The Last Word: England team and international football suffering a slow death
International games are increasingly beset by negativity, resentment and ambivalence
Sunday 24 March 2013
The pantomime patriots were graceless, obtuse and entirely predictable. They abused Rio Ferdinand to the soundtrack of a tone-deaf, brain-dead brass band. Only England could win 8-0 away from home and inspire such joylessness and contempt.
The inconvenient truth to be drawn from another dispiriting World Cup experience is that England have become a toxic football nation. Our irrationality irradiates the international game. Reasoned debate is drowned out by manufactured controversy, mutated loyalty and small-mindedness.
Nothing will essentially change even if England scramble through to next year's finals in Brazil. There will be the usual spin cycle of eager-ness, hope, frustration, disillusion and anger. The lexicon of the game, which involves the casual distortion of such words as love and hate, will be as inflammatory as ever.
The hype is cheerless, relentless and ultimately self-defeating. It distorts reality because it encourages a neutralising caution. Roy Hodgson, a transparently decent man, is obliged to swill PR mouthwash. He is beginning to show signs of impatience and fatalism. Defeat in Montenegro on Tuesday may well trigger his natural temper.
There is an underlying lynch-mob mentality which is in danger of manifesting itself when the Premier League resumes. Ferdinand has been foolish, unnecessarily provocative. He comes across as being conceited, self-absorbed.
He has a justified grievance with the FA's craven disregard for the consequences of their commitment to John Terry, which compromised his career and, more importantly, his family. He is correct in criticising the stampede to condemn him without a full appreciation of the subtlety of his prehabilitation and rehabilitation programmes.
Yet in choosing to pontificate from a television studio in Doha he has invited demonisation, and tribalism ensures he will be a target whenever he plays for Manchester United.
The fault line between club and country is widening. Premier League managers understandably resent risking players in friendlies and non-events such as the win in San Marino. Arsène Wenger strategically rested Jack Wilshere, and will be irritated by Theo Walcott's return yesterday as damaged goods.
A morose mood hangs over this World Cup qualifying campaign. Ask yourself this: when did the national team last make the spirit soar or the heart sing? When did an individual act of brilliance or a collective imposition of will on England's behalf stimulate the senses? Michael Owen's sinuous goal against Argentina? Beating Germany 5-1? David Beckham's injury-time free-kick against Greece? They were, respectively, in 1998, 2001 and 2001. Family-oriented marketing campaigns have kept Wembley crowds high for England matches, but the experience has changed. The national team no longer attract supporters, but tourists. In weeks such as this, there is a sense of imposition rather than expectation. The interruption to the Premier League and Championship is resented.
This poses a problem for the FA, whose financial future is wedded to that of the England team. Greg Dyke is a bold, imaginative choice as chairman, yet has already succumbed to bureaucratic mendacity and mediocrity during his spell as the BBC's director-general. The factional nature of the modern game will trigger a sense of déjà vu.
International football is dying slowly in England, but its value could be found in Zagreb, after Croatia had beaten Serbia 2-0. The respective coaches, Igor Stimac and Sinisa Mihajlovic, had not spoken for two decades. They were avowed enemies, symbols of nationalism during the Balkan conflict.
When they embraced, in an unmistakable gesture of reconciliation, football transcended its status as a simple ball game. At the risk of being over-optimistic, let us hope Ferdinand's persecutors saw it, and understood its significance.
Forde's career is finally motoring
Football is not all about gilded youths and insouciant stars. It is a hard world which occasionally rewards men such as David Forde, who have been refined by rejection.
It has taken 33 years for him to become an overnight sensation. His arrival as the Republic of Ireland's first-choice goalkeeper was confirmed by a pivotal performance in Stockholm on Friday night.
This time last year, Forde was in the midst of a six-month exile from Millwall's first team. Now, with an FA Cup semi-final appearance assured, he heads to Austria and another key World Cup qualifying match. His hunger reflects the humble nature of his background.
He began with Galway United and played for Barry Town before returning to Ireland following three barren seasons at West Ham. He rebuilt his reputation at Derry City and joined Millwall on a free transfer from Cardiff after loan spells at Luton and Bournemouth.
His competitiveness, together with his handling and kicking skills, were honed in Gaelic sport. He can be a combustible character in the dressing room, but his resilience makes him an undervalued role model. As he says: "Football always finds you out."
The legacy lie
Schools must provide sporting education on a budget of £8,000 a year. West Ham United have been given a £630 million stadium for £15m, the price of a jobbing midfield player. That simple contrast, between need and greed, rhetoric and reality, exposes the great lie of the Olympic legacy. Suffer, little children.
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