Everything you need to know about the shebang in South Africa
When Eric Cantona was eight, he wept as his beloved Holland lost the 1974 World Cup final to Franz Beckenbauer’s West Germany.
The Marsellais legend’s romance with Dutch football began with Cruyff, Total Football and Ajax and ran so deep that in the summer of 1981, when the Netherlands played France in a crucial World Cup qualifier, he prayed for French defeat. As Philippe Auclair notes in his seminal biography Cantona The Rebel Who Would Be King, Eric was “Marsellais first, footballer second, Frenchman a distant third.”
As the hype mounts, the cash-ins promoted by high-tech Arthur Daleys (“Pssst, wanna buy a football-shaped telly?” Er, no thanks) multiply in our inboxes and FIFA’s No.2 blazer Jerome Valcke tries to convince us he knows more about striking a football than such no-marks as Kaka, it is easy to forget what a joyous, transcendent experience a World Cup is.
Even the bad ones produce moments that have a globally resonant, melodramatic power that would take a director like James Cameron billions of dollars and years of hard labour to match.
Ernst Happel’s backsideAnd unlike Leo and Kate on the prow of the Titanic, these moments don’t turn stale through time and repetition. Maradona’s slalom against England in 1986 looks more stupendous the more often you watch it.
We will all have our own moments. Some are obvious (Roger Milla’s wiggle). Some are idiosyncratic: for me the whole of Bulgaria 2 West Germany 1 in USA 94 is a treasured memory, far more emotionally satisfying than England’s mediocre ‘vengeance’ over the Germans at Euro 2000. And some are obscure but enduring (Austrians of a certain age will never forget Ernst Happel passing the ball with his bum against Switzerland in 1954).
It doesn’t matter what our moments are; the point is they live with us and we wouldn’t have them if it wasn’t for the World Cup.
The true meaning of 2010 might not be clear until 2030. We won’t know till then which watching youngsters, like Cantona in 1974, have been forced – by tears or joy – to conclude that their lives will not be complete until they too play on such a stage.
It sounds painfully obvious to say that the best way to enjoy these finals is to focus on the football, but it’s easy to have your tournament polluted by the foul dust that surrounds the game. There's the cheesy marketing: is it just me or does everyone watching Barnesy’s Mars advert fear he’s about to keel over clutching his chest?.
There's the headline-grabbing pontificating: will the World Cup cost the British economy a billion in lost productivity – or make it a billion in sales of lager, flags and patriotic confectionery? My answer: Ask someone who gives a toss.
And there's the moronic inferno of the media: the absence of WAGs, once lauded by those who felt it was time England got serious about winning World Cups, is now being mourned by editors worried that their coverage will turn off Femail (sic) readers in droves.
The Princess and the Three LionsCare to guess the headline on the front of the Daily Mirror on the Monday after England won the World Cup? “A BOUNCING BABY GIRL FOR PRINCESS ALEX”.
Yup, as Tim de Lisle notes in an intriguing essay in the latest Intelligent Life magazine, for Britain’s most popular tabloid “winning the World Cup was not as big as the birth of Marina Ogilvy, the Queen’s first cousin once removed”.
How times have changed. Mostly for the better. My addiction to squad profiles has spun out of control (I especially recommend Gabriele Marcotti’s pithy, forensic verdicts in The Times preview) as I try and categorise the teams: Unknown Quantities, Dark Horses, Flattering To Deceive, Racing Certainties and so on.
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Such rampant nerdiness was interrupted briefly by the sight of James Corden on the front cover of The Times' World Cup supplement and the headline “Smithy and me”. (And no, it’s not a celebritous confrontation with Alan ‘Smudger’ Smith.)
There are many questions England fans will be asking before the action starts. How many sitters will Emile Heskey miss? Can we finally write off the Germans? And, top of the list, can a central defender with almost no cartilage last the tournament? At the very bottom of that list, I’d suggest not even in the top zillion, is how the bloke out of Gavin & Stacey feels.
To save you the time, the answer is: a bit funny because people confuse him with Smithy, his alter ego in Gavin & Stacey. The piece has its funny moments, but given that at this very moment his cheerful, anthemic unofficial World Cup anthem Shout is hurtling to No1 faster than an Arjen Robben free-kick, it seems an odd complaint. If you’ve striven so desperately to jump on to a bandwagon, it seems perverse, at the moment of landing, to turn around, throw a hissy fit and shout: “Stop the bandwagon I want to get off!”
Having advised everyone to focus on the football, I've been sidetracked by Smithy. Which, in a roundabout and utterly inconsistent way, proves my point. It is so easy to be taken in by the sideshows when the main event is upon us.Cantona famously never played in the World Cup finals but the wayward genius will, I’m sure, be watching. He certainly won’t be rooting for Raymond Domenech’s France – or Dunga’s Gradgrindian Brazil.
If I had to hazard a guess, I’d argue that, as a footballer, he’ll be cheering on his old love Holland (Perennial Underachievers, Dark Horses and, given their record of squabbling themselves out of contention, also an Unknown Quantity). But he might be grudgingly chuffed if Spain did the business.
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