June 25th: the first phase of the World Cup ended yesterday with England stumbling to a narrow victory over Kuwait and with Northern Ireland somehow getting through their game against Spain without conceding a penalty. And on Monday, the serious bit starts. A nice moment, I had thought, to venture a few pundit-like predictions for you to scoff at (or admire) in ten days’ time. Will grit and ‘character’ undo the flashy pirouetting of the Argie, the robot-like pre-planning of the Hun? That kind of thing.
The trouble is, though, that like every other British armchair fan I have but a dim notion of the strengths and weaknesses of Britain’s opposition. The television coverage so far has been exasperatingly lop-sided. Only four out of the six groups in Phase One have been looked at in any detail. Group Three – the Argentine group – has been contemptuously goosegreened, and Group Two – won by West Germany and Austria – has been pushed to one side because its key games kept on coinciding with appearances by England. The upshot is that no one here has seen two of the Cup’s hot favourites in action over ninety minutes – rather as if we had been watching a movie with one third of the screen blacked out. (And in our own Group Four we were denied any sustained view of games between England’s competitors: not even chauvinism, it seems, could induce an awareness of the Cup’s potency as simple narrative.) It is hard to think of any other major sports competition that would have been ‘covered’ in this way – could it be that Someone did not expect England to get beyond the first phase of the competition and therefore saw no point in ‘weighing up’ the opposition?
Certainly, there has been something odd about the BBC’s role in all this. Usually tenacious of its Number One spot in the world of sport, the Corporation has thus far been remarkably offhand about events in Spain. So offhand, indeed, that my Radio Times World Cup Wallchart (an insert in the RT’s £1 per copy World Cup Handbook) is packed with dreadful howlers. It has the winner of Group Four (England) scheduled to meet the runners-up in Groups One and Three (i.e. Italy and Argentina). West Germany are thus about to face Northern Ireland and Brazil, and Spain will shortly tangle with the Russians. And so on. Interestingly, the Mail on Sunday’s ‘Where and When’ guide (6 June) carried identical mistakes. Again, it was as if nobody could bring himself to believe that Phase Two would have anything to do with us.
Grumbles of this sort aside, though, it has been a marvellous World Cup, and not least through the efforts of those ‘tiny’ nations who were expected to lower the high standards of the competition. At first, countries like Algeria, Honduras and Kuwait were talked of as cuddly little items whose ‘sheer’ (i.e. childlike) ‘pleasure in the game’ was exemplary but whose ‘technical deficiencies’ would be horribly exposed by the strolling midfield narcissists of teams like Italy and Yugoslavia. ‘Happy as Sand Boys,’ declared the Mail of the Kuwaiti squad, and there was many a chuckle when the Times carried a half-page advertisement on 17 June – the day of Kuwait’s first appearance in the competition – which ‘pronounced forth upon your ears that we shall proceed forward with the Kuwaiti football from its local and regional environment to comprehensiveness and universality.’ Ho ho. Next day, though, after Kuwait had splendidly held Czechoslovakia to a draw, the Times sports page made a graceful backallusion: ‘Carefree Kuwait are at home on the world stage.’ And over the first week of the competition there was much similarly frozen mirth as Algeria beat West Germany; Honduras held Spain (11 players and a referee) and Cameroon gave Poland a fair fright. A pity that it all had to end with the Kuwaitis mumbling about a FIFA fix, the Algerians accusing Austria and Germany of rigging the result of Group Two’s deciding match, and Honduras denouncing the ‘standard of refereeing’ after being eliminated by a last-minute penalty – in fact, one of the few penalties in the World Cup so far which it would have been hard for the referee not to award.
Now, of course, the line on ‘tiny’ countries is that, although they do seem to have learned to play a bit, they still lack the maturity which instructs seasoned soccer pros never to use words like ‘bent’ or ‘fix’ on-camera. Perhaps, by the time the likes of Honduras and Kuwait have achieved wisdom of this type, they will also have learned how to do some bending and fixing of their own. If so, I can’t say I would blame them.
On the subject of maturity, I hope that none of these already ireful coloured persons gets to hear the ITV soundtrack on which the following exchange took place. Commentator: ‘The Cameroon goalkeeper learned his trade from the great German, Sepp Meier, and that is why he wears those black track-suit trousers. Meier gave them to him.’ Expert (chuckling): ‘I didn’t realise he was wearing track-suit trousers.’ The jester here was Ian St John, who from the very start has worn the air of a man who has been given a bum posting – his Group having, in the main, gone in for timid goalless draws. Sad, this, because St John is one of the few ‘experts’ who really does seem to have some expertise, who now and then sees things we don’t see, spots interesting players we might otherwise have overlooked, and so on. Lawrie McMenemy is similarly valuable (McMenemy is also possessed of a rare television gift – he seems able to think and talk at the same time, and to talk in a voice that almost certainly belongs to him). Some of the other studio sages, however, have been notable merely for over-acting whatever personae the powers-that-be have (it would seem) decreed that they pursue: Brian Clough complacent and sardonic, Jimmy Greaves wayward and impish, Mike Channon impetuous – or is it ‘coltishly inarticulate’?
The worst of this lot is the bejewelled, coiffeured John Bond (I was gratified the other day by a newspaper reference to Bond’s ‘Lady Di’ hair-do – surely, after that, he’ll get it cropped?). Bond has described himself on television as ‘flamboyant’, which he seems to think has something to do with champagne, cigars, sheepskin, Malcolm Allison and ‘being myself, I can’t help it, that’s the way I’m made.’ Sulky, yokelish and thumpingly dogmatic, Bond cuts an unappealing figure, to be sure, but we might still expect him to know more than we do about soccer. And perhaps he does. On-screen, though, he keeps his wits well-hidden. Whatever the topic – be it a matter of tactics, individual performance, or even just ‘the way the game is going’ – Bond’s response is invariably both commonplace and hypothetical: ‘Why can’t they get more men forward? Why can’t they get more men wide? For the life of me I can’t understand why they can’t just go at (or through) defending players ...’ He must have used the formula two dozen times these past two weeks, but there is always a mad indignation in the way he says it, as if the umbrage was acutely personal, as if Bond really does believe that those 22 poor brutes out in the Spanish sun are somehow disobeying him whenever they decline to ‘get more bodies in the box’, or ‘reach the byline and get crosses in’. Sometimes I worry. I feel sure he needs a rest.
Perhaps John Bond, along with one or two other people I can think of, is suffering from alexithymia, a newly discovered ailment I was told about last week. Derived from the Greek, alexithymia means ‘no words for feelings’, and now that it has been discovered, American psychiatrists are finding there’s an awful lot of it about. Alexithymics are, quite simply, bores. ‘They have a difficulty in labelling and experiencing their emotions,’ according to a doctor quoted in a recent Newsweek. ‘Their descriptions of life’s events are inevitably dull, focusing on mundane details with no colour or imagery.’ Unlike neurotics, who are usually full of labels for their emotions and who can draw on rich reserves of fantasy, the poor old alexithymic never knows what, if anything, is on, or underneath, his mind. He gets headaches, ulcers and the like, but it never occurs to him to connect such symptoms with, say, the car crash he had last week or the terrible marriage he comes home to every day. Boringly, he just thinks he has a headache. According to Newsweek, the doctors are beginning to wish they’d never diagnosed the wretched thing:
Some psychiatrists, as might be expected, trace the origins of the condition to early childhood. The mother may have failed to help the child sort out and label feelings, or perhaps the father avoided the discussion of emotions. Alexithymics can sometimes be helped to establish good relationships by acting as though they had feelings. ‘They learn to infer what they can’t discern – like colour-blind people,’ says Dr Henry Krystal of Michigan State University. Unfortunately, they may be so boring that psychotherapy is of little use. ‘After a while,’ says Krystal, ‘there’s no point in listening.’
Personally, I’m not at all sure that your average Alex (if I may) would be more boring than the neurotic abundantly equipped with ‘words for feelings’. Certainly, in America today, you can win more listeners for a run-down on your current physical condition than for any dated guff on ‘where your mind is at’. Indeed, Alex might be quite a social hit, with his recurrent headaches, and his ulcers, and his healthy refusal of any facile psychic cop-outs. Most intellectuals would probably hand him a pair of running shoes and tell him to get into shape.
And this encourages me to pass on a health warning that should cheer the fairly sick – i.e. those of you who don’t jog, diet or ‘work out’, who have managed not to give up smoking, drinking, carbohydrates, who still cling bravely to poor posture, short breath when climbing stairs, that nagging cough. I was having lunch in New York recently with a glowingly rejuvenated former drunk. He was talking ‘gymnasiums’ throughout, and after a bit my shamed eye came to rest on the label of his sugar-free low-calorie Tab Cola bottle. The small print legend read as follows: ‘Use of this product may be hazardous to your health. This product contains saccharine which has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals.’ Being a bit alexithymic myself from time to time, I still haven’t been able to work out why I should have discerned in this dire message a small ray of hope.