The World Cup is now well underway, and it is clear already that it’s one of the few international events to bring the whole of the world together. As Sharmini Brookes has described, South Africa is rightly proud to stage such a major world event, and the excitement of the South African people is at fever pitch. I keep hearing people in the UK saying the money spent on the World Cup would be better spent on something else, like drains or alleviating poverty. But it is clear from the excitement, joy and inspiration which is already coming out of this tournament that it’s a fantastic event in its own right, which does not need to justify itself in such terms. In fact, there is a strong hairshirt mood, especially in Britain, of people trying to guilt trip those who are enjoying themselves during the World Cup. This is best witnessed by those in officialdom and others complaining about the ubiquitous flag of St. George. I think it’s time that we told the hairshirt brigade to get on their bikes.
On the pitch
South Africa was probably right to stage its open top bus parade before the tournament started as on first showing against Mexico it is unlikely that their team will have much to celebrate on the pitch. However as we know from South Korea in 2002 the World Cup can develop a dynamic of its own, and it is too early to write anyone off progressing from the Group stages except Greece.
On Saturday afternoon I watched Argentina v Nigeria, or to put it more accurately, Argentina v Enyeama. Nigerian goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama was man of the match and made a series of world class saves to keep the score down to 1-0.
Argentina scored early, and the whole Argentinian team, inspired by Lionel Messi, controlled the match. They were all comfortable on the ball, and a decent Nigerian side was chasing shadows for the most part. Argentina set a benchmark for all other teams to follow. It is worth remembering that Argentina played beautifully in the Group stages in 2006 but could not keep it going into the business end of the tournament.
England followed Argentina and were very poor in comparison. Despite scoring early, England never really controlled the match; very few of their players looked comfortable on the ball, and goalkeeper Robert Green made one of the worst errors ever at a World Cup Finals. In the second half England put in a lot of effort and made some half chances, but never put the USA goalkeeper Tim Howard under real pressure. The final scoreline, 1-1, was a fair reflection of the match.
In many ways, as one commentator said, this is a traditionally unconvincing England start to a tournament. The more astonishing thing was to hear ITV pundits agree that it was a good or very good England performance. True, some individual players played quite well, but it was never convincing as a whole, and a pale shadow of a team performance compared to Argentina earlier in the day. The England match was followed by actor James Corden (who for some reason has been given a football related show to present), shouting ‘good point, good point’ at the audience, to make sure we got the message a draw was a good result.
It should be made clear that it was a disappointing result, but not disastrous, as there are two games left to ensure qualification for the knock out stages. As well as the result, it should be added that the goalkeeper is one of the key components of any winning team, and when a keeper makes a mistake like Green, all the other teams in the tournament gain confidence at the smell of blood. The injury to Ledley King puts into question his selection, and Jamie Carragher’s recall also looked questionable as he could not keep pace with the US forwards. So lots to concern any England fan.
I have little sympathy for Robert Green who was picked precisely not to make a mistake like that. He may well never recover from it. Peter ‘The Cat’ Bonnetti, made a mistake half as bad 40 years ago when England played West Germany in the World Cup quarter final, and was never the same again. To be honest, I had much more sympathy for the legendary World Cup winning England goalkeeper Gordon Banks reduced to appearing on James Corden’s: World Cup Live after the match. Corden’s programme was such garbage that I had to turn it off after nine minutes, but it was long enough to realise that Corden is no match for Skinner and Baddiel when it comes to football.
Finally, Thierry ‘handball’ Henry received a fantastic ovation from the South African crowd as well as the French fans when he came on as a second-half substitute for France against Uruguay on Friday. To be honest it was the only notable event of the entire match. The Irish fantasy that he would be a pariah for his bad sportsmanship in the qualifier against Ireland has not been realised. It is definitely time for Irish fans to move on.