Howard Jacobson: Where's the culture in our football?

World Cup
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Call me hasty, call me foolhardy – for I write this the night before England kick off against Algeria – but don't call me unpatriotic. I make this prophetic pronouncement with great sadness. But make it I must. We are not going to win the World Cup.

It is an accursed gift, being able to see into the future. According to legend, the Trojan seeress Cassandra spent a night in Apollo's temple as a child, where, unbeknown to her, serpents licked her ears so clean that she could, from that night on onwards, hear everything that would befall her country – a fate she railed bitterly against until her own predicted death. I am the same – though I think it was our dog that did my ears. Whoever is at fault, my head bursts with all that I foreknow.

I foreknow, for example, that Ed Balls will not one day be Prime Minister of this country, that Pam Ayres will not be invited to take up the Oxford Chair of Poetry, that we will not retain the Ashes, that Andy Murray will leave us as frustrated as Tim Henman, and that, despite Rooney's best efforts, we will not be lifting the World Cup.

I wish I could promise otherwise. Our bruised country could do with a win. A win would do wonders for our economy and morale, in so far as there is now any difference between the two. It might even stop us apologising to Americans for the mess we've made of their coastline, though they show no sign of apologising to us for the mess they've made a) of our culture, and b) of a once proud English company. (The name Cadbury's mean anything to you, Mr President?) But I cannot lie to you. That which we could do with, we will not have. "O, sorrow, sorrow!" That's Cassandra, but it might as well be me, hearing what I hear, knowing what I know.

"Education, education, education" was Blair's great promise, though he wouldn't have known what education was had it sat on his face and licked his ears out. And education, reader, is the nub of it. Ours is not an educated football team. Let me be clear what I do and what I don't mean by that. I don't say we'd necessarily fare better if our players had read English at Cambridge. Would Robert Green have handled that seemingly innocuous ball more securely had he recalled heaven peeping through the blanket of Lady Macbeth's dark imaginings "To cry 'Hold, Hold!'" Probably not. But who's to say for certain. My own view is that no quotation is ever wasted, no example of another's philosophy or fortitude without its inspirational effect. And a brain stored with the wisdom of the ages must be more advantageous than a brain stored with nothing, if only in the sense that there's more to head the ball into the net with.

But this isn't exactly the educatedness I'm talking about. I mean educated in the sense of possessing the sophistication and intelligence intrinsic to your game. I mean educated in the science and the beauty of the thing you're doing.

Thus, Shane Warne was an educated bowler. And thus the Germans, when we watched them think and slink their way past Australia the other day, were educated footballers. I can see why Beckenbauer was dismissive of the English game: all kick and rush, he called it. He could have been more cruelly dismissive still. He could have called it all kick and rush and then fall over. Since that's not the Italian game, we must assume that Fabio Capello has resorted to it because he knows now that's all we're good at, Wayne Rooney excepted. "Half bison, half viper" was how the film director Werner Herzog described Rooney at a public event in London last year. Not what the audience expected to hear – a great German film director waxing lyrical about a great English footballer who I'd make a stab at guessing didn't know much about his films.

Reciprocated or not, Werner Herzog's admiration for Rooney was as passionate as it was surprising. And he spoke the truth. Rooney assuredly does combine a viperish intelligence with a bison's brutality, so long as his team-mates are skilled sufficiently in the art of passing to get the ball to him; but when there is nothing to be viperishly intelligent about, because no ball's come within 20 yards of his boot, he is reduced, as who wouldn't be, to brute bison. It could turn out to be the tragedy of this World Cup, not to say the tragedy of Rooney's career – that men of little talent deny him the service his genius requires.

Could turn out to be? Will turn out to be. "O sorrow, sorrow!" But enough of that.

And maybe enough of the word educated. Let's try cultured. By which, again, I don't mean getting the Times Literary Supplement every week. I mean the opposite to whatever it is the Chelsea pairing of Lampard and Terry exudes. Blood, sweat, sentimentality and swearing. "A little bit whey, a little bit whoah." I turn on my television and see Lampard and Terry and my heart sinks. Geezers! Didn't Terry once beat me up in the school playground for not giving him my Cadbury's Flake? Couldn't have. He wasn't born when I was eating Cadbury's Flakes in the school playground. I feel bullied by him, anyway. And watching him run out I feel the game is not for the likes of me. Which is not the effect of watching Mexico or Brazil.

So why must football as the English play it be so plebeian? Elsewhere it has moved on from its roots in deprived communities. Dutch players look and talk like linguists. The Swiss who tamed the Spaniards bear themselves like brokers. But though our players earn a banker's bonus every time they miskick a ball, we go on insisting that the game express the spirit of a proletariat that probably exists today only on television. Hence ITV choosing as its anchor-man the miffed-faced Adrian Chiles, that quintessential bloke we'd rather lick out Blair's ear than run into in a pub in Dudley.

I'm not asking for footballers to be intellectuals. I don't want to see Jonathan Miller in goal and Laurie Taylor on the right wing. But must the alternative be an empty-headed, idea-free game of ineffective huffing and puffing played by men whose highest aspiration is a love-bite somewhere visible from a lingerie model in Jimmy Choos?

You think I'm a snob as well as a seer? Very well then. But attend the words of the Oracle – keeping it dumb won't bring back the silver.

Comments