Early World Cup thoughts

Warning: this “foreign affairs” blog may contain quite a lot about football over the next month. With the World Cup underway, I’m finding it hard to concentrate on my usual diet of failed states, UN resolutions and brave struggles for democracy. The 42-inch-plasma TV is now installed and looking vulgar and out of place in my otherwise tasteful, sitting room. It arrived just in time for me to watch Argentina-Nigeria – a game that Alan Beattie has called the “bad governance derby”. Argentina won 1-0, as sovereign defaulters triumphed over sufferers from the oil curse.

Then in the evening – England’s 1-1 draw with the USA, featuring the latest in a long line of horrendous, suicidal errors by England goalies. I remember when I was growing up, it was taken as a read that England produced the best goalkeepers in the world – just like we had the best police. I still have some faith in the police – but the goalies??

One of the masochistic pleasures of watching England, however, is the sheer familiarity of the narrative. We build the team up, we convince ourselves that this time we’ve got a real chance, the team get off to a decent start and then it all falls apart. It’s like having a recurring nightmare. And I think the players are as spooked as the fans – you can see their self-belief collapsing, as soon as things start to go wrong.

Even the headlines in this morning’s papers contained references to past disasters that did not need to be spelled out. One tabloid screamed, “Oh No, Not Again.” But my favourite was the News of the World’s front page – above a picture of the hapless England goalie, Robert Green, was the headline “Hand of Clod”. All fans will instantly get the reference to the infamous “Hand of God” goal with which Diego Maradona eliminated England in 1986. Seems like yesterday.

So far my favourite bit of the tournament was the South African goal in the opening game of the tournament: a fantastic shot, and a wonderful moment. Still, I wonder whether the South African tournament is going to leave an unwelcome bequest for football - the vuvuzela; those bullhorns that sound insistently throughout the game.

The 1986 World Cup introduced the unwelcome innovation of the Mexican wave – which is still with us, and which means that if you actually go to see a game you often can’t see (because everybody is standing up and waving.) Now the vuvuzela means you often can’t hear either.