballers. I have written before about ending clubs’ ownership of players as one step to counter corruption and fraud in the game. What was one-upmanship (play-acting) has morphed into shithousery and is as prevalent in the Premier League as in the World Cup: VAR and post-game reviews will help but at the end its down to supporters. I remember a game at the Valley in the 1998–1999 season when a Charlton player was rolling about on the ground near the touch-line; he was told to get back on his feet and back into the game by the home fans in the East Stand.
Football as a game that has not changed, unlike cricket and rugby. Maybe it is time. Here are some thoughts on how to incentivize goal scoring and better behavior:
- Play two 30 minutes halves of real time (kept by 4th referee). This will reduce time-wasting during substitutions or injuries feigned or otherwise.
- Ban passing back over the halfway line (as in basketball).
- Revise the offside rules: a player can only be offside in a penalty area during open play, and in the area any player forward of the ball is offside.
- No more extra time. This seems to increase injuries and is rarely a great spectacle. If the game is not decided in regulation time, decide the game on shoots on goal.
- Replace yellow cards with 5 minutes in a sin bin, keeping a red card for repeat sin bin bookings and serious misconduct. Managers and supporters will be more than peeved if players are off the pitch while the opposition is scoring.
There are some great graphics in The Guardian illustrating the points about inequality:
Plus 48% (47.8% – don’t you just love those decimals) of the England squad are the sons of migrants.
Marina Hyde writes
Shame on the politicians looking at this sweltering hot, heady summer of football and thinking: “Ooh, this would totally be enhanced by a general election”
And the contrarian Chris Dillow gently reminds us what Gareth Southgate’s success show us, not least our underestimatation of our of cognitive biases
Great success is largely unpredictable. Pundits and experts know less than they pretend…
Things might have turned out very differently for England. We might well have lost the penalty shoot-out against Colombia: David Ospina came close to saving all the penalties. And even a mediocre Swedish team might have got a result were it not for some great saves by Pickford.