Miles Kington: How footballing styles reflect a nation's character

Germany is highly organised; Spain, in love with death and self-destruction; Italy, elegant and corrupt
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The Independent Online

In the first week of the World Cup, by common agreement, there was a conversational ban on football in the pub, but this was lifted during the second week as several people were having heart attacks not talking about it.

"I was in our local hardware store the other day," said the Major," and you'd think that in a place where they sold screws and candles and padlocks, they wouldn't have any place for World Cup merchandise, but..."

"Let me think," said the man with the dog. "Let me think what World Cup stuff they would have in a hardware store. Michael Owen crutches?"

"Pins for metatarsal breaks?" said the lady with the red hair.

"Special English handbells?," said the resident Welshman. "They're solid enough, but they've got no striker?"

"Ha ha ha," said the Major. "No, they had little things that looked like cigarette lighters, or maybe iPods, but which had the St George flag on the side. And a little propeller on top."

"What on earth...?"

"Personal motorised fans," said the Major. "For hot weather. You switch it on and it makes a draught."

"But why the St George flag?"

"Just what I asked the man behind the counter, and he said he had ordered some small fans and the only kind they could get hold of had an English flag on the side. The world's gone English tat crazy."

"Maybe we should be collecting all this stuff," said the red-haired lady. "Maybe it will all be fabulously valuable in years to come. I had a lucrative offer for my Princess Diana mug the other day."

"And did you sell it?"

"No. It turned out the person who wanted it was a Cilla Black fan, and the picture on the mug was so bad she thought it actually was a picure of Cilla Black."

"I was talking to a French waiter the other day," said the Major, "and he said that they were all despondent because the French team were all long in the tooth and not getting anywhere. They used to say 'Allez les bleus!', he said, but now it was just 'Allez les vieux!'."

"I'd never thought of that," said the Welshman," but the French think of their team as The Blues, and so do the Italians. The Azzurri, I mean. But you don't think of the English as the Whites."

"Nor do we shout, 'Come on you Whites with a Big Red Cross!'" said the red lady. "So what do we think of the English as?"

"As a post-industrial nation with big problems," said Jim from the bookshop, who had just come in.

"I meant, in football terms," said the red lady.

"So did I," said Jim. "I've always thought that national styles of playing football reflected national character. Germany, highly organised. Spain, half in love with death and self-destruction. Italy, elegant and corrupt. Whereas England has never quite got over feeling that, as it invented football, as it did the industrial revolution, it should somehow still be leading the way. But it's got left behind in both."

"Go on," said the Welshman, who could always face criticism of England with equanimity.

"When we are in doubt, we always look to the past for help," said Jim. "After the Great War, when the rest of Europe was looking for new ways to build, they came up with Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus. We English went on building banks that looked like old mansions, and big pubs that looked like grand Tudor houses. Similarly, when the Hungarians came to Wembley and thrashed us 5-3 at football, we didn't say: Hey, there are some new things happening! We must learnt about them! No, we were just grimly determined to do the old things better. And we still are."

"What working in a bookshop does for you," said the Major admiringly. "So well-read."

"So, you don't think England will win?" said the Welshman.

"The sooner England are knocked out, and leave the football to the grown-ups, the better," said Jim.

"You didn't answer my question. Can they win?"

"No," said Jim. "Not unless sheer grit, determination, honesty, endeavour and pluck can defeat artistry and your own manager's mad methods."

The place was plunged into such gloom that, when the Major proposed a second week's ban on football as a topic, it was passed unanimously.