World Cup Review: Part 1 – The Group Stages
The tournament started with a riot of goals and riots in the streets. Protests around social conditions were followed up with protests over Adrian Chiles’ presenting skills, which resulted in the studio being pelted with rocks. Welcome to our world, Brazil.
Matters came to a head when Chiles presented a show in shorts and flip-flops.
Brazil got the obligatory homer referee for their opening game against Croatia and the goals continued to flow until Iran and Nigeria ruined it all not only by failing to score, but by providing the tournament with its first draw after five days of games.
FIFA themselves were embroiled in scandal, as is their natural state of existence – and as usual they swanned about the host country like royalty. Sepp Blatter was carried around in a sedan chair as specially chosen children from the favelas fanned him with gold-plated coconut leaves, whilst all the FIFA delegates relaxed in 5-star hotels, ate only the finest food and wines known to humanity and took advantage of the many spurious laws that FIFA impose during a world cup competition. These included:
• Sepp Blatter to be addressed at all times as “your excellency”.
• A masseur to follow three steps behind FIFA delegates at all times.
• Budweiser to be the only alcoholic drink to be consumed by Brazilians during the month of June.
• The FIFA logo to be projected by laser onto the moon for the duration of the competition.
• Bendy hot-dogs branded illegal as they went against “the ethos and ideals” of the FIFA family.
• Set times for tides.
• A 75ft statue of Sepp Blatter to be erected outside the Maracana made entirely from hardened zero-fat cottage cheese.
• All team kits to be one matching colour (oh hang on, that one’s true)
The truth is not far from that. After all, FIFA has trademarked nearly 200 words and phrases for its exclusive commercial use. However, for once the locals have fought back. Having served up acarajé (a dish made from peeled black-eyed peas formed into a ball and then deep-fried in palm oil) in the old stadium in Salvador for many decades, the sellers were shocked to be excluded from the vendors selected for the new stadium. So they started a high-profile campaign to force FIFA to allow the custom to continue. And they won.
During the six matches at the stadium, there will be six acarajé sellers on the stadium grounds. A ripple effect from this victory means local customs are now being accommodated in and around World Cup More than 16,000 people signed a petition. Local politicians, stung by the demonstrations, became visibly more careful of local sensitivities. In the city of Recife, eight tapioca sellers (a pancake made from the cassava plant, typically served with cheese, meat, chocolate or fruit) will be based just inside the entrance to the shiny new stadium. Take that FIFA.
It was another horror show in the commentary boxes of Brazil. Jonathan Pearce started it off, struggling to deal with the concept of a ball crossing the goal-line and the use of video technology to show this, the ball crossing the line a central concept of the sport since its birth in the 19th century. Do catch up Jonathan. To make matters worse, after a national outcry and questions asked about his competence in the House of Commons (and on Mumsnet), Pearce exacerbated his error by continuing the theme in his next commentary by continuing to claim that the technology had not worked and had created a controversy.
We should have left him on Robot Wars.
Things weren’t much better elsewhere. Some executive had the bright idea of inviting Robbie Savage into the commentary box, where he had a tendency to shout a lot and sound exasperated at every missed pass. Then of course there was Phil Neville, who single-handedly sent a nation to sleep with his vocal cords. He did us all a favour as England succumbed to Italy.
The worst of the lot though, again, was Mark Lawrenson, who in the early days of the tournament seemed to be residing under a canal bridge judging by his on-screen appearance. Eventually he got his s**t together, but once more Mark seemed rather inconvenienced at being paid handsomely to commentate on a match in the Maracana.
The questions over Wayne Rooney’s place in the team/fitness/hair provided the most tedious narrative of the campaign, making Wesley Sneijder/Manchester United transfer speculation seem almost exciting in comparison. In the end he was of course ok and nothing more – fancy that.
A knackered-looking Spain bowed out after just two games, their performances so bad they were on the plane home before England. Not long before however, as England limped out after a 2-1 defeat to Uruguay and the world continued to bemoan the lack of Englishmen in City’s title-winning squad. In the end, it was the England players’ lack of gusto when singing the national anthem that did for them. I mean, there were Ivory Coast players literally crying during their anthem.
Ivory Coast went out in the group stages.
With Harry “honest as the day is long*” Redknapp spreading rumours that some players couldn’t even be bothered playing for their country, Ian Wright very sensibly suggested that each of those players should have to phone the parents of a soldier killed in Afghanistan to explain themselves.
“Hi, is that Mrs Smith?”
“Sorry to bother you, but this is Andros Townsend, I pulled out of an England friendly against Peru last year to be with my heavily-pregnant partner and I’d like to apologise profusely and explain my actions.”
“Right..erm..I’m not sure this is really relevant to me, and it’s not a good time to be honest….”
“Yes I appreciate that, but I think it a fitting punishment for my indiscretion that I explain to a complete stranger why I did what I did in full and I think it fitting I explain to someone currently grieving who has no interest in football whatsoever…”
“Hello… Mrs Smith…hello…”
There is obviously no downside to this idea, and I can’t think of any way it could backfire. I also happen to think the moon is made of cheese and Piers Morgan is a bloody nice chap.
(* an Arctic winter day)
Scapegoats were needed of course for England’s abject failure, but on this occasion the choice was too wide to zero in on one person and there were no relevant vegetables to super-impose on Roy Hodgson’s head. Thankfully redemption came, and it came in the form of a gritty 0-0 draw with the pre-tournament favourites Costa Rica. The England players could get on that plane back from Rio with their heads held high – the bulldog spirit had shone through and we almost had a penalty. Sadly the passion presented by the players was not replicated back home, a solitary person turning up at the airport to greet our heroes’ return, and she may have been waiting for someone else.
City’s players haven’t had the best of tournaments, Dzeko Mk II out in force for the tournament though he was robbed by yet another incompetent linesman in the game against Nigeria. David Silva looked knackered but Fernandinho took just a couple of minutes to show his manager what the rest of the world already knew – he’s a tad better than Paulinho. By the end of the match against Cameroon, he had become the first City player to score at the tournament, a historically rare occurrence for City players (remember Niall Quinn’s?).
By the end of the group stage, half of City’s contingent were on their way home, half survived to fight another day. The survivors were soon reduced by one however as the patently unfit Sergio Aguero was effectively ruled out of the tournament.
rejects players littered the tournament. Demarcus Beasley appeared for the USA, whilst gorgeous Giorgios Samaras, fresh from Eurovision glory, kept his nerve to steer Greece into the knockout stage. There was Nigel De Jong of course, who managed to kick no one in the chest this time around (the day is young, so to speak). Add to that Jerome Boateng, Felipe Caicedo, Kolo and others I may have forgotten (deliberately).
The Toure brothers were hit with a fresh blow after Kolo had shaken off malaria with their news that their younger brother had passed away after a fight with cancer. They bravely stayed on at the tournament. This wasn’t good enough for some people, and nor would it have been good enough if they had flown home. The knives were out for a man that had said something unsuitable having just lost his younger brother. Compassion is in short supply in the modern world. The truth will out and accusations and opinions can then be formed, but now is not the time.
But on the whole, this was a tournament full of joy. Such was the joy at participating in this wonderful tournament that players were throwing themselves to the ground at every opportunity, overcome with emotion. The crowd was even more excitable. A camera panning on a fan’s painted face was enough to cue mass hysteria and scenes reminiscent of a royal wedding, their team losing 4-0 to Iran now a mere irrelevance, replaced by seven seconds of fame. The true stars were of course the England fans and the reason was simple – they refused point-blank to participate in any Mexican waves.
As for the officiating, it was poor, poor, poor.
Luis Suarez encountered more hunger issues as he nibbled on Chiellini’s shoulder as Uruguay dumped Italy out of the competition, the buck-toothed nutcase clearly under the impression that chiellini is a delicious pasta dish from Bologna. That was not dandruff on the Italian’s shoulders, but shaved flakes of Parmigiano-Reggiano. That’s nothing short of entrapment.
As a result of his subsequent four-month ban, Suarez has now been banned for 34 matches since 2010 without having received a red card. His ban from all football activity means he cannot even play Superstar Soccer on his HTC One. Brutal.
In the end the group stages were less about skill winning through than teams profiting from playing in cooler climes than others. Of the eight teams that played in Manaus for their 1st game, seven lost the next game. European giants (and England) fell at the first hurdle, and the world prepared for the excitement of the knockout stage with no outstanding candidate for the ultimate prize.
But first – Friday 27th June. Black Friday. Nothing, no football, not a thing.
The day football died.
You can buy the author’s Manchester City Season Review books here (and one very old work of fiction):