Wednesday 23 January 2019

By now, the writing is on the wall - or at least it's on the World Cup wallchart

Declan Lynch’s World Cup Diary
Declan Lynch’s World Cup Diary

Declan Lynch's World Cup Diary

In the film Invictus, the fictional Nelson Mandela was starting to get absorbed in the Rugby World Cup of 1995, filling in the wallchart in his office as if performing a solemn duty of State.

I guess the film-makers were using the wallchart to convey the largeness of Mandela's personality, which along with the great seriousness for which he was revered, had this playful side.

But maybe it is more than just an outbreak of childish enthusiasm, this desire in the human heart which erupts for a few weeks every four years, to put up a World Cup wallchart and to fill it in with ritualistic zeal.

At the very least, it gives us the feeling that we are involved in this thing that is much larger than ourselves, that though it is a gargantuan event, we own a small part of it.

If we are young, it makes us feel a bit grown-up to be keeping score in this way - and if we are old, it makes us feel young to be openly allowing ourselves this supposedly juvenile indulgence.

Yes, we feel free to talk about the wallchart, we know that for this month only, we have permission to perform this exercise which at any other time might mark us down as being a bit, well… unusual. A bit, shall we say… a bit odd.

Cartoonist: Jim Cogan
Cartoonist: Jim Cogan

So we make light of it, just in case, we see it as an excuse to escape back into our youth, just as the World Cup in general offers us the best excuse available to mankind, to drink fantastic quantities of beer at strange times of the day.

But maybe there is more to it than that, maybe this wallchart business is something that we need more than we care to acknowledge - which itself may sound a bit odd until I refer you to the BBC's classified check of the football results, and how it was done.

Every Saturday of the football season, about 5pm, a man would read out all the football results of the day in England and Scotland, in tones of the deepest seriousness - of the many things that the BBC knew back then, this one was remarkable, this insight of theirs that the result of Arsenal v Chelsea was to be conveyed in tones which were no less grave than a statement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer; and moreover that the result of Cowdenbeath v Stenhousemuir was to sound just as important as anything coming out of Highbury, or Stamford Bridge, or Downing Street.

The classified check became a ritual as sacrosanct as the shipping forecast, based on this understanding that much of our existence may be fragile and may be tormented by doubt, but when this day is over, these things at least are true, these things at least are settled - Arsenal beat Chelsea 2-1, and Cowdenbeath drew 0-0 with Stenhousemuir. And on through all the divisions, all the results, all these facts which are now incontrovertible.

It has been written. It has been read out on the classified check. It is done.

Raise this up to a global scale, and we are looking at our wallcharts, and we are thinking that this world is full of madness and catastrophe, that it is being laid waste by the worst of men - some of whom are disporting themselves in the VIP enclosures of Russia 2018 - but that the World Cup is not like the world. It's better than that.

The wallcharts which represent it are giving us some vision of order, even of justice. There is something deeply satisfying about the design and the lay-out, about the way that it is all organised so that the mere pretenders can be seen to fall away, and excellence will eventually emerge, standing alone at the end, triumphant - roughly the opposite indeed, of the way things tend to be organised in our everyday lives.

Yes, the worst of men with their endless appetite for corruption will try to interfere even in this ancient pursuit of greatness, they will attach themselves to it in their parasitical way, they may even consider the possibility of influencing the results of games the way they influence everything else that they touch - by bribery and coercion.

But for once, they will not actually win. This is not Brexit or the election of Trump. At the end of this tournament there will be a true winner, a sense that the most talented and the most dedicated have prevailed. There will be some kind of truth, the kind that makes us feel better about the world.

And like Mandela in the movie, we are noting each result on the wallchart, we are paying our respects every day to this superior way of doing things - until July 15 at least, that day which now seems so distant, when we will take one last look at how the World Cup has turned out, and we will take down that wallchart, and face the world again.

Fast forward is finally dropped

The World Cup on TV has another thing going for it, the fact that we tend to watch the whole game while it is actually happening. In recent years, the Sky Plus machine and the virtual destruction of the human mind by the internet have led even the aficionados of the Premier League to watch the game at a time of their choosing, and perhaps skipping the boring bits.

But I think we all understand that the whole point of a World Cup game is that most of us are watching it at the same time, and that rather than fast-forwarding it, if anything we want it all to slow down to prolong the experience.

Our support of a top, top, top Premier League club is effectively a job, so it's natural that the main thing we are looking for, is the result. We are also sometimes tormented with anxiety, our nerves unable to take the full 90 minutes, even if our attention spans hadn't been destroyed by Google.

But for large parts of the World Cup we couldn't give a monkey's about the result or the quality of the game, it just feels like we're on our holidays.

Which is perhaps the secret of its eternal charm - this is not just a holiday from life, it is a holiday from football.

‘You might also call it a point of big swinging macho recklessness’

There will be those who do not understand these things, who will also be calling for some sense of “perspective” when they hear the Spain manager, Julen Lopetegui, describing being sacked two days before the tournament as the “saddest day of my life since the death of my mother”.

I wouldn’t doubt the man for a moment. And I have never doubted  a certain William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon and England, whose work on the nature of tragic heroism resonates at Russia 2018 just as it did in 2002, in Saipan.

For allegedly failing to inform Luis Rubiales, the head of the Spanish Football Federation until the last minute that he was about to be announced as the next Real Madrid manager, Lopetegui was sacked by Rubiales on what you might call a point of principle — you might also call it a point of big swinging macho recklessness, for which there was no need.

Yes it was startlingly similar in its dramatic construction to the horrors of Saipan, with the same maddening forces in play — as Shakespeare has taught us, a tragedy is not just about some terrible person doing terrible things, but about a person who may be quite right, up to a point, a person who is even quite admirable, up to a point, doing terrible things.

And what is that point, up to which you are sympathetic with that person — but beyond which you are appalled ? Aye, there’s the rub…

Now the Spaniards are finding out what we have known since 2002 — that this conflict is not really between Lopetegui and Rubiales, just as ours was not really between Keane and McCarthy.

It is ultimately a conflict within ourselves. This is why we are torn, we have our own struggles trying to figure out if we should do the noble thing which could result in chaos, or just let it go for the sake of a quiet life.

Though traditionally the troubles of Spain were more straightforward — they just didn’t like one another, the players of Real Madrid which was associated with Franco, and those of Barcelona which fought Franco. Throw a few of your Basques in there and you can see why it wasn’t easy to get them all on the same page, until this century at least.

So when football commentators would muse on the mystery of why Spain, with so many wonderful footballers, could never get it together to win a major international tournament, there was no real mystery  — it was our old friend, the Spanish Civil War.

Ah, it was simpler then...

More the merrier with 48 teams

On Twitter, the eminent gastroenterologist Dr Anthony O'Connor put forward the "unpopular opinion" that he thinks a 48-team World Cup would be brilliant.

I tend to agree with him, because on the whole if you were to offer me a choice between the 64 games in Russia, or the 80 that will be tried in the USA, Canada and Mexico in 2026, I can't really hear myself saying "ah no thanks, it's fine as it is, don't give me any more of that stuff" - after all, you should never not watch a football match.

I would just question the official rationale behind the 48-team tournament, which is "an attempt to increase global interest in the World Cup".


They've tried everything else and all they've got to show for it is a few hundred million watching Morocco v Iran in the afternoon.

Desperate times…

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