The Last Word: Land of hype and inglory
Don't be fooled by that victory in Sofia. England's footballers will go on to disappoint
Sunday 04 September 2011
Those whom the gods would destroy, they first call promising. Cyril Connolly's observation has been trotted out many times over the years, and we must start to polish his words again after England thrashed the Bulgars on Friday night. Three goals, three points, and trebles all round for the mighty, mighty England. What could be more agreeable?
Ten years ago, almost to the day, the more excitable scribes were hailing a more impressive performance in Munich as the birth of a 'golden generation'. Whatever became of that bunch? Well, they went to three World Cups and one European Championship, and fell flat on their faces. Humiliatingly, the golden boys failed to qualify for another European Championship, which at least gave them an extra week or so to enjoy their summer hols, snapping one another having sex with pliable wenches, and doing the other things footballers like to do when they are not on duty.
That gilded generation featured a player who left his diamond earstuds in a dressing-room and asked his manager if the team bus could return to the ground; another whose party piece was setting fire to £50 notes; and so on. There was a player who offered a taxi driver £1,000 to take him from Holborn to Manchester, another who forgot to take his passport to the airport, yet another who could neither read nor write when a police officer apprehended him, as well as the usual shaggers and sniffers. A golden generation indeed.
But we start again, as we must, hoping that the likes of Phil Jones, Tom Cleverley and Jack Wilshere don't sink on the passage from promise to achievement. Wilshere could make a useful start by abandoning his fixation with social media. Instead of twittering his delight at England's win, wouldn't he be better off reading a good book?
Oh dear, that's given the game away. Footballers don't read. And that is where the problems start. Our lot are as dim as Toc H lamps. As an old German joke has it (and no people are more entitled to make fun of our kick-ballers), their brains end at their knees.
It is a natural human response to have some sympathy for the talented young players who have caught Signor Capello's eye. Most, 'educated' in schools where the passing-on of knowledge is incidental, have no idea of any life outside football. Then they go straight to clubs where lying and cheating is pardoned, nay encouraged, from the top down, and where abuse of referees and all forms of authority is almost compulsory.
When they win a first-team place they are surrounded by all kinds of mountebanks, masquerading as agents, allies and advisers. When they step up to the national side they are bombarded by more lies, formed in the mouths of reporters and commentators banging on about 'three lions' and 'the flag of St George'. Funny, is it not, that our rugby players and cricketers, who tend not to parrot such rot, show true feeling on the field of play whereas our footballers shrink in the shirt? Yet only this week a well-known football writer was writing tosh about patriotism 'coursing through the veins' of the England team.
Meanwhile the rest of the world laughs, along with the Germans, at such presumption. The Germans do not need to talk about patriotism. Everything they do, from the kindergarten upwards, is designed to produce footballers for the national team. They also attract bigger crowds than any other league in the world, so they must be doing something right.
The weight of expectation, Gary Neville calls it. But how can our players feel such a burden when England have won the World Cup only once? You can understand the heirs to the great Brazilian teams feeling overawed, or the Italians, or the Argies, or our friends from the Rhine. The players who succeed Iniesta, Xavi and Villa will also some big boots to fill. But England? We're not terribly good at football. In fact we're so short of talent that Shaun Wright-Phillips has pulled on the shirt 36 times!
In the half-century since England won the World Cup only five genuinely great players have represented the national side: Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton, Gordon Banks, Jimmy Greaves and Peter Shilton. Don't imagine that a country which produces so few top-raters is suddenly going to flower like a cherry tree in spring. England are not going to win the European Championship next summer. The likelihood is that they will never again finish top of the world. And we would all do ourselves a power of good if we stopped singing Rule, Britannia! Except at the Last Night of the Proms, of course, coming up next Saturday, when it will sound very fine indeed.
Sorry, but the path of virtue's for losers
Shed no tears for Arsenal. They got what they deserved last Sunday, to the great delight of those Manchester United supporters who held up imaginary trophies to remind the crest-fallen Gunners fans of what they have missed these past six years.
Arsène Wenger has been a magnificent manager. To transform a club that people used to despise for their joyless efficiency into one that everybody wants to watch for the quality of their football ranks as one of the great managerial achievements. But, as Paul Scholes reminded everybody last month, footballers do not win medals for good intentions. We keep hearing that Arsenal play the finest football in the land, he said mockingly. Fine, let them carry on. Just don't complain if Manchester United carry on winning championships.
In the past two years Wenger has crossed the line that separates idealism from narcissism. It is one thing to play beautiful football with a clear purpose, quite another to say 'admire us for our virtue'. Virtue means saving goals as well as scoring them, and Arsenal's problems require no amplification. The undignified scramble for new players last week was Wenger's admission that he was on the wrong side of the argument.
There is no longer any time for players to admire their image in the lake. Yet, as Arshavin and Rosicky showed in Manchester, that is what some are still doing. Rosicky was poor; Arshavin was pathetic. If a Manchester United player gave such a lily-livered performance, his feet would not touch the ground. Phil Jones, the 19-year-old centre half, is already more of a proper football man than either Rosicky or the feckless Russian.
Scholes was right. Arsenal will play pretty football, to little effect. United will win the title.
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