When it comes to soccer’s World Cup, it is not always the case that the best team wins. One notable counterexample was the World Cup of 1954, when the West Germans defeated the Hungarians, and another, possibly, was that in which the West Germans defeated the Dutch. This year, however, I think it probable that the best team did win. Admittedly the first goal scored by Argentina against England in the quarter-finals ought not to have stood, but the second goal scored by Maradona was the most brilliant single episode of the tournament, and it is unlikely that the Argentinians would have allowed the English to come as near as they did to equalising at the very end of the match if they had not been two goals ahead. The fact that they did allow the Germans to equalise under similar conditions in the final is not a decisive counter-argument, since they immediately responded with the winning goal, and I believe that if the match against England had gone to extra time, the Argentinians would still have won.
Vol. 8 No. 15 · 4 September 1986
From Neville Smith
SIR: May I comment on A.J. Ayer’s piece about the World Cup (LRB, 24 July)? There is no green card in football: there are only yellow and red cards. The yellow card signifies that a player has had his name taken for a foul and serves as a warning that, if he fouls again, he will be shown the red card and dismissed from the field. A sufficiently bad foul, of course, warrants no warning, and the player is shown the red card and sent off, as happened to a Uruguayan in the game against Scotland. In the England v. Argentina game, Peter Reid was substituted by Waddle (not Barnes) and this hardly constituted a gamble on Bobby Robson’s part, as the Everton player began the game carrying an injury, and was then further disabled by a kick from Batista. Barnes came on later in the game for Steven (not Stephen). The ludicrous penalty shoot-out (and dreadful refereeing) put out two fine sides in Spain and the Soviet Union.
Those of us who support Northern teams and saw players like George Best, Jimmy Johnstone, Alex Young and Duncan McKenzie remain unimpressed by Hoddle’s ‘imaginative skills’. We are not surprised by his ‘apathy’. A.J. Ayer, being a Tottenham supporter, will know that Londoners call this condition ‘having no bottle’.
A.J. Ayer writes: ‘Stephen’ for ‘Steven’ was careless and I apologise. I know that Waddle came onto the field before Barnes, and I thought I remembered that Steven left it before Reid. If I was mistaken, it was no doubt because Waddle took on Steven’s role. Hoddle is certainly no cruncher, but I do not admit that he lacks courage. As for Mr Smith’s list of Northern artists, I would say, having taken an interest in professional soccer for 65 years, that George Best is the only one I would rank with Danny Blanchflower or Tommy Harmer, or with several who played for London teams other than Spurs, such as Fulham’s Johnny Haynes. Lest it be thought that my long attachment to Tottenham has perverted my judgment, let me add that I doubt if any team, whether in London or the North, has been as good as the best Arsenal sides of the Thirties.
Vol. 8 No. 16 · 18 September 1986
From Bastiaan Bommeljé
SIR: A.J. Ayer’s opinion (LRB, 24 July) that it was ‘possibly’ not the best team that won the World Cup Final in 1974 between the West Germans and the Dutch seems to me a rather gross understatement. The utterly undeserved defeat of the widely admired Dutch ‘hippie’-team, under Johan Cruijff, by the completely impotent Germans with their two lucky goals, is nothing less than a landmark in the decline of Dutch culture in the 1970s. As our prime minister remarked on television: ‘After this, things will never be the same as before.’ At the same time, it did prove (as did the similar defeat of the French in the semi-finals of the 1982 Cup) that the Germans still have this remarkable quality of being incapable of surrendering to an opponent who has the moral right to victory. As the saying goes, ‘if you scratch a German, there will always be a German underneath.’ This holds true for the World Cup as much as for other contests in human history. (Undoubtedly, it has to do with the fact that they were never really subdued by the Romans, and with their traumatic unification in the 19th century. We eagerly await the comprehensive doctoral dissertation on the subject.) In any case, it seems certain that the greater part of my generation in the Netherlands, who witnessed and survived the loss of the Cup in 1974, has been severely traumatised by the event. It marked a loss of innocence and vitality for the Dutch nation, and the beginning of a cultural and economic decline from the results of which we, ‘the lost generation of 1974’, still suffer daily. Soccer, moreover, has never been the same, as this year’s boring World Cup extensively proved.
Department of Ancient History, University of Utrecht
From T.H. Turner
SIR: A.J. Ayer’s piece on the World Cup may be precise but his vision was as constricted as Hoddle’s performance against Argentina in the decisive quarter-final. Neither Ayer nor Hoddle can be blamed for this since Mexico ’86 was not a logical tournament, nor was it football as played at White Hart Lane in the English League. It was a TV game dominated by hearts and legs, not minds and feet. Argentina’s defenders were too strong and too fast for England’s lightweight forwards, while the rest of the English midfield were shepherding Maradona away from goal. They did this most effectively bar one ten-second lapse, his astonishing second goal – arising because ‘Diego felt so bad about the first one,’ according to Valdano, the Argentinian forward. Guilt-ridden genius transcends logic.
The prospect of lucrative TV profits (for what high-ups?) brought the World Cup to Mexico for an unprecedented second time. Which meant the matches had to be played in 100°F heat and 70 per cent or more humidity – all at 8,000 feet above sea level – so as to fit European viewing times. This is roughly equivalent to playing cricket in Antarctica. It explains why three out of four quarter-finals went to penalty shoot-outs, since the physiological exhaustion of the teams made scoring impossible after full time. It also explains why Argentina met West Germany in the final. They were the two strongest-legged teams, since their average thigh circumference was – I would wager – significantly larger than the other competitors’. They also played tight, economic, defensive football, conserving their energies (unlike the naive Danes and Russians) for the later stages. It goes without saying that the English running game, Hoddle and all his long-legged beauty notwithstanding, is unplayable in such conditions. But their good manners, in not ‘trampling the referee’ after the hand-ball first goal – as Pele suggested the Argentinians would have done – will bring its reward from FIFA.
Ayer’s conclusion, that Argentina deserved to win, is quite right. Their hearts could not contemplate another Wembley ’66 or Malvinas humiliation. Their legs were strong. The hand of Diego/Diogo (God) was on their side. Football is a religion, which flourishes in Catholic countries. Argentina will probably win again in Italy 1990, where the heat, TV, and God’s vicar (in his own backyard), will negate any logical positivist virtues.
Institute of Psychiatry, University of London, London SE5