World Cup or World War?
By Vincent Mulchrone
IF THE GERMANS beat us at our national game today, we can always console ourselves with the fact that we have twice beaten them at theirs. And how’s that for narrow, nationalistic hedging from one who has never in his life paid as much as half a dollar to watch 22 men disputing possession of the hide of a cow?
I speak as a unit of soccer’s lost millions. Or, rather, as one who was never tempted to the terraces. I played Rugby – the game which doesn’t go in for kissing the scorer. (When you can’t get to kiss him, if I can believe my TV screen, you now jump on him – constructing a sort of vertical, alley-cock-a-lorum phallic victory symbol in the middle of the field while the fans bay their pleasure.)
You may have hated the World Cup, as I think I did, but you couldn’t ignore it. It has encroached more deeply into the inward-looking British temperament than any international event since the one we now know as the Second World War. Indeed, it has been war. And a very valuable little war, too, if only because it showed us how nationalism can raise its idiot cry over a cowhide. And I’m not thinking of foreigners hanging trainers in effigy, or quaking Latin trainers suddenly finding they have urgent business in the Outer Hebrides. I mean us.
The World Cup emptied the pubs. (And you’re a fool if you skip over that statement without savouring all its horror.) Housewives went all Greer Garson on us and stood shoulder to shoulder with us before the idiot box. Our children, who were being brought up as woolly minded internationalists, now whip out nasty little toy pistols at a mention of Argentina. When the evening matches were on, the suburbs cringed under a deathly hush. Gardeners froze over their hoes, like the people in The Angelus, except that they were listening to their neighbours’ radios and their prayers were that Eusebio wouldn’t do it.
We have sub-editors in this office whose only reaction to the Last Trump would be finding a headline to fit. Yet they sat transfixed at their desks, half stoned out of their Rule Britannia minds at the news coming through their transistor earplugs.
‘Eng-land, Eng-land,’ cried Wembley. And I’m sure it’s silly to hear echoes of ‘Sieg Heil! or ‘Ban-zai’.’ But hysterical triumph in a crowd is much the same no matter what the cause, and I didn’t like the sound. They were not, I repeat, defending a freedom, they were kicking a cow.
I have been consoling myself with readings from the works of the football writers, a body of men rising magnificently to their moment. Theirs is a sub-division of English as rich and as distinctive as pidgin or Bombay Welsh. Even when employed on the Rovers v Wanderers on a wet Wednesday in West Hartlepool it is the most jingoistic tongue we still dare use, every adverb at attention, every adjective at the salute. Well, after that semi-final, they broke and unashamedly wept. They begged heaven to witness that there had been only eight fouls. Had there ever been such a clean game in soccer’s temple? Had life ever tasted so good?
Win or lose, tomorrow’s papers are going to be sheer hell. The shame of a defeat will be exceeded only by the horrors attendant on a victory. The deductions that will be drawn about the future of the British nation are already terrifying. And what bothers me is – how the hell did I get mixed up in it?
This Mulchone classic – and many like it – appears in The Best Of Vincent Mulchrone (available from amazon, Waterstones, the Book Depository and on order from any half-decent bookshop). It costs £9.99 and royalties go to Leukemia Research.