Monday, July 03, 2006

WORLD CUP ALMANAC: The Quarter Finals

Here's an analogy for you: last Saturday was like watching a feeble, poorly scripted and predictably ending Steve Guttenberg vehicle, then taking in a classic Hitchcock, all sound characterisation and vintage performances. Or how about: last Saturday was like listening to Rolf Harris' greatest hits (not Two Little Boys though - a personal favourite) and then hearing the Berlin Philarmonic play Beethoven's Fifth. Or: last Saturday was like having taco fries in Abrakebabra as a prelude to a visit to L'Ecrivain (for non Irish readers, two Dublin food purveyors with contrasting quality control policies).

You get the picture.

So England are out, and have tacked on their usual brave, heartbreaking, add-a-dash-of-controversy ending to what has been a dismal tournament.

And so the delusion will continue. The country which knows all about underachieving golden generations for the second time in two years delivered a heart-breaking endgame to England's glory-bound super-heroes, and in doing so allowed dearest Albion to cloak her unforgivably poor performances with veneer of gallant, unfortunate failure.

As the man who made it all possible stole away with a bag marked 'swag' over his shoulder and the dilemma of what on earth to do with £24 million of the Football Association's money troubling him, the player who epitomised the pre-fabricated unreality in which this England football team lived almost did the decent thing.

At first it seemed that David Beckham was about to abandon his vainglorious 'bid' to overhaul Peter Shilton's record tally of England caps and announce his international retirement, as if finally embarassed at the glaring invalidity of his automatic starting place with his country.

But, in fact, yesterday's gibbering press conference in which Beckham resigned the England captaincy was only a small olive branch offering towards a return to a time when his country's first eleven was not picked by the dictates of marketing men and advertising demographics.

Sven Goran Eriksson's chronic inability to drop any of his leading players has long hampered any hopes of England building a forty-years-of-hurt-ending eleven from their finest raw materials in some time. The malfunctioning of the Lampard-Gerrard central midfield axis in the absence of a holding midfielder was only half-heartedly addressed as this tournament began, and the perseverance with David Beckham in light of Aaron Lennon's convincing claim to the right midfield berth appeared a policy cast in stone.

It was fitting, then, that England's best play of the tournament, even in the face of Wayne Rooney's dismissal (Christiano Ronaldo's assistance in this matter providing another distraction from the failures of the English team), came from Eriksson affording his team Owen Hargreaves' bustle in Michael Owen's injury-enforced absence and from Lennon's replacement of Beckham following the latter's achilles tendon injury.

On, then, to more refined matters, and France. How les Bleus have transformed from the tired-looking, unimaginative side which I saw limp to a scoreless draw against Switzerland in Stuttgart a few weeks ago into a team capable of the sort of complete performance which eliminated the 2002 champions on Saturday is intriguing.

How much involvement the previously derided coach, Raymond Domenech, has had in the change is not known, but, despite the magnificence of Zinedine Zidane's last two displays in this tournament, for me the rejuvenation of Patrick Vieira in midfield is the single most important factor in the French renaissance.

That day in Stuttgart, and in the following game against South Korea, Vieira appeared to be living out the obituaries to his career penned in the wake of Juventus' exit from the Champions League at the hands of Arsenal earlier this season. Off the pace, passing woefully and shooting aimlessly, the knock-on effect on a listless France was unmistakable.

Suddenly, in parallel with the always excellent Claude Makalele, Vieira has taken a grip of this tournament. On Saturday the French midfield's hard men so subjugated Brazil's featherweight pairing of Gilberto Silva and Ze Roberto as to make the champions' attempts to progress to a fourth successive semi-final as worthwhile as a moth's journey to the sun.

With this domination in place, the stage was set for Zidane to bloom, late, but as wonderfully as he ever did in his prime. In many ways the French victory was redolent of that evening in Paris in 1998, as the Brazilians were similarly made to look impotent, over-hyped and negligent of the fundamentals of winning football.

The sad exit of football's most successful nation speaks of players whose appearances in television ads for Pepsi and Nike provided more highlights than their flat efforts on the park ever did. It is almost as if the Brazilans expected a director and script to be provided prior to their matches, and on the call of "action" to be allowed to carry out their repertoire of tricks before smilingly dancing off with the trophy.

The shock of France's victory for Brazil, then, would have been a unexpected ending. Worthy, indeed, of Hitchcock really.


Blogger DrCelt said...

" worthwhile as a moth's journey to the sun."


11:51 p.m.  
Blogger Fence said...

Nice post. And I agree with drcelt, that line is quality, and so I've quoted it

5:53 p.m.  
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11:03 p.m.  

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