After seeing his first ever English Football League match, a West German football journalist turned to me and dazedly asked: ‘Is this what you have to watch every week?’ He was referring to several things he couldn’t believe about the game – its maniacal tempo and hectic physicality, as well as its tactical simple-mindedness – but mostly he was referring to what he saw as an evident deficiency of skill, and hence interest. This aghast reaction was duplicated all over Europe after England’s 1-1 draw with the Republic of Ireland in Sardinia, during the first round of the World Cup. It was one of the most sterile games anyone had ever seen, at times almost hallucinogenic in its dullness, and for a lot of people it summed up the tactical and technical bankruptcy that has overtaken football in this country.

The proximate cause of that game’s terribleness was the manager of the Republic of Ireland, Jack Charlton. When asked if Ireland’s next match, against Egypt, would be more entertaining, he gave a wholly characteristic response: ‘It might be. On the other hand it might bore the arse off you.’ (It did.) Charlton has perfected an impersonation of himself as a plain-speaking take-me-or-leave-me Geordie which is often very funny and often merely truculent: the persona does not wholly conceal a sensitivity to criticism and a deep vein of cunning.

When Charlton was appointed manager – not at the time a popular choice – Ireland had never qualified for a major competition. Charlton changed all that, qualifying for and then beating England in the European Championships, then taking Ireland to the World Cup finals, then qualifying for the second round of the competition: as I write, a stirring no-prisoners-taken fight-back has just earned the Irish a 1-1 draw against the Netherlands, and a second-round tie against Romania.

Ireland has always drawn the bulk of its national side from the English leagues, and the chosen players’ Irish connections have often seemed a trifle on the sketchy side. Charlton has taken this business to new heights. His own formulation is that ‘anyone with a dog called Paddy’ is eligible for the team. This practice stars in my favourite anecdote about Charlton, a story which also features his famous wooziness about names – he has been known to refer to Liam Brady as ‘Ian’, to Paul McGrath as ‘John’, and during the World Cup described Egypt’s best players as ‘the boy with the beard, the dark lad who played in midfield, the sweeper, the goalkeeper, the little dark lad who played in midfield and the very coloured one’. Political pressure from the Football Association of Ireland had forced Charlton to pick two players from the FAI’s domestic league to play in a friendly match. Going down to breakfast at the team hotel, Brady bumped into a worried Charlton. ‘Ian,’ said the manager, ‘has anyone seen the two Irish lads?’

Charlton has also maximised his resources tactically: this is where things get more sinister. Ireland are the first, and so far the only, international team to play the form of football endemic in the English Football League. This style has its basis in statistics which show that the majority of goals come from moves involving a small number of passes – 85 per cent of goals are preceded by five passes or fewer. Therefore the way to play the game is not to try and have lots of flashy passing sequences, keeping possession of the ball and showing off your skills in the way that fancy-dan foreigners like to (I’m paraphrasing slightly) but to whack the ball up the other end of the field, behind the opponents’ defence, and pressurise them into giving the ball away. In some ways it’s a logical way to play if you have mediocre players – but the ‘long ball game’ has a way of spreading mediocrity wherever it goes, and its prevalence underlies the second-rate-ness of the bulk of English football.

Norman Mailer has written that one way of understanding boxing is to think of it as a kind of argument, a clash in which ideas and their refutations are enacted through the body rather than through language. I don’t know enough about boxing to know whether that’s true, but it’s an insight that can certainly be applied to football, in particular to the World Cup, which at the time of writing has just completed its first stage: 36 games already played in a league format, now 16 knock-out games to go. The World Cup – as well as being a wonderful festival – is a global symposium on the styles, theories and propositions current in ‘the beautiful game’. You play 3-5-2, we play 4-2-4, they play 5-4-1: let’s see who has the right idea. Ireland’s presence at this level of the game is fascinating because it’s the first time that a side espousing the candidly parochial manner of the English Football League has attempted to take on the best teams in the world. They’ve already done well and they may do better, largely because they have such a strong identity – an identity derived from the way they play. Everyone knows what they’re supposed to do: as Charlton puts it, ‘we don’t play our game, we inflict our game on other people.’

There are, however, other styles and identities on display in the World Cup. Sometimes the way in which a football team comports itself on the pitch is a question of national self-image. The Brazilian team, which qualified for the second round by winning all its first-round matches, did so amid a storm of protest at what was seen, by Brazilian pundits and spectators, as the team’s un-Brazilian approach – too cautious, too defensive. Sebastião Lazaroni, the manager, has been playing a sweeper (a spare defender) behind his back four: the practice is widespread in Europe, and because it releases other players it’s not necessarily a purely defensive ploy – but this action is being treated as a heretical violation of Brazil’s deeply romantic footballing ethos. The team has been compared unfavourably with its glamorous predecessors, not just the side which won the Cup in 1970 – for a lot of people’s money the best football team ever – but also the outfits which went down with all guns blazing in 1982 (second round, beaten 3-2 by eventual winners Italy in an absolute thriller) and 1986 (quarter-final, beaten on penalties by France after an absolute thriller). That’s how Brazil are expected to play, and so far they haven’t been doing so: the prince has turned up at the ball wearing mufti.

Other teams have less glamorous but equally strong traditions. The West Germans have reached the semi-finals in five of the last six tournaments, and have done so without at any point supplying aesthetic sensations to raise the pulse rate of neutral supporters. (Not that there are any neutral supporters where the Germans are concerned. They want to win, everybody else wants them to lose.) German national sides always have great technical competence, physical strength, organisation and self-knowledge, and an amazing composure. The downside of this is a sometime tactical rigidity that Henry Kissinger, that well-known football fan, recently made the subject of a gripping analogy with the adoption of the Schlieffen Plan in the Great War. The current side, though, looks exceptionally flexible, not just by German but by any standards: they have, in Lothar Matthäus and Andreas Brehme, two world-class players who play their club football in Milan, where the national side has also been based; the first stages of the tournament have seen them scoring a whole load of goals, some of them extremely good ones; and they always seem to get at least one stage further than they ought to in major competitions. Bookies were offering a very juicy 13-2 on West Germany just before the tournament started, for people who can handle the bad karma generated by betting on a team they don’t want to win.

As I write, the chief obstacle to the Germans’ progress are the Dutch, the European Champions. The second-round encounter between the two sides points up another compelling aspect of the competition, the way in which historic fixtures have an opportunity to repeat themselves. In 1974, the Dutch had the best football team in the world, dominated by the two geniuses Johann Cruyff and Jan Neeskens: they got to the World Cup final, went a goal up against Germany, the hosts, with a penalty earned before a single German player had touched the ball – and then sat back and tried to humiliate the Germans by playing teasing, cat-and-mouse possession football. Bad idea. The Germans did what they’re best at, hung on in there, and won the World Cup with two second-half goals. The memory of that defeat is still very vivid in Dutch football, particularly as the Dutch also had the best team in the 1978 competition, and again lost in the final to the host nation – in that instance, Argentina.

The most startling thing about the current Italian team, everybody’s other choice for a semi-final place at the very least, is the wonderful freedom and openness apparent in their attacking play, a freedom particularly impressive when one considers the horrific pressures of expectation and publicity under which the players are operating. Staging the competition has cost the host nation £3.5 billion, on a conservative estimate – conservative because the full extent of the monstrous cost over-runs has not yet been fully accounted. A lot of this money was spent in the demented last months leading up to the competition. As put by Luca de Montezumolo, chairman of the organising committee (and a man who, in his days as a young hotshot at Fiat, was convicted of selling introductions to Gianni Agnelli – a nice touch was that the money would be passed to him in a book): ‘Italy has made crisis a fundamental instrument to pass from planning to implementation of projects. Doing things at the last minute is a national reality.’

Another national reality is that Italy expects (needs, demands) to win the competition. The side certainly has the talent, as the oneiric beauty of Roberto Baggio’s goal against Czechoslovakia confirmed. Perhaps Baggio’s emergence will solve the goal-scoring problem which has dogged the team for years. Even before the European Championship two years ago, which the Italian manager explicitly announced was being used solely to gain experience for the World Cup, it was being pointed out that Italy lacked an out-and-out goal-scorer, someone who simply can be relied on regularly to stick the ball in the net. The last time they had a player like that – Paolo Rossi – was in 1982: they won the World Cup. Italy has plenty of scarily gifted players: but Vialli looks a converted winger rather than a striker (and he hasn’t, at the time of writing, scored for Italy since April 1989); Carnevale is out of form, keeps missing the ball, falling over etc; Baggio prefers playing in the ‘hole’ behind another striker and feeding off him; the player with least international experience, the bullet-headed, not-very-tall Sicilian Schillaci, is perhaps the likeliest. My feeling is that if one of these players comes good and gets the goals, Italy will win the World Cup. If not, not.

There’s more to football, though, than football. One of the most cheering sights of the competition has been the play of the Romanians. Romania has quite a strong recent football record, based largely on the successes of its top club sides, Steaua Bucharest and Dynamo Bucharest. (In Eastern Europe, ‘Dynamo’ in a club’s name denotes a connection with the security services. Dynamo Bucharest’s links with the Securitate mean that the club is being disbanded and re-formed under a different name.) These teams, though they had their moments, tended to be stronger on organisation than on inspiration: the Steaua Bucharest side which beat Terry Venables’s Barcelona to win the European Cup in 1986 did so by grinding their way through a goalless draw, then keeping their nerve better than the opposition when it came to the penalty shoot-out. Hardly the Charge of the Light Brigade. Now, though, there’s a tremendous exuberance about the Romanian team, who played exhilaratingly openly against Russia and Argentina in the first-round matches. It was hard not to see in all this a casting-off of psychological shackles.

For a really direct, wholly inescapable connection between football and national pride, however, it’s only necessary to look at countries like Cameroon, Egypt and Costa Rica. About eighteen months ago, the excellent football fanzine When Saturday comes carried a picture of a black football team, assembled for the traditional pre-match photo. They were glowering out at the camera with quite exceptional determination and ferocity. The caption read: ‘The Cameroonian national team – the “Invincible Lions” – demonstrate the smiling, happy-go-lucky nature of African football.’ The point is well made. I started reading up on African football, and found that everyone who was interested in it agreed a. that it had recently made a quantum leap in terms of ability; b. that Cameroon, the 1988 African Champions, was an extremely good football team; c. that Cameroon had got to the 1982 World Cup Finals but had not qualified for the second round despite drawing all their games and being level on points with Italy, the eventual winners; and d. that Ruud Gullit thought they were capable of reaching the semi-final this time. I put a quid on them to win at 500-1. A well-coached, technically skilful team, with nothing to lose, something to prove, a sense of grievance, the advantage of surprise and national pride charging through the veins like cocaine – it’s no wonder Argentina didn’t know what hit them.

As for England: they are one of the hardest teams in the competition to write about, for the same reason as they are unsatisfactory on the pitch. The team doesn’t have a clear identity, a clear thread running through it: they have good days and bad days, good and bad results, but there’s all the time a feeling that strategically and tactically things are done very much ad hoc. The confusion has part of its source in an honourable refusal. It would have been possible for Bobby Robson to have gone the Jack Charlton route and constructed a side around the ‘strengths’ of the English league game – a fit, strong, organised and ruthless team who ‘inflict’ their game on other people. He didn’t do that, mercifully, but the upshot is that the national side plays in an idiom unfamiliar to the players. The England team plays in a manner totally distinct from any club team in the country.

Added to that is the wooziness of Bobby Robson’s management. He hasn’t pursued any consistent shape for the team, fuelling a general feeling that he isn’t quite sure what he wants – a feeling that took on a great deal of momentum when he switched the whole tactical basis of the England side overnight. For the crucial first-round game against the Netherlands in Cagliari, Robson adopted a sweeper system in defence, a widely-advocated idea that he had spent two years arguing against, and had not tried in a single one of the eighteen friendly games since the European Championships. It worked, too. At the same time, the commitment to skill, which is in theory part of the England team’s approach, is haphazard. Paul Gascoigne, who, it’s been clear for some time, is a very remarkable talent, was kept on the fringes of the side for far too long.

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