I've been developing a theory the last few days. In a rather limited way.
It's about the World Cup, and why I love it quite so much. It's about England, and the way they play - and the way other nations play. It's about why some nations are more successful than others. And above all, it's about sticking my head into some pretentious idea, which I enjoy doing lots and lots.
The World Cup isn't about football. It's about countries' standings in the world. It's an obvious thing to express - but it's a form of cultural warfare with all the despair and triumphalism you might expect. This is why totalitarian governments, especially in Latin America, but not confined there, really enjoy throwing their weight behind their national sides, or their pet club sides, as in the Soviet Bloc.
My thoughts were sparked by an article in The Observer's World Cup special last week about the performance of Algeria in the group stages in 1982, when they shocked the West Germans 2-1 in the first game before being cynically squeezed out by "el Anschluss" between the Deutsch and their Austrian neighbours. The article was full of how the Algerians felt they had the opportunity to express their country to the World, and how their football seemed very suucesful as a result.
Those countries with the best World Cup pedigree are maybe those with the surest idea of what they can contribute to the world. In the case of Brazil and Argentina, football is perhaps held up as their greatest contribution, but nonetheless self-confidence of nation and national side seem intermingled. Is it any coincidence that England's most lasting success came at the height of its Swinging London mid-sixties confidence, when the "white heat of technology" and its explosive British Invasion of pop charts, art and design circles propelled Britain back to the forefront of the West's imagination?
So far, so familiar - but it got my slowly-grinding mind to thinking about what it IS that these countries feel they are expressing?
Brazil is all about dance, I think. They are the Samba Kings, and individual flair (maybe not best illustrated by the "gaucho" Dunga's relatively pedestrian outfit in this World Cup) is very highly valued together with the ability to improvise. This approach (and their supreme self-confidence in it) has produced a team with the necessary belief to lift the trophy five times and to win a lot of friends doing it.
Argentina is more urban, shiftier, and this is perhaps in many ways why they represent the eternal enemy of English football - the spectre of the thief, the hustler. This is best represented by Maradona, of course, who's celebrated in other countries for exactly those qualities that turn the stomachs of so many English football fans. Argentinian confidence is perhaps a little more fragile than sunny Brazil's, and they've only won the competition twice; but nonetheless, we can tell what it is they are looking to express and how it might reflect Argentina's collective opinion of itself. Should such a dream exist.
Germany's expression of itself seemed to begin properly in 1954 with the Miracle of Bern and their first World title. The nation entered the competition still guilty, broken and starving from the fallout of a war-scarred half century but after winning the factories of myth now had it poised on the brink of another economic miracle and the acceptance back at the international table. They've since qualified for every World Cup, surviving the group stage each time, featuring in seemingly countless finals and won the trophy another two times in '74 and at Italia 90. Self-belief and industry seem to be their chief tools both in terms of football and nation-building.
Italy is something of a more complex beast. Four World Cup wins places them firmly in second place ahead of the Germans, Argentina and the dimly-remembered Uruguayans, although the first two Italian victories bear the dark, stubborn stain of Mussolini's fascists. The later two victories are a little more difficult to fathom as Italy entered both the competitons in '82 and 2006 as unfancied and couldn't be described as amongst the most attractive teams in either. Their national game can be characterised by paranoia and cynicism, which has helped to build the catenaccio defensive system of man-marking and a sweeper to pick up the pieces and launch counter-attacks. Images of stilettos and Renaissance city states. This analogy is weakening even as I try to open it out, so for the sake of finishing my point, I'll move on.
France won their own country over to the idea of supporting the team in 1998, and almost validated Pele's view that an African team would win the World Cup by the end of the twentieth century, fielding an ethnically diverse mix studded with African-born talents like Zidane, Desailly and Vieira. Their desire to express this idea saw them pick up the WC and European titles in quick succession, but they've since collapsed back into imperious disdain and in-fighting, and without the influence of Zidane are expected to slump out of this year's competition in the first round.
So much cheap pop cultural theory, now on to the escapist fantasy - England. A rather dour team it was that won in 1966, perhaps the last hurrah of the old Victorian values - an emotionally constipated coach reflected in a rather constipated performance that finally exploded into relief and joy come extra time. But that model simply doesn't work for England any more. Just as the spread of the game around the world at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries indicated the stretch of England's influence around the world, so England's performances post-war (once they'd deigned to get involved in international competition) have mirrored its anxious slip down the political world league table.
The pressure of maintaining a pre-eminent position in the world has become crippling. Thirty years of hurt has spread to forty-four, a half-century is knocking. The same emotionally-constipated ideas about what England means give no escape. Only Gazza was able to weep out a bit of relief, and maybe he is the key to the re-invention that England requires. Despite all the attempts to re-cast England in the form of the Premiership as skillful, sophisticated and successful, the pressure of maintaining some Victorian image of quiet, manly supremacy is proving too much for our modern adolescent players.
Bearing in mind that the most successful football models could be said to be based on assured national skills and characteristics, it might help to look at what English people are so skilled in and so heavily-trained in it is as second nature. What is the English equivalent of the Argentinian wiles of the tango, or the German belief in industry or the Brazilian spirit of carnival? I'd say, humour. The famous English/British sense of humour that pervades our society as thoroughly as paranoia does that of Italy.
The most successful player at the World Cup for England post-66 was Gazza, the joker. Although his talents seem to have been borne of huge emotional and psychological problems, nonetheless it would be difficult to separate his inventive play from his joking nature. A relaxed and jokey approach would help our players to deal with the huge pressures heaped upon them and it would certainly serve as a better coping mechanism for the English fans and press than the current tactic of sour-faced whingeing, and more importantly it would be an expression of something quintessentially English. That seems to be the key - playing to national strengths.
So, that's my grand plan for how England can come closer to taking their game forward on the global stage. The only difficulty now is to figure out how this idea can be applied to the actual playing of the game, but, you know, I just do the blue sky thinking. I'll leave it to the techno-crats and clever types to figure out the rest.
Now I have to work out how the lingering sense of Hiraeth and propensity for bilingualism can propel Wales to the European Championships in 2012.
Your pal, Coc x