Plenty of Olympic spirit but passion is in short supply as England defeat Italy
Football should change to reflect the edifying attitude evidenced at London 2012, but England's friendly against Italy last night should be a warning not to over-sanitise a game built on tribalism and passion.
Anodyne friendlies are nothing new, especially at this time of the season when players have one eye on the return of domestic football. But throw in experimental line-ups, the timing – sandwiched in the midst of the comedown from an all-time Olympic high and the build-up to the Most Hyped League Ever ™ – and a neutral location, and this match never had a chance of being anything more than a glorified training game.
Still, England fans travelled in decent numbers. Comedian Frank Skinner once reflected on their dedication by claiming, "If the World Cup was held on Jupiter, somehow 40,000 England fans would turn up."
Around 1,300 made the considerably easier trip to Berne, even if it probably amounts to about the same price as for a local train ride. No-one could suggest that their patriotism had evaporated in a post-Olympic hangover, as the band did their best to create something akin to an atmosphere in the Wankdorf Stadium (stop sniggering at the back).
However, the difference here is that whereas the locals turned out in droves to support the gold-medal action in their backyard, this encounter passed largely unnoticed in Switzerland. Perhaps those "Plastic Brits" that largely disappeared from London fancied the tax breaks on offer here. There weren't even any volunteers with big foamy fingers directed the crowds; how inconsiderate.
And what of the players? There has been plenty written about the lessons football should learn from sport fiercely contested yet retaining purity and integrity. Remember, that's not the Olympic spirit that saw an Algerian runner give up in the 800m before winning the 1500m, or badminton players deliberately try to lose matches, but the one where competitors are pure and inspiring.
Comparing the best of the Olympics and the worst of football has been an easy framework to beat the national sport with this week. The acts of diving, swearing and hounding officials are always the primary targets, but none were on show here.
The two bad tackles in the game came from Daniele De Rossi on Tom Cleverley and a cruncher from Federico Peluso on James Milner, but both were incidents in a game that lacked anything approaching the intensity required to create controversy. Only one yellow card – for Diego Fabbrini – was shown.
Mind you, the Italians have an excuse for not embracing the Olympic spirit – their football team failed to qualify for London 2012 altogether.
There was plenty of generosity in England's defence as De Rossi was afforded the freedom of this beautiful city to head home Alessandro Diamanti's 15th-minute corner. The Italians displayed a spirit or reciprocity as Phil Jagielka headed home Frank Lampard's corner to give England parity.
Stratford had fireworks, but this game had Jermain Defoe's firecracker that handed England victory. Goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu could only get fingertips to the Tottenham striker's blistering effort. After that, the game drifted along with players content to avoid injury.
The acid test as to whether football can stamp out its ugly side will come when desire is at its highest. Still, let's not forget that the beautiful game at its best fuses power and passion; take away too much and you'll be left with too many occasions like this.
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