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It was on the way to England’s opening match that it really struck home that the World Cup has not got serious yet.
The Waldstadion in Frankfurt is in the clearing of a suburban forest, the sort of area that does not exist in London, and in Paris would be entirely overrun by Brazilian transvestites. But in perhaps the least football-obsessed major city in Europe, 40,000 England fans found themselves transported to this incongruously lovely setting. Both the ambience and the weather were better suited to village cricket.
Hence Sven-Göran Eriksson’s dog-ate-my-homework excuse for his team’s shoddy performance against Paraguay: it was too hot. Hot? It was merely the kind of summer’s afternoon one would hope for anywhere in northern Europe in mid-June. But then how were the English to know they were going to play the finals in summer? The filthy foreign swine! They never told us!
If the sunshine persists – and England players were reaching for the touchline drinks-bottles after six minutes on Saturday – then the theory, put forward by Sir Bobby Charlton among others, that they would be favoured by the conditions, could be out the window. England are due for daytime kick-offs in the last 16 and last eight as well.
But the unreality was not just English. It started with the happy-go-lucky German performance on Friday night. Who would have dreamed that – at least until Arjen Robben’s mesmeric show for Holland in Leipzig on Sunday – the most compelling performance of the weekend would come from Trinidad and Tobago? It was arguably the first coherent defensive display in the World Cup, and the pluckiest so far.
Maybe it’s possible to offer some tentative explanations for the general light-headedness. The teams have not come together yet. They have not mastered the floaty ball that’s in use – it was noticeable that the Dutch conceded unpressurised throw-ins through sheer lack of control, which is rare for players of such quality.
The 32-team format is not brand new, but it creates both a longer tournament and a more unequal one; it is sensible not to get too intense yet. And most top players are still emerging from a tough club season. It may be no coincidence that Robben was so eye-catching yesterday; due to injury, suspension and the bottomless strength-in-depth of Chelsea’s squad, he had
a less strenuous winter than most.
But the early evidence has added weight to the idea purveyed by the Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, that international football is inferior to the game played by top European clubs. It may take some weeks for the World Cup to reach the heights – except perhaps, literally, in the penalty area. Serbia’s unsuccessful attempt to snatch an equaliser depended largely on their substitute striker Nikola Zigic, another two-metre giant to match England’s Peter Crouch.
And international football has changed in another way that may not be obvious. Foreign teams used to be very foreign indeed. Coaches now shift around globally, and have DVDs and software to enable them to scrutinise every move of opposing players.
The players know each other too: certainly as regular opponents, often as club-mates, sometimes as friends. Their international rivalries do not have the intensity they would have in the Spanish, Italian or English leagues.
There were signs, with the outbreak of yellow cards in the closing stages in Leipzig, that the competition was getting a bit warmer. But it may be a while before things really hot up.