So: what was your big World Cup thrill? Hadji’s shuffle? Branco’s kangaroo jump? Suker’s pulse-check? Or was it your first sight of those 11 yellow-haired Romanians? Earlier tournaments are now known by their ‘defining moments’. In 1970, we had Moore and Pele swapping shirts; in ‘82, there was the demented Altobelli; in ‘86 the Hand of God; in ‘90, Gazza’s tears. I’m not sure what it was in ‘94: Romario and Bebeto doing that baby-cradling thing? Or was it about Maradona and his drugs, or Escobar’s calamitous own goal?
Repeated time and again, as TV clips, on book jackets, or in the collages that decorate World Cup newspaper pieces, such moments are hardly ever moments of straightforward soccer action. Aside from Hurst’s third goal in 1966, or Banks’s save in 1970, I can’t immediately think of any in-play, fair-play action pix that carry, shall we say, top-grade iconic clout. Action pix are action pix, no more, no less: another wonder goal – so what? If they are not English, or 1966-related, or in some way rather dotty, they tend to get forgotten, filed away. The moments that appeal to our World Cup chroniclers, or headliners, are usually the ones that make us laugh or, better still, the ones that seem to bear some metaphoric potency. Ideally, World Cup clips should touch and teach. Or tickle.
This being so, what of 1998 can we look forward to in future mock-ups? There were, of course, some wacky sendings off: Kluivert’s elbow, Beckham’s backheel, Zidane’s trampling excuse-me, Bilic’s mock-facial, and so on. And there were plenty of accomplished dives and fouls. In these departments, though, there was nothing that seems likely to stay with us very long. ‘Baby-gol’, Owen’s brilliant strike against Argentina, will certainly be treasured, for patriotic reasons, but surely not his dive in the same match, although the dive was just as useful to the nation’s cause. Owen’s dive, in fact, has already been written out of history by English pundits. Not that it was ever written in. On the day after the Argentina game, no paper that I read, and I read lots, could bring itself even to hint that England’s first goal had been achieved by, dare we say, a Leap of Faith.
The clips of Beckham’s sending-off may well have staying power. I doubt it, though. Already the forces of forgiveness are rallying on his behalf, as so they should be. In four years’ time, it will surely be thought of as bad form to highlight the lad’s callow petulance. Bad karma, too: in four years’ time we are likely to be in need of Beckham’s skills, if he still has them. This Beckham business will, we suspect, be taken care of in the first weeks of our upcoming Premiership season. Let’s hope the player can withstand the various terrace tribunals that await him.
In the 1998 defining-moment stakes, I think I’ll put my money on those spooky Romanians. More than any single soccer moment, it was the sight of those mad-looking robot dandelions that kept me in night-sweats. What next? What next? I whimpered to the moon. And all too many answers flooded in. Some nights, the only way to get some sleep was to try counting Del Piero’s goal attempts, or to devise a perfect forward line for France, or to imagine discussing such matters with, say, Kevin Keegan.
You may not have allowed the bleached Romanians to get to you, but surely no one can deny that throughout this 1998 World Cup there was an altogether unsettling preoccupation with hairstyle. Maybe it was all to do with the world’s supposedly best player, Ronaldo, being hairless by his own design; or with the world’s supposedly next-best, Zidane, sporting a monkishly unashamed bald patch. Whatever the reason, hair questions were forever cropping up. The Nigerian Taribo West wore green, pineapple-style dreadlocks, Stanic of Croatia turned albino after (or was it before?) facing the Romanians. Craig Burley did the same before lining up against Morocco. There were ginger-haired Africans, scarlet-topped Asians, a Chilean who had tried for who-knew-what hue-change then bottled out, or so it seemed. Grisliest of all, perhaps, there was the spectacle afforded by Zvonimir Boban, Croatia’s wildly patriotic captain: he had a red and white ‘10’ carved into the back of his head. The visual effect was of a nasty head wound but nobody got sent off for kicking the Croatian’s skull. During the semi-final against France, I half-expected Boban to fall to the ground, clutching his bloodied-looking scalp, thus seeing to it that some Frenchman – some curly-headed Laurent Blanc, for instance – found himself heading for an early bath, or shampoo.
I don’t want to make too much of this hair thing. After all, there was a foot thing, too. Lots of players turned out in funny-coloured boots. I suppose hair and footwear are the only bits of themselves footballers can get to decorate without first securing permission from Fifa, or Adidas, or Nike. Metal attachments – nose-rings, ankle-bracelets and the like – are banned, I understand, as dangerous. After this year’s bleach assault maybe the powers that be will slap a ban on hair dye. I do hope so. And this brings me back to my what-nexts: is there a Fifa ruling against skin-dye? Imagine lining up against a team of green Bulgarians, pink Koreans, yellow Scots. This is not as outlandish as it sounds. Ron Atkinson’s on-air response to the shirt-pulling which some people seemed to think had marred so much of this World Cup was to suggest a general ban on shirts. Why don’t the players paint their shirts on, so to speak? asked Ron. Then, if they feel so inclined, they can grab handfuls of each other’s flesh. But would this not spell the end of replica merchandising, the very life-blood of the richest clubs? No, not at all: a can of Man U skin-shirt paint could retail very happily (inc. turpentine, plus VAT) at £30, I’d say.
From the very start of the World Cup, questions of personal rig-out seemed to be of central consequence. David Beckham’s Jean Paul Gaultier sarong, plus his newly blonde-streaked looks, may well have had something to do with Glenn Hoddle’s less than friendly treatment of him in England’s opening games. And this treatment may in turn have led to Beckham’s game-turning folly against Argentina. Hoddle had publicly confided that Beckham at the outset of the tournament had not been as ‘focused’ as he should have been: hence his for-the-moment exclusion from the team (‘for the crime of peroxide’, scoffed the Times). Hence perhaps the player’s general sense of grievance. And hence again, by some deep psychic route, his silly kick at Simeone’s calf. What did Hoddle mean by ‘focused’? We were never told. Thus we were able to suspect that the Spiceboy’s poncy skirt-show had been a vital factor in Glenn’s thinking. I mean, what would Alf Ramsey have said in ‘66 if a streaky-pated Bobby Charlton had been pictured in a skirt and singlet, with Little Eva (or would it have been Alma Cogan?) on his arm, bound for a night in the Riviera villa of, say, Vic Damone – or would it have been Andy Williams? Things have changed, I know, and Elton John is now a sort of minor Royal, but still . . . Something sufficiently Alf-like squats in Glenn, we’re led to feel. He likes to come across as icily on top of things but we can sense a crock of inner turmoil. And his relationship with spoken English is getting to be just like Alf’s. ‘At this moment in time’ would surely have been Ramsey’s catch-phrase, too, if it had been around in 1966.
Hoddle’s treatment of Paul Gascoigne may also have been influenced by that player’s unseemly links with showbiz, in the shape of Danny Baker, Rod Stewart and Chris Evans. Like David Beckham, Gazza seemed to believe that there were prizes more glamorous than those which were in Hoddle’s gift. He, too, was unfocused; he, too, needed to be realigned. Gazza’s expulsion was, for me, a bitter disappointment. It robbed my World Cup of what would have been its main line of suspense: will Gascoigne triumph once again, this last time, or will he foul up, once again? Will he, say, score a wonder free-kick against Colombia then stupidly get himself sent off in the next, bigger game? We’ll never know and I for one feel cheated.
Another thing we’ll never know – for which, perhaps, much thanks – is what Gazza would have done about the hair thing. After all, he has strong claims to be thought of as a pioneer of trichological neurosis. Over the years, he has been wavy, close-cropped, bald, even bewigged. When at Lazio, he appeared briefly in a Roberto Baggio-style hair-piece, or tail-piece. For Euro ‘96, he showed up with a bleached convict cut. In 1990, he warmed all English hearts by tugging at Ruud Gullitt’s dreadlocks, and some of his most ghastly japes have been to do with hair: shaving off the eyebrows of a blotto drinking pal, putting shaving foam into a team-mate’s kettle, and so on. All in all, hair troubles Gazza, as it now seems to trouble so many of his colleagues. How extra-cruel of Hoddle, then, to have excluded him from this, the hairiest of soccer tournaments. But then, Glenn’s own attitude to hair is not all that it might be, as Spurs fans who remember his Eighties perm can testify. And was he not a little mussed up just after the Romanian defeat? For Hoddle, we can easily surmise, sensible hair control signifies a correctly focused style of management. After all, had not his arch-foe, Passarella, Argentina’s team-boss, dropped one of his major stars, Redondo, because the player refused to make an appointment with the barber?
But enough of all this hair. What about the action pix? These, it must be said, were few and far between. Apart from a handful of genuinely golden moments – Bergkamp’s last-minute winner against Argentina, Njanka’s headlong dribble against Austria, Owen’s goal, of course, and the odd glimpse of Ronaldo’s fabled skills – France ‘98 was a bit of a let-down, soccerthrillwise. Or am I getting – getting? – old? The star players I adored in ‘94 and ‘90 were either absent from the scene, or they looked – even to me – well, somewhat creaky. And where were the new stars to replace them? Raul? Give me a break. Ilie? Are you serious? Owen? Let’s wait and see.
Pre-tournament, the hyped newcomers tended to be forwards. By the end, though, all the talk was of full-backs like Cafu and Thuram, of centre-halves like Blanc and Desailly, or of midfield destroyers like Davids. Once or twice, on telly, the analysts found themselves predicting that goalscorers – rather like specialist wingers, post-Ramsey – might soon be disappearing from the sport. Look at France, such analysts would say: they won the thing without a ‘recognised goalscorer’ in their team. The strikes that mattered issued from midfield or from defence. And this, it was surmised, might well be symptomatic of some general drift towards redefinition. Instead of being an attacking game, of which the chief aim is to score a lot of goals, soccer may soon turn into something else: a game in which goal-prevention is the principal objective. Goal-prevention can, of course, include fouling, time-wasting, play-acting, offside ploys and all the rest of it. In this new version of the game, the thing will be to get through 90 minutes with your goal intact, and ditto extra time. Then everyone can settle down to the penalty shoot-out, in which goal-scoring will be actively encouraged. A ‘result’ will be decided on and old-style ‘excitement’ will be made available, in concentrated format, as a kind of postscript to the main endeavour, which is, of course: ‘Getting to Penalties’.
A deadly prospect, you will say, and you’d be right. For my part, though, as a long-time casual fan of the Italians, there are occasions when I quite enjoy a stretch of thoroughly obsessed defensive play. One of my minor heroes of this World Cup was Italy’s Fabio Cannavaro, a true prince of goal-denial. This player really did protect his turf with the sort of life-or-death intensity that we routinely hope for from goal-hungry forwards. After one of his match-saving interceptions, I found myself wishing that Cannavaro would rush to the touchline and perform some crazy dance: hey, look at me! Of course he never did. Defenders don’t. Maybe they will, when soccer’s realignment is complete.