Not what it seems

Now that the England football team has exchanged sand for snow, it’s high time I revisited the matter I addressed when they last came home from the World Cup earlier than expected. All the talk at present concerns the penalty missed by captain Harry Kane that supposedly cost them the chance to lift the trophy. Was it complacency, or incompetence, or just bad luck? Actually, such analysis misses the point, and in more ways than one.

First, it wasn’t the only gilt-edged chance the team spurned: Harry Maguire hit the post when it was easier to score, as they say, and Marcus Rashford missed with a free kick very similar to one he put away earlier in the competition. Second, it was far from certain that England would have added a winning goal by the end of the match: their opponents France were just as likely to score again, and on past form it was odds-on that England would have lost on penalties forty-odd minutes later. Third, even if they had survived their encounter with the World Champions, they would still have been two tough games away from glory.

What we can say is that the outcome of Saturday’s match was consistent with the record of the current manager, Gareth Southgate. In his six-year tenure, he has never yet beaten a team higher up the FIFA world rankings than his own charge. His glowing reputation with the media, with occasional fans, and with his employers the Football Association owes mostly to his supposed success in three earlier competitions in which England reached a relatively advanced stage before losing. Such supporters selectively forget the exceptionally easy draw England enjoyed by chance each time, just as they choose to ignore his inept performance at last year’s European Championship final at Wembley against Italy, who didn’t even make the World Cup finals this time.

And then there’s his ultra-conservative mismanagement of the team during this season’s UEFA Nations League competition, when he even managed to get England relegated. Southgate’s flattering statistical record is reminiscent of the boxer with a glass jaw whose manager matches him up whenever possible with a journeyman. A more gifted football manager can take a middling set of players and turn them into a formidable team, repeatedly capable of getting past superior opponents; Zlatko Dalić of Croatia is a gleaming contemporary example. By comparison, Southgate looks a serial bottler.

Blaming the captain or the manager might make fans feel better about yet another failure, but it gets us no further than attributing it to bad luck, as some of the more stoical critics have. It takes a superior intellect to hit the nail on the head, such as the novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen. He wrote, “We don’t succeed or fail because of fortune or luck. We succeed because we understand the way the world works and what we have to do. We fail because others understand this better than we do”. By that token, it’s arguable that the FA, which controls the England football team, simply isn’t canny enough, and hasn’t been for decades.

In reality, England lost their chance of ever winning the World Cup not in the 84th minute on Saturday, but in 2010, when the venues for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups were decided. There was then a strong footballing case for England, which invented the game, to host the 2018 finals for the first time in half a century. In the event, the FA’s bid failed miserably, and the tournament was awarded to Russia, while the 2022 competition went even more controversially to Qatar.

How could that happen? Quite simply, the FA trusted to the Corinthian spirit that originally inspired the game, whereas President Putin and Sheikh Tamim recognised in FIFA a corrupt fiefdom that spoke only the language of Mammon. The world had seen as recently as 2002 how co-hosts South Korea were shepherded all the way to the semi-finals by outrageous refereeing; but the FA’s response to being shunned was to threaten a boycott because of the blatant bribery, which must have infuriated FIFA nearly as much as the subsequent FBI investigation. Conversely, five years ago, a documentary called ‘The FIFA Family’ exposed how France’s President Sarkozy fixed the 2022 World Cup for Qatar in return for a $1.5 billion aircraft deal. Since FIFA likes to take good care of its business associates, it was hardly surprising if last week’s vexed ref looked like he could really do with a nice holiday on the Côte d’Azur.

The statistics show that scoring first in these knockout matches is critically important, not least because it obliges the opposition to change their game plan, chase the game, and take risks that can be punished on the counter attack. My own belief is that the writing was on the wall for England as early as the 17th minute. England’s Bukayo Saka was fouled close to the French penalty area, which should have yielded an excellent opportunity to register the opening goal, given England’s aerial power and France’s defensive frailty. Instead, the officials unaccountably allowed play to continue, and it was France who immediately chalked up the vital opener on the break. Ironically, England then played their best game in years, precisely because Southgate had bowed to intense criticism and, changing the habit of a lifetime, fielded against a superior opponent an attacking line-up that was now obliged to play to its strengths. In football, however, merit alone isn’t always enough.

I didn’t feel the sting of defeat this time anything like as acutely as I did at the same stage in 1970, when I knew we were competing with West Germany on a level playing-field, and losing after leading 2-0 felt like suffering a visit by an Avenging Angel. Just four years later, however, the openly crooked João Havelange ousted Sir Stanley Rous as FIFA president. A man with the look of a quintessential James Bond villain, this South American lawyer initiated the process of converting FIFA into a global syndicate that was one part football and nine parts ‘business’, as movie Mafiosi call it.

The very next World Cup, in 1978, proved duly unsavoury. The host nation was Argentina, whose dictator was desperate to earn recognition on the world stage, and left nothing to chance in his pursuit of the trophy. Incredibly, this extended as far as torturing 13 Peruvian political prisoners as a favour to Peru’s dictator. In return, the Peruvian team was ordered to concede six goals against Argentina, who consequently progressed ahead of Brazil to the final; this they won against a Holland team lacking the great Johan Cruyff, who had commendably stayed at home. Details of the match-fixing story only came out in 2012, but it was perfectly obvious at the time that what we were watching was anything but the Beautiful Game.

Argentina was at it again eight years later, when Maradona notoriously opened the scoring against England by punching the ball into the net – an offence spotted by every player, but none of the officials. The Argentinians went on to regain the title, publicly celebrating the ‘Hand of God’ as revenge for their failed invasion of the Falklands. France’s Thierry Henry paid tribute 31 years later by performing his own blatant ‘Main de Dieu’ cheat that eliminated Ireland in a qualification play-off, while England’s fate in those 2010 finals was to be knocked out by Germany after the officials denied them an equaliser in spite of the ball being at least a foot over the line.

By that time, I was already finding it impossible to believe that anything served up by FIFA is much more than a gladiator spectacle whose outcome has been substantially shaped behind closed doors. Much media chat before and during the current tournament concerned the ethics of participating in, or even watching, a tournament hosted by the homophobic Qataris. From the footballing perspective, a more pertinent question is whether any nation that shares the noble values of the game created by the Football Association in 1863 shouldn’t be renouncing and denouncing every phantasmagoria staged by FIFA in the guise of competitive football. That is the nub of the matter; but it will never be addressed by human beings who instinctively prize material gain over principle, and then create distraction by questioning whether Harry Kane was wearing the right make of boots.

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