World Cup

A.J. Ayer

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.

A point just worth noting is that Maradona was perfectly well aware that he had scored his first goal against England by handling rather than heading the ball past Shilton, the English goalkeeper. Ought he to have informed the referee? Would any other professional footballer have done do? Most probably not. Yet cricketers who know that they have been caught at the wicket are now expected to walk away without waiting for the umpire’s decision, and frequently do so. This might be taken to show that cricket is still a more gentlemanly game than Association Football. On the other hand, the bad decisions that referees and linesman are prone to make, especially when it is a matter of ruling a man offside, so often go against the player that he can hardly be blamed for taking advantage of an instance which tells in his favour. Where Maradona might be open to moral criticism is that he behaved ostentatiously as if he had scored a legitimate goal.

On the whole, the conduct of the players was good. Only the Uruguayans were conspicuous for their lack of sportsmanship, which indeed assisted them against Scotland: but the Scots, though entitled to their manager’s display of moral indignation, should even so have contrived to take some advantage of the fact that for nearly the whole of the game they were playing their full eleven against ten men. At international level they consistently fail to do themselves justice; to put it more harshly, they are always a stronger side on paper than they turn out to be on the field. It is to their credit, however, that they kept their tempers.

One reason why there was comparatively little foul play was that the referees had been instructed to penalise any appearance of it. Their showing of a green card to a player served as a warning; the showing of a second green card in the same match procured his dismissal; a single red card had the same effect. The accumulation of two green cards in different games made a player ineligible for one subsequent game. This was extended to two games if he had been sent off in one fashion or the other. The referees were so mindful of their instructions that they can fairly be criticised for showing the green card too freely and for doing so capriciously. Deliberate fouls were quite often ignored or at most produced a scolding; not a few fair tackles brought out the green card. The one thing that was sure to evoke a warning was any manifestation of dissent or disrespect towards the referee. Wilkins’s petulant gesture during England’s match against Morocco hardly merited the production of the green card, let alone the red.

As it happened, this act of injustice turned to England’s advantage, once the Moroccans had been kind enough to content themselves with playing for a draw. Two major and two minor factors had been chiefly responsible for England’s lacklustre display in their opening games. The minor factors were the retention of Waddle, who is so far from being a winger of international standard that he was lucky to keep his place in the Tottenham side, and secondly the reliance on Hately as a centre-forward when his height, which was his chief recommendation, served only to prove that the pumping of high balls into the penalty area was not an effective method of attack. The major factors were the manager’s persistence in playing his namesake Bryan Robson, who was indeed the obvious choice for the captaincy of the team, had he been physically fit, which he manifestly was not, and the combination of Wilkins and Hoddle in midfield, which limited the scope of Hoddle’s constructive talents without sufficiently strengthening the defence.

The obligatory loss of Wilkins, and the belated realisation that his namesake was not fit to play, induced the manager to substitute a four-four-two formation, almost universally adopted by the other teams, for his previous four-three-three. The midfield was fortified by the addition of the Everton players Reid and Stephen to Aston Villa’s Hodge, and Hoddle was allowed enough space to fulfil his proper role of feeding the two strikers: Beardsley, a considerable improvement on Hately, and the enterprising Lineker. The result was that England played two excellent games, dispatching first Poland and then Paraguay with ease.

In each case, and especially in the match against Paraguay, Hoddle’s contribution was outstanding. Against Argentina he was almost wholly ineffective. It was not until Robson’s gamble of weakening the midfield by substituting the left-winger Barnes for Reid unexpectedly paid off that Lineker was given an opportunity to display his special aptitude for scoring goals. I have watched Hoddle throughout his career at Tottenham and have repeatedly been amazed by his imaginative skills and by the apathy which sometimes nullifies them. I cannot believe that he was overcome by apathy when playing against Argentina, and can only suppose that the Argentinians devised some method of constricting him. I failed, however, to discover what it was. Neither did the commentators enlighten me, though one might expect of a commentator, not only that he should give a running account of the proceedings, which was, in fact, efficiently done, but that he should throw light on the strategy and tactics in operation, which was hardly even attempted. The remarks made by the panel of experts at half-time, and before and after the game, were of next to no interest. The best that can be said of them is that they refrained from blatant chauvinism, though their comments on the slyness of Latin Americans were not in the best of taste.

Except at the very end in each case, neither the match between England and Argentina nor the final between Argentina and West Germany was particularly interesting to watch. The first half of the England-Argentina match was exceptionally dull. Of all the matches that I saw, the most entertaining was the one between France and Brazil. Together with the Danes, they played the most attractive, which is not the same as the most efficient football. After the French had defeated the Brazilians they became my favourites to win the Cup. They looked the better side in their semi-final against the West Germans, but after conceding an early goal through a rare error by the otherwise excellent goalkeeper, they succumbed, as in other contexts, to German organisation and discipline. In Platini they had a player whose skill matched Maradona’s. His fault was that he tried to do too much on his own. Maradona’s performance in the final was not brilliant, but he made opportunities for his gifted colleagues. If the French had reached the final, I believe that the Argentinians would still have carried off the Cup, because as a team they were better integrated.

It is remarkable how many matches were decided by the soccer equivalent of the tie-break recently introduced into lawn tennis: a competition between takers of penalty-kicks. In spite of its dramatic quality, I do not welcome this as what the logicians call a decision-procedure. It would be preferable if matches which remained drawn after extra time were to be replayed, but this would not be practicable in the World Cup, where the number of matches for which provision is made is already too great. But I see no good reason for the retention of the first stages of the competition in its present form. If the competition were made into a knockout affair, like the English FA Cup, then the admission of even as many as 32 teams would be more economical. Whether there should still be a quota of representatives from different geographical regions is a question for debate.

Does the World Cup promote the cause of Association Football? I am inclined to doubt it. Certainly it is watched on television by a vast number of people, including many who normally take very little interest in the game: but this is primarily a manifestation of nationalism, and nationalism is one of the evils of our time. The French are the champions of Europe, but attendances at their club matches continue to be small. If England had won this World Cup, I do not think that the decline in the numbers of those attending League matches in England would have been arrested. The social reasons for it would still obtain. What remains constant is the popularity of the game in Italy, Spain and, above all, in Latin America. Here, too, nationalism plays its part. It is alleged that when Uruguay defeated Brazil in the final of the first World Cup, a score of Brazilians committed suicide. This year four people are reported to have died in Buenos Aires during the celebrations after Argentina’s victory. I suppose this should be considered progress of a sort.