The Absolute Game Revisited – Part 36

July 19, 2010

It all seems so long ago now. Come with me now to a bygone age (1994) when the football (soccer) World Cup was held in the US of A. This very long and mainly boring article is from TAG 39 of August 1994. Much of this doesn’t make any sense to me now so I wish the reader bon chance.


American Dream

A few years ago I met an American woman on the train from London to Glasgow. It was just shortly after a Papal visit to the USA. She told me, with some relish, that the Pontiff’s appearance among his American flock had been the signal for the free enterprise bandwagon to move into overdrive, quickly reaching warp factor nine, before crashing off the freeway in a spectacular explosion of bad-taste and tackiness.

Such was the frenzy to take the suckers for every buck they had that nothing was too tasteless to sell. Every spiv and hustler in North America was in the marketplace purveying distinctly cheesy merchandise like ‘genuine pieces of the true cross’ , ‘Turin shroud eiderdowns’ and ‘flesh-coloured Christs that glow in the dark’. (Or, to paraphrase Frank Zappa, “They’re gonna sell you stuff that you don’t really want. And, what’s more, they’ve been planning it for years“).

The so-called Hispanic/Peurto Rican/Latin community was a particular target for sundry fraudsters anxious to relieve them of their earthly treasures in exchange for a piece of heaven (made in Hong Kong). One of these old frauds had the brilliant idea of whacking out truckloads of T-shirts with JohnPaul II’s face on the front, above the legend ‘I saw the Pope’.

In Spanish…

…. Now, it’s a little-known fact that the words in Spanish for ‘Pope’ and ‘potato’ are ‘el Papa’ and ‘la Papa’ respectively. You can guess the rest.

There’s a warehouse in Brooklyn still storing 400,000 shirts proclaiming ‘I saw the potato’.

In 1994 they were joined in the dumper by similar quantities of shirts saying, ‘The Scottish/English/Welsh are coming’. Of course, although it turned out that none of us were actually going, we had been anxious for years about what might happen to our game in the land of the mighty dollar.

After all, not everyone finds American culture precisely to their taste. Take the Ayatollah Khomeini for example. He used to refer to the US as ‘the Great Satan’. One report in the Daily Telegraph famously recorded Khomeini as calling for a holy war against ‘the Great Stan.

Well, just how did big Stan cope with the greatest show on earth?

A Night at the Oprah

On 17th June, wearing a Spanish ‘I am the couch potato’ T- shirt, bermuda shorts and Red Sox baseball cap, I settled down in front of the telly with my bucket of popcorn and vat of coca-cola. Here I am now, entertain me.

The opening ceremony was a bad omen. These affairs are always appalling, but it was easy to anticipate that the Americans would trounce all-comers in a bad-taste contest. That well known aficionado of football, Oprah Winfrey, was the MC. She introduced a cavalcade of the competing countries, each represented by a troupe of break-dancers and each inexplicably backed by an earth-bound hang-glider pilot dressed as a psychedelic butterfly.

Brazil’s entrance into this farce prompted the first gratuitous Brazil/Samba reference from Barry Davies. The next thing we knew, Diana Ross was breenging across the field, miming badly to some unidentifiable dance-beat, before reaching a ball positioned 4 yards from a goal-net. The script no doubt called for her to lash it into the old onion-bag as the first symbolic goal of the tournament. However, a la Brian McClair, she defied the laws of physics by screwing it at least thirty yards wide, before giving way to a rousing chorus of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ (not the Hendrix version). Diana’s penalty miss turned out in fact to be heavily symbolic – one month later from almost exactly the same position Roberto Baggio launched his crucial spot-kick out of the stadium and into orbit around Venus to hand the cup to Brazil.
La Ross was quickly followed by some nonentity called John Secada apparently extricating himself from the interior of a giant deep-fat fryer to deliver a truly turgid piece of American rawk’n’roll. While he droned on it appeared that the stage had been the subject of an early pre-emptive tear-gas strike by the National Guard. Unfortunately, it merely turned out that somebody had gone crazy with the dry-ice machine.

Finally, Darryl Hall and a cast of thousands vomitted forth the instantly forgettable ‘official anthem’ of the World Cup. Pavarotti it most certainly wasn’t. It only remained for President William Jefferson Airplane Clinton to make an opening speech in which he contradicted all received wisdom by announcing that “The World Cup has captured the imagination of our country“.

England Expectorates

I can’t believe that the first match between Germany and Bolivia captured anyone’s imagination, whether in America or elsewhere. Dull, dull, dull. In fact, half-way through the game I was beginning to think that the Yanks were spot on about football. It was the most dreadful crap. We’d have been better off watching ‘Battle of the Supertrucks’ or a log-rolling contest.

Remarkably, given the sterility of the play, it took Barry Davies until the 16th minute before he struck with his first irrelevant mention of England. In a masterpiece of subtlety he introduced it by commenting that the opening match rarely produced many goals. We should’ve been able to see the next line coming “In fact, no World Champions have won their opening match since 1970 when England did it“. A positively brilliant disguised reference to 1966 by the boy Davies there. One to set my paranoid nerve-ends tingling.

In an effort to escape this sonic effluent I switched over to satellite coverage only to be greeted by the dulcet tones of Archie McPherson. Christ! I was back with Barry Davies in time to hear him saying, with obvious petted lip, “This referee was the one who refereed the England – Norway game and saw nothing wrong with the equaliser by Rekdal” . As it happens, Bazza Davies was consistently the worst offender throughout the tournament in the ‘little Englander’ stakes. He had limbered up for the Finals with a truly grotesque performance during the European Cup Final. You may remember that that match was refereed by Philip Don from Harrow. At one point during the game, Milan’s Donadoni went on a mazy run, during which he beat three or four Barcelona defenders, all of whom had a kick at him on the way past. Showing remarkable skill and tenacity, Donadoni stayed on his feet, still in possession of the ball. This piece of artistic wizardry induced Bazza to ejaculate, “Oh, well played Mr Don!” .

Apparently the English referee’s allowing of advantage was of more moment than the Italian player’s brilliance.

Davies simply continued to belch forth a shower of similar horse-shit throughout the World Cup. He was the worst, but by no means the only culprit. Brian Moore ran Davies pretty close when commentating on a Holland game. He seemed able to identify the Dutch players only by reference to real or imagined offences committed against England. Thus his commentary ran,

Koeman has the ball. He should have been sent off for that foul on David Platt, but it’s all history now. He passes to Wouters, he’s the one who elbowed Paul Gascoigne at Wembley you may remember. Now Overmars has it, / must say he looked suspiciously offside at the first Dutch goal against England ……”

During the quarter-final between Sweden and Romania, Moore and his partner, Kevin Keegan, contrived to spend much of their time emitting a stream of bat’s piss about the ‘outstanding’ qualities of the referee, namely ‘Mr Don from England’. In the second game of the tournament between Spain and South Korea, Alan Parry smashed all existing records by taking just 28 seconds to reveal that one of the Korean players ‘plays in the Japanese League, as does our own Gary Lineker‘, and then immediately followed this up by informing us that “there’s a little bit of England out there as one of the linesmen is English and Mr Don (yes, him again) is the fourth official”’.

Some people are born arseholes, some have arseholes thrust upon them.

The Carpenter is Harry Commentator

While I’m on the subject, I may as well deal with some of the other buffoons in the constellation of star commentators. Our old chum, John Motson, had a good World Cup, by his own dreadful standards. At the end of the first week the Guardian newspaper was so impressed that they took to referring to him as ‘Hot Motty’. Even so, he wasn’t immune to the English disease, ludicrously suggesting that ‘Soapy‘ Sutter of Switzerland was a “Paul Walsh look-alike” (ie he had long hair), while Sutter’s colleague Bregy was “very much a Ray Wilkins figure” (ie he had no hair). Rather disconceningly, Hot Motty frequently referred to the Russian team as ‘Soviets’. What does he know that we don’t ? More characteristically, he lunged in with the most exotic English reference of all, telling us that “the Cameroon shirts were made in Huddersfield“.

Hot Motty’s sometime sidekick, Trevor Brooking, made his bid for glory during the Brazil – Cameroon game when discussing some unexplained decision or other. He assured us that, “We’ll hear all about it at the end of the whistle“.

Over on the Sky channel, Archie ‘needs a chip’ McPherson continued to meander on in his uniquely strange and unintelligible way. His style is an amalgam of David Francey and Mrs Malaprop. Completely baffling. At least we’re used to him. God knows what the English viewers made of his rambling incoherence. I only suffered through a couple of his commentaries, but the old maestro was in top form, producing virtuoso performances packed full of mixed metaphors, non-sequiturs, unfinished sentences and entirely new words spontaneously invented by himself. Listening to him was just like sitting the aural test in your French ‘O’ level. Utterly incomprehensible. In the Norway – Mexico game he opined that “the Mexicans seem to be phasing themselves“. I think that the word he was looking for was ‘pacing‘.

Later on he informed us that “the Mexicans can’t get the ball – that’s one of the basic criterions” and that “they’re coming forward, but making no great leeway“.

In the Switzerland – Romania game he managed to harness all of his linguistic foibles into one amazing sentence in an effort to convey how tightly marked Romania’s star player was, viz

Hagi might not literally have the padlocks on but they’re breathing around him trying to suffocate him”.

To be fair to the old slaphead, he did manage to come up with an outstanding description of the Mexican goalkeeper’s outfit when he said, “When he comes out to collect a cross-ball it’s like a bird of paradise swooping through the jungle“. If he’d substituted ‘deranged parrot’ for ‘bird of paradise’ then it would’ve been just perfect.

Meanwhile, the same goalie’s rig-out was attracting attention on ITV. When Ron Atkinson was informed that the strips were designed by the keeper himself, he was moved to remark, “To be fair to the lad, they look as though they’ve been designed by Ray Charles“.

This comment may have produced puzzlement for younger viewers unfamiliar with the history of blind r’n’b piano players (or East Fife goalkeepers). There’s simply no contest. Big Ron is easily the best of the celebrity summarisers. There’s no liberal ‘new man’ guff with him. He just lumbers on, saying the first thing that comes into his head. When asked for his view of the flurry of red and yellow cards he said, “To be fair, the referees are just turning this into a game for fairies” , and he seemed to derive endless politically incorrect amusement from the sight of the Brazilian players holding hands with each other. To be fair, Ron, they were doing it early doors, just for fun, to set out their stall and show their stickability. (Note by shamefaced and politically correct author in 2006 – it turned out in due course that Ron was an appalling racist – but neither I nor, I suspect, you, knew that in 1994)

Compare and contrast Ron’s performance with the irritating bollocks talked by Messrs Keegan, Howe, Law, Venables, O’Leary etc.

An honourable exception was Alan Hansen, who continues to look like the casualty of an overnight visit from a vampire. At last a true successor to the legendary Alistair Dewar has emerged. The principal words in Hansen’s vocabulary are ‘awful’, ‘terrible’, ‘pathetic’, ‘rubbish’, ‘scandalous’, ‘shocking’, ‘farcical’, ‘hopeless’, ‘diabolical’, ‘atrocious’ and ‘worse than a pub team’. Great stuff.

Funnily enough, all of these words could easily have been used to describe Denis Law’s contributions. To paraphrase Basil Fawlty, Denis should be a contestant on Mastermind. Specialised subject – the bleedin’ obvious. Example – commentator says to Law, “This is a fantastic stadium, eh Denis ?” Law replies, “Oh yes , faaaantastic. Just faaaan-tastic”. Thank you, Denis.

Florida’s A Grand Old Team To Play For

In the absence of any British competitors the media adopted Ireland wholesale, and apparently expected the rest of us to go along with it. It was no impediment that Ireland were transparently the most boring team in the competition next to Norway. The qualifying group from which they emerged was dubbed ‘the group of death’ (ie the group where you were most likely to die of boredom).

While Ireland remained in the competition, BBC and ITV collaborated in the longest-running free Guinness advert of all time. In truth, Ireland’s biggest impact on the rest of the proceedings was the pure comedy of Jack Charlton’s fanatically deranged obsession with ‘wotta’ and John Aldridge’s highly audible shouts of “ya fookin cheat” during the match with Mexico.

(In fairness to big Jack, many of the games were played in unfeasibly immoderate temperatures, so much so that I had to slap on the old Factor 16 just to be able to watch them on the TV).

In a tournament riddled with goalkeeping errors, Bonner’s gaffe against Holland was something of a collector’s item. As someone who routinely supports whoever is in opposition to England, I sure as hell was not inclined to support a surrogate English team.

This is all sour grapes of course. Ireland have now twice gone further in the World Cup than we ever have. I’ll be returning to this topic later on.

Things Don’t Go Better With Coke

I should get my cards on the table here. For about six months prior to the finals I was telling everyone who would listen that Colombia were going to win. I fancied Nigeria as finalists with Norway as my ‘outsiders’. We TAG scribes have our fingers right on the pulse. If you think I’m embarrassed about being so wildly wrong then how do you think Pele must be feeling? He’d apparently heard that I was tipping the Colombians and immediately hot-footed it round to Ladbrokes to get his money on. Still, I suppose he’s consoled by the millions he pulled in through advertising everything which moved and looked as though it might remotely be connected with football.

In the advert breaks it seemed to be Pele here, Pele there, Pele every fucking where. Sad. (Don’t you think you’re overdoing the iconoclasm a little bit? – Ed).

Colombia’s demise directly led to the murder of Escobar, their defender who’d scored an own goal against the USA. That news was quite literally the most stunning thing which happened in the World Cup. It made us all feel sick. The implications of that particular event require a completely separate article, so forgive me for glossing over it. In contrast, the expulsion of Maradona a couple of days earlier was a tragedy for no-one in particular, except the cheating little bugger himself. I had very quickly tired of his rolling around on the deck after every innocuous challenge, and the perpetual pained expression on his face.

At least Willie Johnston now has a suitably illustrious companion in the rogues gallery. Maradona’s disgrace indirectly provided us with the cataclysmic Romania – Argentina match, and for that I say three cheers. Fortunately the Argentinian manager didn’t attempt any Ally McLeod-type explanation along the lines of “Ach, he’d have been daft to take ephedrine on top of all that cocaine he was snorting“.

In the context of Escobar’s shooting, it was perhaps not surprising to learn that bona-fide head-case Rene Higuita had not been included in the Colombian squad as he’d just completed a six-month jail sentence for his part in a kidnapping. (“Not the ideal way to prepare for the World Cup” quoth John Fashanu). Crikey, give us Jimmy Johnstone in a rowing boat any day.

Bastards in the.. eh…Sort of Nauseating Puce

Now a word about the refereeing. That word is ‘garbage’. Amongst the lessons which we might have learned is that the myth of our refs being inferior to foreigners is exactly that – a total fabrication. The officiating was uniformly disgraceful. The repeated brandishing of reds and yellows for bugger all just completely beggared belief. Years ago in TAG Mad Mac recounted how the aforementioned Willie Johnston had invented an offence new to the canons of football law, by sitting on the ball. At least a further two entirely novel bookable offences were discovered by the Irish team on its own. First, Tommy Coyne was the recipient of a yellow for recovering from an injury before the treatment arrived. Then Ray Houghton received similar punishment for carrying water. I would’ve understood it if he’d been booked for passing water. But for carrying it?

There’s an old joke about a guy going round Glasgow spreading a purple powder about the streets ‘to keep the elephants away’. When it was drawn to his attention that there weren’t any elephants in Glasgow he replied, “Well, that proves that the powder’s working doesn’t it ?”.

It seems that FIFA were applying the same principle in ensuring that there would be no foul play by cautioning players before any foul play occurred. The result was that many of the matches didn’t really look like football matches at all, as the players struggled to avoid physical contact at all costs. Although it may have made the football more pretty to watch, that’s hardly the point. The match between Mexico and Bulgaria was the major casualty, being completely ruined by a lunatic official who seemed intent on getting his card out for the lads at every opportunity.

Electric Shocks

On the first occasion when the much-vaunted ‘electric cart’ was mentioned, I misheard it and thought that injured players were to be disposed of in an electric chair. Very soon I was wishing that such a device was available for the officials. There was nothing wrong here that a few thousand volts from Old Sparky wouldn’t have cured.

As it turned out, the electric cart appeared to actually consist of an old-fashioned – and distinctly un-electric – stretcher, which was usually carried by a couple of young ‘Miss America’ contestants and a troupe of very fat men.

The very fat men always seemed to be in the burger bar whenever any casualties occurred. The usual routine was that the player would go down, roll about in agony for a bit, and then begin to feel slightly better when the yellow card was shown to his opponent. The referee would signal for the electric cart. The fourth official would scour the burger bars for the very fat men. After a reasonable interlude the very fat men would lumber on to the pitch clutching the stretcher and the last mouthfuls of a jumbo-sized moose and maple syrup sandwich. Meanwhile, the player had completely recovered, but had to lie prone for fear of getting a yellow. He’d then be bundled on to the stretcher and be carted off amidst much a-huffin’ and a-puffin’ from the very fat men, only to spring to his feet immediately on arrival at the touchline. Farce or what?

Years ago, during a strike by the fire brigade, the army were called in with their ‘Green Goddess’ vehicles to act as an emergency fire service. One unit was called out to rescue an old lady’s cat which had got stuck up a tree. They duly rescued the moggy and the old dear was so delighted that she invited all the Tommys in for a cup of tea. Thereafter, as she waved them off they ran over the cat.

With such hilarity in mind, every time yer actual ‘electric cart’ (ie golf buggy) made an appearance I was rather hoping it would collide with a hitherto uninjured player.

Anyway, where was I ? Ah yes, referees. Our own Les Mottram hardly covered himself in glory. He seemed to enjoy the South Korea – Bolivia 0-0 draw so much that he let it run on for a couple of hours after the traditional closing time. Oh, well played Mr Mottram!

But seriously, folks, some people have said that the refereeing actually helped to produce attractive, exciting football. Maybe. But what was the point in introducing entirely new rules the night before the tournament started? The new offside rule was absurd and was arbitrarily applied in a way which made it impossible for anyone to know what was happening.

Up until 17th June most of us would have been quite confident about explaining the offside rule to any passing bobby-soxer from Milwaukee. It would now be a brave man who would tackle the task. Looking at the Brazil – Holland match the new rule appears to be that a player in a patently offside position is not offside if, ‘in the opinion of the referee a goal for Brazil is likely to result’. No doubt the SFA will be able to adapt this imaginative new law by appropriate substitution of the word ‘Rangers’ for ‘Brazil’.

Nuts to Brazil

It’s becoming less surprising to see the ‘minnows’ doing well. I think we can say without fear of contradiction that Scotland would have been soundly thrashed by Morocco, Nigeria, South Korea, Team Amerika (big Stan’s XI), and the Saudis (pronounced ‘Soddys’ by Ron Atkinson).

Some other pundit has already observed that we ourselves are now not so much minnows, as plankton.

All our excuses are fast disappearing. Why can we not even compete with Ireland? I suppose that prior to June we would have put ourselves in the same league as the likes of Bulgaria, Sweden and Romania. But now ? It’s a bit frightening to see what they’re capable of. What can we do?

I’ve done my bit.

I’ve written to Jim Farry (Dear Mr Farry, it has been drawn to my attention that there are some things which are not quite right with Scottish football. Can you please arrange to rectify this situation immediately).

A lot of great football was played in the World Cup. Big Stan did a terrific job in organising the tournament, and there was hardly any discemible intrusion of the grosser aspects of the native culture. The only major disappointment was the Final itself (both in the nature of the game and in the fact that Bazza Davies got the nod over Hot Motty on BBC).

Am I alone in having been irritated throughout the competition by ‘our’ commentators’ slavish devotion to the myth of Brazil and Samba football? Naturally, we all still have wet dreams about their 1970 team, but their 1994 squad were as far removed from that as last season’s hackers and cloggers at Parkhead were from the Lisbon Lions.

One doesn’t lightly criticise the World Champions, but it has to be said that the Brazilians were the poorest team ever to win the World Cup. In their three games against USA, Sweden and Italy they managed to score just two goals. Not so much Samba, more ‘dying fly’.

Despite that disappointment at the very end, I enjoyed the four weeks, though I just wish that the best team, namely Romania, had won it. I also derived some pleasure, in a sad trainspotter sort of way, by noticing that four of the competing players were called Albert, Roy, Flo and Berti. Are they not characters in ‘the Broons’ ?

But, most of all, Big Stanley ’94 has given me an appetite for Dumbarton’s upcoming opener against the Samba rhythms of Team Queen of the South. Who needs Romario when you’ve got Charlie Gibson?


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