The Absolute Game Revisited – Part 32

July 2, 2010

This article appeared in TAG 19 – August 1990 – immediately after the World Cup of that year – unless you’ve got a very good memory much of what follows will not mean anything to you – I wrote it almost as a stream of consciousness – the main things to bear in mind are that Scotland were (as usual) knocked out in the first round, while England damned near won the thing (though having a major scare in the match against Cameroon when they were 2-1 down with 15 mins to go – prompting this fantastic quote from Bobby Robson after the game “We didn’t underestimate them. They were a lot better than we thought“.)

Oh, and although it’s not mentioned in the article, the World Cup was won by West Germany.

FEAR AND LOATHING IN THE COMMUNALE


In ancient Rome, Patrician houses were equipped with a useful room called a vomitarium. After consuming vast quantities of food and bevy the genteel aristocrats would be carried to the vomitarium by a couple of plebs where they would evacuate the contents of their stomachs into a convenient receptacle. Suitably refreshed, the hedonistic aristos returned to the banqueting table to start all over again.


Fast forward to Rome AD 1990 – we’ve gorged ourselves on a feast of football and the pages of TAG are where, metaphorically speaking of course, I’m going to throw up, before starting on the delicacies offered by season 90/91.

Mondial 90 – 8th June 3.30pm. I’m comfortably ensconced in front of the telly with a gigantic pile of assorted newspaper pull-outs, wall charts, player profiles, fixed odds coupons, crates of beer, listeria-ridden fast food TV dinners and several bottles of aspirins. Let’s go!

First we have to sit through the tedium of the opening ceremony. In the San Siro a pair of Euro-Pratts are miming to the official World Cup song which is entirely indistinguishable from the kind of hyena-crap that comes in 7th equal in the Eurovision Song Contest.

Meanwhile I’m trying to get through on the 0898 number to record my vote in the “Who should play up front with Lineker?” poll. They won’t accept my nomination of the Queen Mother. All of a sudden a load of girls wearing nothing much more than vacuous expressions appear on the screen while USA for Africa “We Are The World” inexplicably thuds out in the background.

Alan Parry remarks that “this is nearly as good to watch as the football”. You’re so right Alan. We should just have a month-long opening ceremony and hand the cup to England at the end. Who gives a toss who plays up front with Lineker? 25,000 air-heads apparently, most of them voting for Steve Bull. British Telecom will be pleased.

Eventually the action gets under way. Maradona versus Cameroon. No goals in the first half. Is the penny dropping with the “experts” about African football? No way, San Jose! Emlyn “Squeaky” Hughes concentrates on how rubbish Argentina are. In the second half, Monsieur Vautrot (the ref) is engaged in his usual cameo role of pretending to be in a Jean-Luc Godard movie. He sends one of the Africans off, apparently for no other reason than to stir up a philosophical debate about the essentially random unfairness of life. Plato-like, Ron Atkinson chips in with “To be fair, at this rate we’ll be playing seven-a-side”. Cameroon promptly score, commit a proper sending-off offence, and win easily. Even Godard would be puzzled.


Day 2. John Motson makes his debut for the USSR vs Romania game. I settle down to play the ancient game of counting how many times Motto can mention England in an irrelevant context. He tells us that Gordon Cowan and Paul Rideout used to play in Bari, that the father of one of the Romanians played against England in 1970, that Rotariu of Romania is a “kind of Nobby Stiles character“, and that when the Soviet keeper booted the ball aimlessly up the park he had made “a good old fashioned English goalkeeper clearance there” – we’re told all this in the first ten minutes of the game so I turn the sound down and put on a Captain Beefheart record for more intelligent commentary. The Romanians win.

Monday, 11th June. This is the big one and no mistake. Ecosse v Costa Rica. A quick scan of Costa Rica’s qualifying form reassures me that all is well. Guatemala and Panama seem to have given them some trouble. They only finished their group ahead of the USA on goal difference ferchrissakes, and we’ve seen what the Czechs did to the Yanks. C’mon ye Scots !

What a fucking nightmare! We’re talking Edgar Allan Poe proportions here. The midfield was a horror story. Paul McStay proved once and for all that the epithet “world class” is not one to be applied to him. “Pure crap” would be nearer the mark. Jim Bett was his usual enigmatic self (ie a waste of space). McCall huffed and puffed to no useful effect and Aitken was, well Aitken.

After the game I was truly grateful that I hadn’t forked out squillions of lira to actually be in Genoa. Some telly viewers in the West of Scotland served by the Rosneath transmitter didn’t see the game due to an electrical fault. Lucky bastards.

It is possibly unfair to criticise the players. They are just as devastated and hurt as the rest of us. I’ve spent the night in the vomitarium. In our house it’s called the bog. The recriminations are well under way by Tuesday morning. Should Charlie Nicholas have been in the team rather than the STV studios? I’ve got my pocket calculator out to see if it’s possible for us to qualify for the second round with no points. Is there any way we can call a halt here and start again ?

Motto’s back in action for the Spain vs Uruguay game. He spends most of his time prattling on about the England – Uruguay friendly several weeks earlier. As the game drifts towards a scoreless draw, Motto digs deep into his store of banalities to come up with “It’s worth mentioning, without complicating things too much, that England could meet one of these teams in the next round” and “Zubizaretta was in goal when Gary Lineker got his four goals in Madrid a few years ago, you may remember“. No, I fucking don’t.

McCall and Johnston are the scorers as we beat Sweden. Scotland’s campaign has taken on its standard surreal quality. There’s apparently no point in doing something if you can’t do it the hard way. Our interest in the competition has made a Milla-like reappearance.

By this time the major tactical innovation of this World Cup has become established. Whenever a goal is scored the scorer rushes to the side of the field to simulate sexual intercourse with the comer flag. Regrettably none of our players are able to extend their Kama Sutra repertoire in the game against Brazil and we suffer the self-fulfilling prophecy of defeat. Amazingly Sweden lose to Costa Rica. The Swedes have had an even bigger nightmare than we did in ’78, so much so that their manager Olle Nordin changes his name to Olle Mcleod.

The calculations begin in earnest. They are of the “if the Emirates beat Yugoslavia 23-0” variety. Firstly we want the Germans to give Colombia a right good hammering. Nae luck. What about the Koreans holding Uruguay to a draw? It’s not very likely but as we watch the Spain vs Belgium encounter we’re constantly told that it’s still 0-0 in Udine. A glimmer of hope begins to appear. Perhaps God will shine his face on us just this once. It’s full time in Spain vs Belgium and it’s still 0-0 in Udine. If it stays that way – we’re through !!

Let’s just catch the last few seconds of that game live. Deep into injury time, by the miracle of cathode ray tube we witness conclusive proof that there is no God. We’ve no sooner got the picture than the ball’s in the back of the Korean net. We’ve got the picture OK. Get that abacus out again. Let’s see. If Holland – Ireland and England – Egypt both end 1-0 then we’re into a drawing of lots situation with Austria. I wish I’d paid more attention to differential calculus at the school.


We watch the England vs Egypt game. England are shite. We hear that Holland have scored against Ireland. England score. For the first time ever I’m happy about an England goal.

And then it happens. Quinn scores for Ireland. The Mighty Quinn. Quinn the fucking Eskimo. We’re out, England win their group, hell on earth has arrived and the vomitarium has exploded.

At the moment that the final whistle is blown on our hopes I fucking hate Emlyn Hughes, Nick Owen, Uruguay, England, Ireland, Hans Van Breuckelen for messing up an easy save against Ireland, Jimmy Hill, Colombia and especially that bastard Valderrama, the Germans for not trying against Colombia, the bastard Austrian who refereed our match with Brazil, the Brazilian team for being completely hopeless and still beating us, Neil Simpson, Elton Welsby, Elton John, Ben Elton, Ben Nevis, Big Ben, Big Tel, Gary Lineker’s toe, Gary Gilmore’s eyes, football, the World Cup, the thought of having to go through all this again in 4 years time, everybody, myself. I think that about covers it.

All we have left to hope for is that Engerland suffer a major humiliation. Of course, having qualified for round 2, the English pundits have already mapped out their progress to the semi-final via Belgium and Cameroon or Colombia. This is precisely the sort of arrogance which drives us mental and makes us earnestly look forward to their defeat.

What is even more maddening is that they turn out to be right. Day 19 – England 1-0 Belgium. Aargh !!

For the quarter finals STV wheel out the big guns. Billy McNeil and Jim Leishman. Leishman knows as much about international football as my pet budgie, and I don’t have a pet budgie. Big Billy seems to be “very, very, pleased in many, many, ways” that Ireland have made the last 8.

I’ve been highly suspicious of “experts” since, as a young lad, I heard Sir Alf Ramsey give a clinically brilliant exposition of a difficult footballing concept. Alf was “assisting” in the commentary in a Scotland – England game when Scotland scored (Yes, kids it DID used to actually happen). Alf remarked that the English defence had “been ballwatchin”. Brian Moore invited the maestro to explain what he meant by this technical phrase, as the uneducated masses might no comprendez. “It’s really rather simple“, said Ramsey modestly, “they were watchin’ the ball“.

The standard of this year’s geniuses and experts was predictably poor.

England’s quarter final with Cameroon was marred by two things. Firstly, the Cameroons were missing 4 players due to suspension and secondly, England won. The game produced the best moment of the entire competition (ie Cameroon’s second goal) and the worst (ie England’s second goal).

Some astute readers may have detected the merest smidgin of Anglophobia in the foregoing blatherings. To our English friends, my apologies. Our national desire to see England dumped out of the World Cup at the earliest opportunity is almost entirely related to the English media rather than to the English players or to any inherent antipathy towards English people. When BBC commentators say “I’m sure that back home you’re all thrilled by Platt’s goal“, then you just know that “back home” means England, fair Albion. Christ, they even had a number one hit with a song with that very title.

I happened to be in England when the Brazil vs Scotland game was televised. At half-time there was a quick analysis of the first half action then it was “Let’s go over to the England camp for all the latest news“. This mainly consisted of an interview with Lineker’s toe, with appropriate close-ups. So fascinating was the toe that we missed the first three minutes of the second half. It’s all a question of priorities. I wonder how the English viewers would have reacted to their game with Egypt being interrupted by an in-depth look at Ally McCoist’s groin strain. There’s no way English fans could tolerate a programme fronted by Arthur Montford, featuring Jim Baxter and Derek Johnstone as experts.

Against that background I have to confess that England’s eventual dismissal afforded me very little pleasure at all. For my money they were a better team than Germany and would probably have won the Cup had they got to the final.

The World Cup final was a fiasco characterised by the type of inept refereeing which had persisted throughout the tournament. Did my ears deceive me or did the Germans really field a player called Bert Auld ? John Motson seemed to think that the German captain was sponsored by a tobacco company as he continually referred to him as Low-Tar Mattheus. The mind boggles as to the antecedents of the Argentinian referred to as Broo-Shagger.

Some closing thoughts – on the positive side, we beat Sweden. But then again, everybody beat Sweden. We only lost narrowly to Brazil. But we found out later that Brazil were crap. We failed to qualify. But we always fail to qualify. The most depressing feature was that none of the teams in our group even made the quarter finals. Where does that leave us in global terms? Wetting ourselves at the prospect of San Marino, that’s where.

Now, where are my servants? I feel another trip to the vomitarium coming on.

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