Friday, May 26, 2006

I didn't see last night's pulsating B international on account of being out watching the best new band in Britain, but I did return home in time to hear a joyless phone-in on Five Live consisting mainly of people wailing that England have no chance at the World Cup, citing as evidence a match which, once upon a time, would not even have been played in front of a paying audience, never mind broadcast live on TV and radio. Many returned to a favourite theme, that of Why Does Sven Think Owen Hargreaves Is Any Good At All?

The more pressing question, I feel, is Why Do England Fans Hate Owen Hargreaves? What has he done to them? All right, he's had some indifferent performances for England, but he's had some good ones too and when you consider that he has very rarely played in his favoured position of holding midfielder, he's done just fine (anybody critiquing his performance last night should bear in mind that he is not, in fact, a full-back). Yet nobody seems to want him anywhere near the squad. This morning I hastily convened a focus group and I have some suggestions as to how Owen Hargreaves can make himself more popular with the supporters.

Move to a Premiership club. One reason that's often put forward for Hargreaves' unpopularity is that, having played in the Bundesliga since he was a teenager, we don't see much of him and never have. Therefore, playing in England might bring its benefits, especially when you consider that any club's supporters will usually campaign for the inclusion of their best English player in the national side, regardless of how realistic this is (Villa fans can still be heard to talk of Gareth Barry as a solution to 'the left side problem'). However, given that Hargreaves is an integral part of the dominant team in German football, with which he has won the Bundesliga, the German Cup, the European Cup and the World Club Championship, the question 'Why should he?' looms large.

Become one of those showboating players that everybody is impressed by instead of being a hard-working holding midfielder. Even if he could achieve this it would be ultimately pointless. Although English fans have a romantic attachment to surging midfield players (Bobby Charlton, Bryan Robson etc) and don't really see the point in holding players, we already have more brilliant surging midfield players than we can fit in the team, so this would make Hargreaves a more popular spare part.

Make a biopic. This is an alternative solution to the problem of not knowing much about him. A movie of his life would allow fans access to the real Owen Hargreaves, recounting his journey from the Calgary foothills to the heights of footballing success. This would, unfortunately, underline a fact about Hargreaves that many England fans find uncomfortable - namely, that he is Canadian - but it would at least dispel the suspicion that he might secretly be German.

Receive honours from the Queen. This was one of a number of suggestions the group came up with to make Hargreaves appear more English (although of course, as a Canadian, he could receive honours wherever his parents came from). Other suggestions included: announce that he hates the French (except Thierry Henry); display an extensive knowledge of Carry On films; lose a semi-final (not necessarily in football, any semi-final will do); go to fight in Iraq.

Become best mates with Thierry Henry. Surely this would have some positive effect by association.

Do a self-deprecating ad campaign. You know, like those ones where Steve Davis played on the fact that everybody thinks he's boring. This could play on the public's suspicion that Hargreaves is not 'really' English: have him stand up for the wrong National Anthem or score a goal for the wrong team or something equally fucking hilarious. If the tone was right, this could endear him to English supporters by making him seem amusingly self-aware.

Cry in the middle of a big match. Surprisingly, this apparently works.

Release a pop single. This could either be a song about Owen Hargreaves a la 'I Wish I Could Play Like Charlie George' or performed by Owen Hargreaves in tribute to the glory days of Hod 'n' Wad. The record should probably not, however, be both by and about Owen Hargreaves as this might seem needlessly self-aggrandising. If successful this could prompt a bout of Hargreavesmania, accompanied by a craze for curly wigs and speaking in a curious Scouse/Canadian/vaguely German-inflected accent. It is unknown whether Hargreaves can actually sing, but the tradition of football records demonstrates this to be a very minor issue.

Score the winning goal for England in the World Cup Final. That'd fucking shut them up, wouldn't it?

Saturday, May 20, 2006

To accompany the announcement of Thierry Henry’s new contract with Arsenal, the BBC Sport website put together a page of comments about the event from various fans. Now, it’s hardly surprising that Arsenal fans have practically – in some cases, probably literally – been weeping with relief that he’s going to stay. But what’s really striking is the number of fans of other clubs who expressed their delight at his decision, and the fact that there wasn’t a single negative or even apathetic comment.

Henry is like the footballing equivalent of the Elgin Marbles: he’s not from Britain, but he’s a national treasure all the same and we’d really rather not lose him. In fact, he’s better than the Elgin Marbles because he chooses to stay here and so there isn’t the same sense of post-colonial guilt.

I don’t disagree with this mass jubilation: I’m similarly pleased that he’s staying and that we’ll still get to see him on a weekly basis. The Premiership would be a poorer spectacle if he left, and there’s surely a sneaking sense of pride that one of the world’s best players wants to play here. As well as being arguably the best footballer to have played here in decades, he’s an inspiration in terms of his attitude and I never cease to be amused by the fact that he actually does proper Gallic shrugs when he disagrees with an off-side decision. But does nobody in Britain have a bad word to say about this man?

The ex-Liverpool player Michael Robinson declared in today’s Guardian that Henry had demonstrated poor sportsmanship and a lack of dignity by complaining about the referee after the European Cup final. It’s notable, however, that Robinson did this from a safe distance, i.e. Spain. It’s obvious that he knows that such talk will not be tolerated in Britain, and so he has taken the coward’s way out, i.e. Spain. The offence might not have been so serious had he not zoned in on Henry’s dignity, when everybody knows that Henry is the most dignified footballer currently playing (admittedly this is not a hotly contested award).

Hence, I don’t expect to get much of a reaction when I ask: Does anybody not love Thierry Henry? If you don’t, leave your comments (with reasons) at the bottom, where they will be preserved for the ridicule of future visitors.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Today we host a guest column from m’colleague Jim Smith, because producing a few hundred words of bibble about football more than once a month is apparently beyond me.

The FA Cup Final is being played as I type this, we're eleven minutes in and we've just had the first of those stupid little onscreen offside flags of the game. The FA Cup Final traditionally announces the end of the domestic season and this year, as it does every four, it means that the World Cup is almost upon us. Twenty Seven days to go and already I'm sick to the back teeth of it.

Sick of the World Cup? That's a bit out of character for me, surely? No, not a bit of it, because I'm not sick of the World Cup at all. I'm sick of people moaning about the World Cup. You know what I mean, the endless bleating we're subjected to whenever an international tournament is on the horizon. The petty whinging and broadsheet editorialising that accompanies the imminence of the premier international football tournament.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that everyone should be anticipating the World Cup with the same relish that I am. I'm not even suggesting that everyone should like football (never mind international football – there are of course those die-hard fans for whom club will always hold the only interest). Both of those positions would be rather dumb. All I'm suggesting is that people who don't like might like to get over themselves and stop moaning because the world, and particularly the television schedules, are not exactly as they wish them to be at all times. Aww diddums.

You know what I do with things I don't like, even with things I actively dislike? I ignore them. Do you know what happens then? They go away. No, really, they do. More Winter Olympics than I can count, decades worth of EastEnders and Coronation Street, Casualty and Last of the Summer Wine, not to mention the entire sport of rugby and the whole Da Vinci Code phenomenon have entirely passed me by due to my simple tactic of not taking any notice of them when they're mentioned. I don't climb astride my metaphorical high horse and attempt to browbeat admirers of these particular things with my own withering scorn, the irate product of my own lack of interest in such things.

England apparently managed to win the Rugby World Cup (or whatever the rugby tournament is called) a couple of years ago (I honestly don't know how many, not being interested and all that) and not once did I complain about the sport's dominance of the news in that period. Not even when a parade of players through the streets messed up public transport in London and severely damaged some plans I had for what should have been a very enjoyable afternoon out. Do you know why? Because I am, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, a grown up and I understand that some people like things I don't – such as drinking mild, reading Harry Potter books, wearing short trousers and tolerating the presence of dogs to name but four.

It's a peculiar propensity of members of the English middle classes to assume something that they (we) don't like is inherently 'wrong' rather than 'not to one's taste'. This usually expresses itself via a claim, overt or veiled, that the person who doesn't like the ostensibly popular thing is 'oppressed' by that thing's cultural omnipresence. This smug myopia is inevitably the underlying subtext of the attitudes of people who pen columns or articles mocking the World Cup (and especially those who allow their, let's face it remarkably active, lack of interest to infect places that it has absolutely no business to be – Mil Millington's 'Space' column in today's Guardian, for example). Such people usually have not the faintest notion of what oppression actually is, they probably think it's a bit like 'political correctness gone mad' or 'jumping the shark'. (Two phrases which, should one hear an adult use the without irony surely make it impossible to take anything that person say seriously ever again.)

Yes, the childish nationalism which is ill-expressed by followers of World Cup sides from all countries can be distasteful, but concentrating on that over the sport itself misses the point and is probably a deliberate mistake made by the above-mentioned to bolster their own pseudo moral arguments. Rampant nationalism is, I agree, as crass as it is dull, as unnecessary as it is thoughtless, but the argument is largely there to obscure the fact that their whole point is a lot of ill-thought through, self-indulgent muttering about something they don't like being a bit more popular than something they do.

Most football fans I know would watch, and indeed are watching, the tournament regardless of whether or not their own nation has qualified, or has the faintest breath of a chance of lifting the trophy - and besides which, have you ever been in an area full of roaring cricket fans? Such displays are not limited to what Pele called, with absolute perspicacity, 'the global game'. International football is about the football rather than the nations. Only people with no knowledge of the latter fail to understand that. Unfortunately, they persist in foisting this, perhaps deliberate, misapprehension on the rest of us, being holier than thou as they do so.

If you don't like what's on TV, then switch off and do something else (it’s not as if there’s generally much on over the summer anyway – and the coverage is almost entirely confined to BBC1 and ITV, which are rarely the favoured channels of World Cup whiners). Turn to a different page of the newspaper if you don't want to read about football in the sports section and ignore the sport related gossip in 'Heat' and the tabloids. Better still, don't read 'Heat' or the tabloids at all and go and read a decent book in the sunshine instead.

Trust me, it works. Give it a try.

The views in this article are not necessarily those of Middle Class Football Fan. Although, actually, they pretty much are.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Of course, nobody will believe me now, but in the past week it did briefly drift through my mind that Theo Walcott might be a potential replacement for Rooney at the World Cup. However, my next thought was “Naaaah”, so I can only claim to have been marginally less surprised than the rest of the country at his selection yesterday. Even so, I can see exactly why Sven has made this choice and I’ll happily stick my neck out and say that he has done the right thing.

The main reason Sven has given is a sound one: Walcott has pace and pace is what England will need against the top-class sides at the World Cup. Our two quickest strikers are both carrying injuries and Sven needed to find a player who can do what they do. The endless replays of Walcott’s five (count ’em) goals for Southampton provide at least some evidence that he can. The fact that Arsene Wenger hasn’t played him yet is no reflection on his talent, but says more about Wenger’s patient approach to management and the numerous alternatives at Arsenal (with question marks over the future of Henry and Bergkamp – have a happy 37th birthday tomorrow, Dennis – he could well get his chance next year).

Although sound claims have been made for Jermain Defoe and Darren Bent, ultimately you don’t look at either of them and think ‘world class player’, whereas you look at Walcott and think ‘potential world class player’, which is better than nothing. The England squad is only a meritocracy up to a point: sometimes you don’t take the best players available, but the players who might win you matches. Hence the inclusion of Peter Crouch, whose form this season has been variable, but who is difficult to play against and can unsettle defences. And yes, I know you don’t look at Crouch and think ‘world class player’ either: I might have taken Defoe instead, but both have suffered fluctuating form this season and Crouch has the advantage of not being very similar to Michael Owen but not quite as good, unlike Defoe.

However, with Rooney unlikely to make the tournament and a question mark over Michael Owen’s fitness, I do think we need to take Defoe regardless. We don’t want to be in a situation where Owen’s injury recurs halfway through the first match and we’re left starting Walcott and Crouch up front in every game. Unless it looks like Rooney is likely to be fit for the knock-out stage, I’d drop him for Defoe. Odd that nobody is wondering where Emile Heskey is in all this.

For an encore, I will now go on to defend the selection of Owen Hargreaves, who for some reason only me and Sven think is a good player. Personally I think he doesn’t get much credit because he plays in Germany (which is a small asset in itself at this World Cup) and we don’t see enough of him to get excited. I’ve always been impressed by his workrate for England, he’s finished the season strongly for Bayern Munich and, crucially, he’s a good utility player. You always need a couple of those at a World Cup, and between them Hargreaves and Jamie Carragher can cover injuries across most of the outfield. Compare to Shaun Wright-Phillips, who does a specific thing very well – and has unfortunately lost out to a man who is playing more regularly and impressively than him, Aaron Lennon. That’s the risk of moving to Chelsea, I suppose.

I think that, with this being Sven’s last tournament with England, he’s decided that he doesn’t want to go out of it the way that he went out of the last two, being lambasted for his caution. He’s been dealt a bad hand, with the player he needs the most getting injured at a crucial moment, and he’s decided he’d rather take a gamble on an exciting player than pick a worthy but uninspiring alternative. Given the flack that’s been aimed his way in the past few years, I frankly don’t blame him. Or maybe I’m just too sentimental about the World Cup and like the idea of an untried kid being the hero of the hour: if so, I would like to be permitted to live in my happy little world until England get dumped out on their arses.