The Last Word: Brazil and England on shifting sands
Samba football v the Dark Ages, but both are polluted by corporate greed
Sunday 02 June 2013
The symbolism of the setting will be irresistible, but not as initially intended. The chance to be anointed by history has been tainted by reality. When England play Brazil in the Maracana today, the race to remove the rubble before next year's World Cup will have an uncomfortable resonance.
There are parallels between Roy Hodgson's squad and the stadium regarded as the spiritual home of what we are contractually obliged to refer to as "the beautiful game". Each has connotations of splendour, a status soothed by nostalgia. They are storied institutions with subsidence problems.
There is a sense of stagnation, a depressingly familiar perception of drift and decay. When book- makers report unprecedented levels of disinterest in this England team, negativity has reached epidemic proportions.
This has gone beyond disaffection at palsied recent performances, even if the abject midweek friendly against Ireland prompted Gary Lineker to defy BBC statutes by clambering off the fence and expressing a cogent opinion about the descent into the "dark ages".
Seditious whispers about the length and relevance of the season are growing. Agents are beginning to insist on contract clauses limiting the involvement of their players in promotional tours. Given the shadow nature of Hodgson's squad, it is not fanciful to suggest that the next generation will conclude an England cap does not fit.
Everyone is suffering from football fatigue. Failure, and its accompanying angst, is becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy. Supplemental issues, from the captaincy to the institutionalised disregard for the welfare of youth coaches, sour the mood until its toxicity becomes unbearable.
The condescending response of the FA chairman, David Bernstein, to Rio Ferdinand's well-founded criticism of a development system which enshrines greed and ignorance was ill-timed and ill-judged. He had only to look at the beaches of Rio to see football as a manifestation of joy and technical excellence.
Back here, in the home of The Greatest League In The World, it is a business opportunity. Alienation is encouraged by the shrill banalities of a marketing campaign which, to pick a facile phrase at random, hails "grass-scorching, defence-scaring, last-minute-goal-grabbing Theo Walcott".
Yes, folks, England have yet another new shirt to sell. The cycle of exploitation is ceaseless and increasingly crass. The corporatisation of the game, and the monetisation of the national stadium on Wembley's flawed footprint, are increasingly counter-productive.
Fans are mobilising. There is a wonderful irony in St George's Park, the national training centre in which so much has been invested, financially and strategically, being chosen as the venue for a Supporters' Summit on 22 June. Bernstein has agreed to speak; his defence of the FA's shameful ticketing policy will require more than his customary platitudes.
To be fair, Brazilian football is subjected to similar exploitation. Many of its definitive images are outdated. The cliché of colourful crowds swaying to samba rhythms masks a cultural and economic shift away from the game's natural audience. It, too, is becoming gentrified by an emerging middle class.
Football as the game of the carioca, the impoverished Rio resident, is no more. The cheapest ticket for tonight's England game is £28 – 30 times the price of only eight years ago. In a country where the official minimum monthly salary is £223, millions are being priced out of the market. Pele's insistence that the Maracana, which will be run by a multinational consortium for the next 35 years, "must be of the people, for the Brazilian people" has been ignored.
Meanwhile, Hodgson has started his long trudge up to a personal Calvary, which will accelerate if failure to qualify for Brazil's World Cup becomes unavoidable. Hope was fleeting, and is gradually being extinguished. England no longer bothers to expect.
Dangers of tame set and match
The matrons of Middle England are preparing for their annual annexation of Wimbledon. They will gather to admire a shapely thigh, a luscious strawberry and a smorgasbord of gallant British losers. Their rituals will be conducted in the best possible taste.
A bureaucratic elite, modelled on the Civil Service before the Swinging Sixties, will ensure things run smoothly. The myth that players are as pristine in personality as their all-white kit will somehow endure. Little wonder that a fortnight at the All England club seems like a life sentence.
Most of us would not recognise Ernests Gulbis if he wandered naked around Murray Mount, but tennis owes him a debt of gratitude for condemning fellow players as irredeemably "boring". For a sport of such athleticism, emotion and skill, tennis has strange anaesthetic qualities.
John McEnroe, predictably and commendably, believes rivalries should become "more vicious". It might be too much for Wimbledon's worthies to flood the courts and institute mud wrestling, but any sport viewed as anodyne is on dodgy ground.
The image consultants will doubtlessly encourage Andy Murray to remain bland and self-defensive. Not for the first time, they will be hopelessly wrong.
When Robert Mugabe condemns your personal and professional standards, there is no way back. The despot's criticism of Luis Suarez seems uncannily prescient. The striker should be treated with contempt, especially by those who gave him the benefit of the doubt.
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