Dead Rubber: England’s Ground Zero

 

The lads

The lads

England have failed once more. In a novel variation on a theme, they’ve done it as quickly as they possibly could this time. Costa Rica provided a merciful bolt to the head, putting them down completely by beating Italy, meaning the English have nothing to play for against Costa Ricans who have nothing left to do. England will contest a pointless match, nothing more than a perfunctory act of clerical necessity. The ignominy of ignominies. The stark rubble of ground zero. They will try to win. We must accept with pained grace that they try. Some things just need to fail.

What team will Roy Hodgson play? There is clamour to unleash youth, a desperate torrent of subdued promise to flush away the filth. Offer opportunity, such as it is, to Ross Barkley, Luke Shaw, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. A sweetly-fragranced unguent to apply gingerly to the gaping exit wound. Players will need to make way for the cause, and one of them may well be Steven Gerrard, likely to retire from international football after the tournament, leaving him on 113 England appearances. Frank Lampard, so far an unused substitute, has made 105. The owners of a combined 218 caps could end up sitting on the bench together as their international careers come to an end. it would make for a sad end if it wouldn’t be so devastatingly appropriate.

Behold, two international careers that have dovetailed with such pointless synchronicity, petering out with trademark frustration. The final vestiges of a Golden Generation for which no amount of inverted commas will ever contain the requisite irony. While so many peers to have won 100+ caps for their countries have been around long enough to grasp triumph – Thuram, Buffon, Cafu, Xavi, Pirlo – England’s raft of recent centurions have departed only with regrets. David Beckham, Ashley Cole, now Gerrard and Lampard – all will remain tainted by the cumbersome label that earmarked them for greatness, but only weighed them down.

Let them die as they lived. Sit Gerrard and Lampard together on the same bench, competing over the same space for one last time, a tragic final encore of their greatest hit. If it sounds harsh, it’s because it needs to be, for the perverse benefit of the generation to follow.

Let the youngsters witness what it’s like to flounder completely, make them see what failure truly looks like. Two indisputably fine players reduced to ash. Monoliths of their domestic game: an internecine duopoly on the world stage. Then, only then, might a generation of England players emerge, blinking in the harshness that only fresh light can bring, and realise what it means to be a part of this team. Only then might they seek not to play for England, and everything that has now come to mean, but to play for playing’s sake. To play for the lost and pure pursuit of fun. Because no matter what Frankie and Stevie will insist, the first dozen memories of England they will ever have on any given day won’t be ones of fun. They will carry this burden, and this will be their true legacy.

218 wasted caps. Don’t let that be you, boys. Don’t let that be you.

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Who Is Your Chris Waddle?

Chris Waddle

Chris Waddle has angered people with his opinions again. The recently retired David Beckham, England’s Rose, has been the subject of a savage broadside from this former yeoman of the mullet, who has declared that the former Preston North End winger wouldn’t make his list of the top 1,000 Premiership players of all time.

Waddle has form for this, having once angered Arsenal fans for suggesting that Theo Walcott has no footballing brain. He will only continue to dispense such savage barbs as he persistently throws himself elbow-first into the most fragile of footballing discourse, in the vain hope that it will divert attention from an underwhelming media career. His greatest contribution to the world of football analysis thus far has been his consistent mispronunciation of the word penalty as ‘pelanty’. Does he do this because he’s melanty ill? No. Like everything provocative he ever says, he does it for a good reason, and I must confess – I suspect I am that reason. You see, on some cosmic level, though he may not realise it, Waddle has a point to prove to me.

As a child discovering football, the first thing I ever learnt about him was that he once missed a penalty (perhaps this was the psychological trigger for his tragic speech impediment?) in pretty much the worst way possible. The second thing I learnt about him was that he had an amusing name, thanks to The Fast Show reducing it to a comic staple. The third thing was that he had an electrifying screen presence in that Pizza Hut advert he did with Stuart Pearce and Gareth Southgate. In my mind, these factors had rendered him a laughing stock, and anything he had ever done would forever be viewed through the prism of my relative youth and my perception of his flaws. For me, he was never a good player and never could be considered as such. This was before I’d even heard of Diamond Lights. It’s a harsh system, but that’s just the way it works.

So it’s no wonder that Waddle continues to court controversy. He’s a former lothario frustrated by his own impotence, a man whose former relevance is brought into sharper relief with the passing of time, no longer capable of captivating interest as he once did. He knows he’s a joke to people like me, people too young to truly acknowledge his former glories. According to the man himself in this interview, he may have been one game away from winning the 1991 Ballon D’Or. Now he is a joke, a relic of the past, a dull fart squeaking through the slack buttocks of a slumbering geriatric. The anti-Beckham invective is his way of reminding the world of football that he once used to be one if it’s leading dramatis personae. He is the embodiment of every 40-something Sunday league footballer who boasts of his former relevance, deluding himself by boring those around him with sad tales of what should’ve been, if only the world had taken greater notice of their majesty.

Everyone has a player like this, a player for whom it’s inconceivable that he ever once possessed divine talent. There are some children who are yet to be born who will one day see a washed-up, clapped-out Lionel Messi sluggishly going through the motions for Atletico Madrid and laugh at the fact that if this clown can win a Ballon D’or, then even QPR’s Brooklyn Beckham must surely have a shot of winning it eventually.

Every football fan has a Chris Waddle. We all identify a former great by the schadenfreude-tinged footnotes that have appended themselves to an erstwhile glittering career. Waddle may have been idolised at Tottenham, and excelled abroad in a way that so few Englishmen have before or since, and been a match away from being the world’s best in his heyday. To me, he will always be some unfortunate, Frank Spencerish footballing harlequin, stumbling and bumbling from missed penalty to comedy sketch to Pizza Hut advert, always and forever, irrevocably trapped in the role my adolescent brain prescribed him. Nothing he can ever do or say will ever change that. Ulmitately he has paid the pelanty. Chris Waddle will always be my ‘Chris Waddle’. Who is yours?

RGSOAS Advent Calendar #16: David Beckham’s Next Move

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It’s a column on what David Beckham should do next!

Beckham

David Beckham has left us all on a cliffhanger. Still the planet’s most famous footballer, he is currently without a club, as a string of suitors straighten their ties and smooth down cowlicks in nervous dalliance with the man with the star power they so crave.

Bookmakers have been busy offering odds on his next destination, with Queen’s Park Rangers, Monaco and Paris St Germain the affluent favourites. China’s Shanghai Shenhua and Australia’s Melbourne Heart represent two burgeoning outposts eager for the intangible sweetness of global brand recognition. Two of the more curious names cropping up are teams from the USA: New York Red Bulls and New York Cosmos. Surely only making up the numbers, nobody seems to believe the latter two to be plausible options, since Becks has said goodbye to the States after all. Right?

The David Beckham American boxset has already encompassed such dramatic story arcs as the hyped arrival, the Milan sojourns, the fans revolt, the injury, the MLS Cup wins, and the emotional farewell. But perhaps there is still time for one more sweeping narrative? Before the Hollywood ending, a Hollywood plot twist befitting football’s leading dramatis persona.

If he were to stay in the States and join another team – more to the point, another franchise – it could give Major League Soccer a further fillip. It seems obvious to say that the league would be keen to keep him at a time when global financial forces line up to entice him, but he could yet offer something different at the very denouement of his celebrated career. Why? Because of the lure of the storyline. The man from Hollywood knows a thing or two about drama by now, so he might consider doing something new by bringing something British to the party – some beef.

The back story is there: the frenzied delight of Beckham’s transfer to LA Galaxy quickly crumbling into injury-stilted frustration, before loan moves and England friendlies drew a very public castigation from team-mate Landon Donovan. An increasingly fractious relationship with the club’s supporters culminated in some embarrassing encounters with fans, until he set about regaining their faith when he snapped his Achilles, broke down in tears as he cursed his broken dream of a final World Cup, and convalesced with their sympathy. With nowhere else to go, he would make the Galaxy his sole focus, and eventually delivered two MLS Cup triumphs. But some fans still would not accept him, not truly, and see the two closing MLS Cup wins as proof of what could’ve been achieved sooner had Beckham not pursued his Italian career breaks.

So what if, taking into account this story of hollow promises and grudging redemption, Beckham decided to join a rival team?

Shortly after starting life in LA, I recall his embarrassment in a Sky Sports interview when he admitted that one of the Galaxy’s sponsors would lavish the fans with free chicken to celebrate home victories. Since then, his attempts at bowdlerising North America’s brand of soccer have been far-reaching. Seven new teams have joined an increasingly competitive league since his arrival, and the man himself has the option to own one in future. The expansion fee for joining the league has risen by 300%. Television revenue and attendances have also risen exponentially, as has the average player salary. The salary cap-circumventing Designated Player stipulation is more commonly known as ‘The Beckham Rule’. He even changed the colour of the Galaxy’s home kit.

Such alterations have made the game more recognisable to the game’s Euro-centric, and the MLS has become a more attractive proposition for the likes of Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane and Tim Cahill. Beckham may yet feel that one thing the game is still missing Stateside is the sort of tribalism and sporting animosity that he has witnessed in close quarters. A country so vast in size may never be able to recreate quite the same intensity of such relatively parochial feuds as Manchester United versus Manchester City, Real Madrid versus Barcelona, or AC Milan versus Inter. But if anyone or anything can manufacture such money-spinning conflict, it would be David Beckham, backed by the USA’s very own hype machine. The LA Riot Squad might well react to their boy joining a rival team with the sort of lucrative ire that, as per the diktat of Brand Beckham, would only be good for business.

If he were to go to Australia or China to see how the Beckham Effect can catalyse interest in another of the world’s more obscure leagues, it may well taint the legacy of his efforts in the States. If his agenda is purely to see how he can make money out of previously uncharted markets, then he may be remembered as little more than a footballing tribute to the Harlem Globetrotters, peddling his wares in exhibition matches motivated by commercial enterprise rather than sporting contest. If Beckham really wants to cement his American legacy, he could do worse than by really demonstrating commitment – not to LA Galaxy, but to Major League Soccer.

By reminding everyone that he did indeed go to the States to change the landscape of the game, he can furnish American soccer with the veneer of legitimacy it desired when he arrived. To enter LA a hero and leave as a villain – what could be more Hollywood than that?