It’s All Over
Small boys of all ages and both genders look forward to World Cups. Perhaps nobody, though, looks forward to it more than actual small boys. I’ve been looking forward to them ever since my first, in 1970 – the best, I still think. The thing I remember almost as well as the drama and excitement of the football was my incredulous horror at the thought that I would be 12 before this thing came round again. How could it possibly be four years until the next one? Not even adults, surely, could be so recklessly stupid as to make everybody wait four years for the next example of something so wonderful? Four years: that was literally for ever. I remember running through the years of future World Cups in my head: 1974, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990; the sequence stretched into the inconceivably far distance. It was great to have something to look forward to, but did it have to be the case that you had to look forward so far?
Vol. 36 No. 13 · 3 July 2014
John Lanchester’s recollection of the 2002 World Cup match between Italy and South Korea is faulty (LRB, 19 June). Focusing on the referee Byron Moreno’s subsequent antics, Lanchester ignores the fact that there was only one incontestable and important mistake in the whole game, an incorrect offside decision against Tommasi that robbed him of a dangerous-looking one-on-one with the South Korean goalkeeper. But that decision was an extremely close call, certainly not a ‘flagrant howler’, and in any event, was made by the linesman, the Argentinian Jorge Rattalino.
The only other refereeing decision in the game that could be called controversial was the sending off of Francesco Totti for diving. Totti was notorious for deploying this form of cheating, which was considered acceptable by much of Europe’s football and media elites. Whether Totti actually dived or not is impossible to say for sure, but again his sending off was no ‘flagrant howler’; the decision was widely applauded in most of the non-European world. That superstars such as Totti will be allowed to get away with this kind of cheating is only to be expected; but it is far more corrupting of fairness than the occasional disputable decision by a referee.
Moreno was the fall guy for a number of decisions in earlier games that also upset the Italian team, although, for example, the Danish linesman and English referee (Graham Poll) who incorrectly disallowed a goal by Italy when they played Croatia have never been subjected to the same barrage of criticism. No one who is familiar with Italy and Italian football will be surprised by the immediate assumption that a conspiracy was afoot; in 2002, unable to deal with defeat at the hands of South Korea, a conspiracy theory fitted Italy’s psychological needs perfectly. It also revealed an underlying arrogance; Korea’s pressing and hustling game was blatantly disrespectful of Italy’s assumption of superiority – an assumption shared by the two other sore losers of 2002, Spain and Portugal, who have created similar (and equally bogus) narratives of Oriental dirty tricks to explain their defeat. The truth is that the Italian team in 2002 was largely outplayed by South Korea in a very tight game. They were also handicapped by missing both first choice central defenders, Nesta and Cannavaro, and were playing with a makeshift central defence. But this was no vintage Italian team; two years later, more or less the same squad failed to get out of their group in the European Championships.
The fact that many Italians are bellyaching about this defeat 12 years later is perhaps understandable: given Italian football’s endemic problems with match-fixing and bribery of officials it isn’t surprising that this is their go-to explanation. But it is disappointing that so many of the Italian team’s fans in the international media have swallowed the story about 2002 so uncritically, particularly given their general silence about the blatant nobbling of Ronaldo by the French before the 1998 World Cup Final. Now that was a fix.