Brian Viner: In the globalised village the World Cup remains stuff of memories and dreams
The World Cup is a form of football beyond even the wallet of Abramovich
Saturday 03 June 2006
There was a time, not so very long ago, although it seems like aeons, when domestic football represented the purest form of the professional game.
Clubs were firmly rooted in their local communities, from which they not only drew most of their fans, but many of their players. World Cup football, on the other hand, was something much more exotic. The manager of every national team had the pick of all the players eligible to play for that country, which sometimes seemed downright unfair. When a team representing a nation of 50 million people played a team from a nation of five million, naturally it held a strong advantage.
Only once, when the Belgium manager picked a team comprising 11 Anderlecht players, was the line between domestic and international football blurred.
Otherwise, everyone knew that, much as we all loved the World Cup, it was club football that unfolded on the more level playing field. Yes, some clubs were richer than others, and could afford bigger wages and more extravagant transfer fees. But there was a powerful parochialism about club football, fed by rivalries between nearby towns, or between different parts of the same city.
International football, even during the World Cup, did not tap into quite the same wellspring of emotion. Moreover, in those days it was club managers who looked with envy at the resources available to their international counterparts. What would almost every club manager have given in 1970 for a team that included Pele, Jairzinho, Rivelino, Tostao, Gerson and Carlos Alberto? Or for that matter, Banks, Moore, Charlton, Cooper, Bell and Ball? The situation is different now. In fact, it is almost completely reversed.
What would almost every international manager give now for a team combining Shevchenko, Ballack, Lampard, Terry, Robben and Duff? Or to be able to play Ronaldinho, Messi and Eto'o together? International football has displaced domestic football as the purest form of the game because you can't simply buy a World Cup team; it is a form of football beyond the wallet of even Roman Abramovich. From Friday's opening game to the final on 9 July, virtually every starting line-up will be determined by nothing other than the accident of birth. In that sense, the World Cup is a timely antidote to the financial madness that has engulfed domestic football. It is more relevant than ever.
But of course it is not just for these philosophical reasons that I am wishing away the six days until the opening whistle of Germany v Costa Rica.
If you're old enough then you can measure your own evolution in World Cups.
For example, I was eight in the summer of 1970 and watched the final at the home of my parents' friends "Auntie" Sybil and "Uncle" Ronnie, mainly because they had a colour television and we didn't. These days, everyone has a colour telly and nobody calls their parents' friends "auntie" or "uncle". So in that sense Brazil v Italy 1970, for me, represents a bungalow on Hartley Road, a much-coveted faux-antique television cabinet, Auntie Sybil's banana milkshakes, and a world that has gone for ever.
I don't think it's overly sentimental to look at past World Cups through this elegiac haze. After all, what better way is there for a football fan to reflect on his or her progress through life, however prosaic the life might be?
In my case, by the time of the 1974 World Cup I had completed my first year at grammar school and watched the final at my friend Alan's house because we still didn't have a colour telly; we did by the summer of 1978, but by then my father had died and to my mother's despair the World Cup played havoc with my O-level revision; by 1982 I had finished my first year at university and watched Schumacher assaulting Battiston in a crowded bar on the Costa Brava during a month inter-railing round Europe with my mate Mark; in 1986 I'd just got home from living in America for a year and watched the "Hand of God" quarter-final in my girlfriend's sister's rented flat in Elephant & Castle; in 1990 I celebrated David Platt's goal against Belgium while sitting - or more accurately, leaping to my feet shouting - in a Portuguese seaside resort with the woman later to become my wife. And so on, culminating on a sofa in Yorkshire with my three kids during England v Argentina 2002. I suppose it's possible that those World Cups might be more meaningfully Proustian if I'd actually been to any of them, but somehow I doubt it.
Who I like this week...
Jürgen Klinsmann, the beleaguered German football coach, who seems to be taking manfully the rousing criticism from his country folk as he prepares to lead his team into a World Cup on home soil. Klinsmann has been harangued for choosing the wrong players in the wrong positions, and in an interview with Die Zeit he accosted Günter Netzer, Franz Beckenbauer, Lothar Matthäus and Paul Brietner for giving him stick without having any insight into his work. Substitute those four former heroes for Alan Ball, Jack Charlton, Geoff Hurst and George Cohen and it might be Sven talking. Or thinking. Eriksson, regrettably, is more careful not to offend.
And who I don't
Peter Crouch, or rather the phenomenon he now embodies, of the eccentric and overexuberant goal celebration. And in fairness Jürgen Klinsmann deserves censure too for his role in popularising the self-conscious celebratory antics which make modern footballers look so stupid. There was a time, for instance when Roger Milla of Cameroon gyrated around the corner flag, when daft celebrations verged on the charming. But Crouch's strange robotic dance, and John Terry's baby-cradling, make me wonder whether some players are heading for the World Cup eager to score primarily so that they can show off their carefully premeditated routine.
Brian Viner's new book entitled Ali, Pele, Lillee and Me: A Personal Odyssey Through the Sporting Seventies, is published on Monday (by Simon & Schuster, priced £14.99)
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