Thursday 13 December 2018

Boys and girls come out to play on the potholed pitches of football punditry

Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

Alex Scott, who has played 140 times for the England women's football team, was on the BBC panel analysing Colombia v Japan, which Japan had just won 2-1 .

She made the point that when the game was at 1-1, the Colombia manager had been brave in his substitutions, sending on attacking players even though Colombia had had a man sent off early. She suggested that if the manager had been more cautious, perhaps bringing on more defensive players, holding on to what he'd got instead of trying to win the game, it might have been the wiser course.

Sitting immediately to her left, Phil Neville made the point that when the game was at 1-1, the Colombia manager had been brave in his substitutions, sending on attacking players even though Colombia had had a man sent off early. He suggested that if the manager had been more cautious, perhaps bringing on more defensive players, holding on to what he'd got instead of trying to win the game, it might have been the wiser course.

It seemed like a text-book case of the ancient practice - whereby a woman makes a contribution to a conversation which is disregarded, only to find that a man makes the same contribution later on, and is hailed not just as a fine fellow but an original thinker. In the most troubling cases, he may even be hailing himself.

It requires a special technique whereby the man is somehow paying attention to what the woman is saying, and yet is completely ignoring her. Though it was a somewhat unusual feature of the Neville intervention, that he took the woman's line and made it his own, directly after she had spoken.

A more accomplished operator might have bided his time before making his move. But Neville was apparently so keen to display his knowledge - or rather, her knowledge - he just piled in without hesitation.

As is now mandatory, he was brought before the court of Twitter, and found guilty - massively so, though in a more forgiving world which does not exist any more, he might have been able to construct some sort of a defence.

For a start, Phil Neville is a very boring man - indeed during the 2014 World Cup, some 440 viewers contacted the BBC to say that he was just too boring to be on television.

It's a hard one to call, and you wouldn't want to be calling it on Twitter - but (in theory at least) a case can be made that his offence, though egregious, was rooted not just in his deafness to the voices of women, but in his overwhelming dullness as a human being, which naturally leads him to repeat what he has heard, because he can't think of anything else to say.

Moreover in the dark trade of the football pundit, long before the voice of women was heard, there were only about three men in the world anyway with original opinions, and two of them were John Giles. The rest of them would put in their shifts just making noises that they'd heard someone else making.

So are we saying here that Neville was just being the boring repetitive pundit which he would have been anyway, regardless of whether he was sitting beside a woman, with all that that implies?

Well, yes and no.

Well, no.

It is still too early in this great experiment for the football men to be regarding the female pundit sitting next to them with the same sense of relaxation that they feel in the presence of their own kind. Thus Patrice Evra on ITV was so impressed by Eniola Aluko's analysis of Costa Rica v Serbia that he ostentatiously applauded her, instantly finding himself before the court of Twitter, guilty of being patronising to Aluko, who has played 102 games for England.

In mitigation - if there was such a thing - Evra might be seen as something of a French eccentric, a trait which he seems anxious to advertise by favouring a bow tie and jumper combination.

If he is capable of that - the argument went - perhaps he lives so far outside society's norms, he cannot be judged in conventional terms.

John Terry can be judged though, for posting an Instagram message that he was watching Portugal v Morocco with no volume, a match which - wouldn't you just know it? - had Vicki Sparks becoming the first woman to do a live commentary of a World Cup game on British television. But "JT" had his reasons too, in theory at least. He later explained that he'd just got home from the Maldives to find that there was "no audio working in the house whatsoever."

Great save, JT, great save.

All the same it is a terrible fault in football men, that we can still be embarrassing ourselves in these ways, in our dealings with women who know and love the game as much as we do. This is not the MacGill Summer School here.

We're better than that…

What England’s World Cup tells us about Brexit

After the first week there was a consensus that this is a very bad World Cup. There was also a consensus that this is a very good World Cup. And personally I’m going with the good vibe.

But really I don’t recognise these distinctions, this state of mind whereby you can be watching three games of football a day and you can be thinking: “You know what? This is bad”.

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Harry Kane

Moreover it is so self-evidently good, it hardly needs to be stated that “this is good”. And even if it is not technically “good” in whatever way you choose to define that, you are always aware that it might very well get “good” at any moment — let us never forget one of the first principles of the game, that we are not necessarily there just to enjoy ourselves.

If that was the case, then those of us who went to see Athlone Town on so many of the days of our precious youth might somehow be looking back at all that, and doubting ourselves.

And into which category — good or bad — could you possibly put the story of England at this or indeed any other World Cup? Some things are just beyond good and bad, but they are deeply absorbing anyway.

Do I give a damn if England are playing “good” football as long as they are out there doing whatever the hell they think they are doing? Not at all, because I am looking for other things, for these revelations of an entire culture which emerge from the England performance at a major football tournament, every time.

This time of course, it is all about Brexit.

There are about 100,000 irrefutable arguments against Brexit, but the one that is better than all the rest of them put together, is the England football team.

It represents what is left when you take away the foreign influences which have made the English Premier League the most successful sporting phenomenon of the age.

They are good lads — Harry Kane and Jordan Henderson and John Stones and Kyle Walker — but dear God they are a whole lot better when they are part of the multi-cultural arrangements which have reached their apogee in English club football.

Without all those immigrants who are usually in the picture, the England team just looks a bit weird, a bit lost, like they’ve wandered in from the 20th Century, and are not sure how things work these days.

It is clearly of the utmost importance for all of us — but chiefly for themselves — that they do not succeed.

Why consensus isn’t working in Euphemism City

Another consensus that isn’t working out too well, is the one that Russia would be rubbish — “the lowest ranked team in the tournament” was a popular line, as was “the worst ever Russia team”.

Which may or may not have been true, prior to the event, but then it seemed to escape the attention of the finest minds in sports commentary, that this is, well, Russia. And that Russian athletes who may not be very good during certain phases of their careers, can suddenly become quite outstanding.

I remember when the tournament was originally bought by Russia, the prospect of some serious performance-enhancement on the part of the host nation was a given. Yet somehow in the meantime we let that one get away from us, with some supposedly intelligent people even suggesting that Putin is a Winter Olympics man who “doesn’t care about football” — leaving aside the fact that Putin doesn’t care about anything.

And now all the talk is of the Russia players being “tireless”, and “fiercely energetic”, and “full of running”.

A special attraction of this tournament is these venues in places such as Nizhny Novgorod, unknown to most of us, creating this impression that it is being played in some other dimension.

But by the time this Russia side has run their race, all commentaries will be coming from Euphemism City.

VAR would have saved us from Henry injustice

Of all the foolishness that is spoken about VAR, the least acceptable is the one about the video replay taking away some essential element of controversy — the uproar that a poor refereeing decision can generate, the arguments long into the night which football people are supposed to love. 

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A videograb of the handball by France's Thierry Henry which directly led to France's equalising goal

But, in fact, we don’t love those arguments, we hate them. We don’t love those controversies, we hate them.

Two words: Thierry Henry.

If we’d had VAR in 2009, the trauma of that event would have lasted for perhaps 90 seconds — which admittedly seems like a long time when there’s a game going on, but which is considerably less than the nine years which have elapsed since then, during which we have contemplated the extent of our loss.

So then, 90 seconds or nine years?

It’s a tough one alright.

Sunday Independent

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