England's footballers did the nation proud on Wednesday, and it was little wonder that informed pundits began to talk about them as potential winners of the World Cup.
But I refer not to Fabio Capello's team, nor indeed to Hope Powell's team. The England XI that did the nation proud on Wednesday was not the one, or at least not only the one, that hammered Croatia 5-1 at Wembley, but the team that hammered France 6-3 in San Siro, a team made up not of men with several homes, but of men with none. The Big Issue newspaper organised England's team for the seventh Homeless World Cup, which concludes tomorrow in Milan.
For all 48 countries in the competition – 48 countries! – the selection criteria were strict: the players have to have been homeless at some stage since the 2008 World Cup, and must either make a living as a seller of a street paper such as The Big Issue, or be an asylum seeker. Each team is allowed a maximum of four players at any one time, with four subs and rolling substitutions allowed. Matches last 14 minutes, allowing plenty of time for goalscoring as the results indicate: yesterday, Ukraine beat the beleaguered French 10-3, and Brazil beat Austria 8-5. On Thursday India beat Australia 14-4, having themselves been flattened 18-1 by Chile earlier in the week. In the 2004 tournament, a 20-year-old Ukrainian called Evgeniy Adamenko, fresh or possibly not so fresh from his cardboard shelter on the streets of Odessa, scored 53 goals. It is still a Homeless World Cup record.
Now, there will be those who consider the Homeless World Cup to be a frippery, scarcely worthy of the sports pages. On the contrary, I can't think of a more splendid distraction from the grotesque riches and arrant venality that scar the Beautiful Game. Moreover, Scots still lamenting their country's failure to qualify for the World Cup next year can draw consolation from their redoubtable record in the homeless version. While the English have only ever once finished in the top four, Scotland have reached the semi-finals four times, and were world champions in 2007. Maybe, in considering a team to beat the Dutch, George Burley should have been sizing up Big Issue sellers and checking out the shop doorways down Sauchiehall Street.
Two Dannys are lightweights in 'classic' debates
Aware of the recommendations about glasshouses and stone- throwing, I hesitate to describe Danny Baker and Danny Kelly as a pair of overweight hacks who draw part of their income by pontificating about football, although I don't suppose even they would disagree.
Their new book landed with a thud on my doormat yesterday, and on being confronted with their grinning faces on the jacket, I didn't rush to clear a space on my bedside table. When I looked at the title, however, I thought that maybe I would. It is Classic Football Debates Settled Once And For All, and I was struck by what a good idea it was.
Did Geoff Hurst's shot cross the line in the 1966 World Cup final? Should David Beckham still feature in the England squad? Who should succeed Sir Alex Ferguson? Where have all the great Scottish players gone? Didier Drogba: genius or cheat? Gerrard and Lampard – how does Capello get the best out of them? Should Everton and Liverpool share a stadium? Will Leeds United rise again? These are classic football debates and I quite looked forward to seeing how Baker and Kelly might claim to resolve them.
But then I opened the book. Why is Kevin "Keggy Keegle" Keegan known as Kevin "Keggy Keegle" Keegan is one of their "classic" football debates. Another is, Should footballers be allowed to bring flick knives on to the pitch? Boys, I know your brief was to be funny but I reckon you've missed an open goal.
Larwood's biographer is a frank talker who deserves to be heard
If you live in the general area of Woodstock in Oxfordshire, or even if you don't, can I immodestly recommend a talk at Blenheim Palace on Friday afternoon, part of The Independent Woodstock Literary Festival, with starring roles for the former England cricketer Derek Pringle and Harold Larwood's biographer Duncan Hamilton, with yours truly as umpire?
By way of preparation, I've been reading Hamilton's biography of Larwood and it really is marvellous, not least in terms of the light it throws on some of the supporting cast, among them the manager of England's controversial 1932-33 Bodyline tour of Australia, the impossibly grand Sir Pelham "Plum" Warner. Sometimes, sporting biographers withhold their own judgements.
Not Hamilton. Warner, he writes, "was pious, unctuous and duplicitous, forever using the cloak of conviviality to disguise the dagger of convenience that he would slip in – usually in the middle of the spine – either to protect himself or to advance his own causes. Put simply, Warner was a bastard." Wonderful stuff.
For tickets, call 01865 305305, or see: www.woodstockliteraryfestival.comReuse content