The final whistle of a World Cup final provokes some extreme reactions. As you’d expect on the pitch it’s almost certain to send half the players into rapturous ecstasy and the other half to a bottomless pit of inconsolable despair. Beyond that the crowd will be similarly split but the effects go even further still. For those of us whose favoured teams had been knocked out long before the final or who watched the tournament from a relatively neutral standpoint the final whistle represents the end of a completed story. The full stop at the end of a particularly epic and enthralling novel. Many more greeted it with the kind of unbridled relief that one would expect to be exclusively found in the emotions of a North Korean prison camp survivor whose just been told to go home. That is, unbridled relief that lasts about as long as it takes one of their football loving associates to inform them how close the new season is. And that pre season friendlies are kicking off this week. But after taking a day or so to reflect, intellectualise and meditate on the events of this past month of global football, I thought I’d attempt to translate my almost zen like considerations onto the page. Which is my own way of covering up the mediocrity and predictable nature of a post World Cup blog.
As the tournament kicked off amid lip synching hi-hopera stars and all the delights of an opening ceremony the first divisive argument of the tournament began. It was not whether Maradona would be able to pull a group of talented individuals together as a team, nor whether France’s opponents should be allowed one deliberate handball per game in a bizarre rule change known colloquially as “the luck of the Irish law”. It wasn’t even whether Emile Heskey’s inclusion in a World Cup squad for a third time represented a warning sign of some impending apocalypse. It was the vuvuzelas. Or “that bloody noise” depending on which side of the argument you took, for everyone took a side in this argument. Even those who didn’t watch the World Cup but had simply passed a television with a game on had an opinion. Though in that case when people complained of “a horribly annoying noise that droned on and on until I blocked my ears with my hands and ran screaming from the building” it was hard to tell whether they were referring to vuvuzelas or Andy Townsend. In any case, in the great marmite style war of the vuvuzela I landed very early on in the camp supporting the weird conical plastic tubes. While I understand some of the arguments against them, the main one being that they drown out any sort of chanting or singing, I thought they added a special feel and atmosphere to this World Cup; a unique sound for a unique tournament. It’s not that I’d like to hear the premiership taken over by the sound forevermore, I genuinely believe that football chants are one of the best forms of mass improvised comedy in the world, but World Cup 2010 had a soundtrack, and I liked it.
As the great Vuvu-debate waged on the actual football began to take centre stage. South Africa battled bravely against the odds and though they didn’t make the knockout stages they did proudly fight and manage a famous victory against the awful French team. The French team provided comic relief for everyone and a reported player strike was the cherry on the calamitous cake that was their tournament. Although I’d have liked to have seen the strike go further so that Domenech had to draft in a team of French scabs willing to play the final game while highly paid megastars surrounded the entrance to the stadium and peppered them with insults. However France’s display was so dismal that their ridiculous antics couldn’t even win them the comic relief of the tournament award. Step forward Diego Maradona. Barging through the tournament and its press conferences like a coked up megalomaniac so convinced of his own superiority that he looked a little dejected whenever someone addressed him without first bowing and beginning “My Lord…” he did what Maradona does best – he created headline after headline. After reading critical words supposedly from UEFA President Michel Platini and Brazil legend (and great rival for the title of “Best Player Ever” in an ongoing argument that constantly ignores the only sensible answer of George Best) Pele, he delivered his response by telling Pele to “go back to the museum” and taking Platini down a peg or two by informing him of the simple truth that he is French! “We all know what the French are like and Platini is French. He thinks he is better than the rest.” exclaimed the tournament jester before the next day receiving a letter from that very Frenchman explaining that the comments attributed to him were false. This prompted him to the equally hilarious retraction “I want to apologise if I offended Michel Platini. But I don’t want to apologise to Pele.” Maradona’s team were eventually knocked out by the counter attacking speed and style of the exciting young German team in a game that saw a deserved defeat for Argentina but one that hurt a little, knowing we may never see Diego in a World Cup final press conference. Doubtlessly naked, painted in the blue and white of Argentina and excitedly informing the world’s media that he’s raised a small private army and intends to declare war on the opposition should they win.
But Maradona and the self destructive French team were not the only sources of column inches for those journalists seeking controversy or rumour, the North Koreans saw to that. As you might have expected from a country so paranoid and clandestine in its international affairs the World Cup saw the arrival of a team so removed from the rest of the world that the stories began almost immediately. Were the North Korean fans in the stadiums actually paid Chinese actors? Had four of the North Korean team secretly escaped during a training camp in South Africa in order to defect to the South? And would a seven-nil thrashing by Portugal see their entire team stripped naked and beaten live on television back in Pyongyang? The truth seemed remarkably straightforward in the end. Most of the misinformation and rumour proved to be inherently false or embellished and the simple truth was that a team primarily made up of the best players the North Korean army had to offer came to a World Cup as massive underdogs. In fact, of all the fairy tales and exaggerated stories circling around the team none was as good as the one that happened on the pitch, in their first game at least, where a spirited and disciplined performance saw them lose out narrowly to Brazil in an exciting game that finished 2-1. In truth, despite the comfortable victories of Portugal and the Ivory Coast over the Dear Leader’s footballing representatives, the fact that they managed to keep all three games in the single figures may be considered a miracle by some. The North Korean team, I think everyone agrees, provided fantastic entertainment. Whether it was their star striker’s national anthem induced girl-tears or the look on the goalkeeper’s face as Portugal stopped counting how many they’d put past him, the North Korean World Cup was one fantastic work of tragicomedy from the outset.
And so after the group stages, the occasional shock result and a ball that seems at times to have been designed by a bitter man sitting in a dark laboratory and cursing the fact that his wife left him for a goalkeeper, his house was burned down by a goalkeeper and his dog had been raped, live on the internet, by a goalkeeper, the tournament got fully underway . England got knocked out by a Germany team that played football with such pace and precision that, for a moment, it looked like they might go all the way. Of course, after a dismal tournament of which a scrappy one-nil victory over Slovenia was the highlight the English were happy to exit early so long as they had an excuse of some kind. This time it was Frank Lampard’s wrongly disallowed goal that enabled them to ignore the 89 minutes of the game they played terribly for, and indeed the three previous games, in order to be able to announce that they were harshly done by. “We was robbed” has now become such a common phrase amongst English fans that many other nationalities, unfamiliar with the language, have naturally assumed that the word “robbed” in English, means “shit”.
England might have had a case had their exit resembled that of Ghana, the last African team left in the World Cup who were denied a last minute of extra time goal by a the hand of Uruguayan Luis Suarez. Asamoah Gyan fluffed the resulting penalty and after an ending like that no team would have been able to conquer a penalty shoot out. In one of those harsh twists of football the sending off of the offender and award of a penalty kick that favours the wronged team in 99% of scenarios wasn’t enough to deny Uruguay a place in the semi finals. A cruel and painful way to leave a tournament, Ghana can take a huge amount of hope from the youth of their team, the open, attacking way they played the game and the success they achieved in the absence of their best player, the injured Michael Essien.
In the end it was left to Spain to win a tense, at times brutal, final. The game hung in the balance until the 115th minute when Andres Iniesta managed to achieve every player’s boyhood dream and score the winning goal in the World Cup final. In all honesty Spain deserved the win. Opening blip against the Swiss aside they were the best team in the tournament by a country mile. They may not have played with the counter attacking verve of the Germans or the stylish flicks-and-tricks skill of the Argentines but they were far and away the best team. They dominated possession, organised themselves fantastically as a defensive unit and demonstrated the simple truth of football from schoolboy five a side level to World Cup Finals; the team that passes the ball best usually wins the game. The Spanish passing was, at times, mesmerising. Pinpoint accuracy, the vision to use all areas of the field and super human consistency made this team worthy champions. Ironically, while Iniesta receives all the praise due to a player who wins his team the World Cup, it was his Barcelona midfield teammate, Xavi, who impressed the most, controlling the midfield, finding space and helping the team find its steady, rhythmic passing game amongst even the best opposition.
And it’s Xavi who would win my player of the tournament if “Ben’s player of the tournament” actually meant anything to anyone other than me. But it doesn’t, so I’m giving it to Kim Myong-won, the North Korean striker the team attempted to slip under Fifa’s radar by registering as a goalkeeper, only to find out he was then only eligible to play as a goalkeeper. Well done, Kimmy (for that is how I shall affectionately refer to him in my imaginary award ceremony), you deserved it son.