FIFA, the World Cup 2014 paradox, and 48 years of hurt…

A tearful Paul Gascoigne at Italia '90.

A tearful Paul Gascoigne at Italia ’90.

And so it begins. The office sweepstakes have been organised, the wall charts are up, the sticker albums are almost complete and a solid month of football lies ahead.

Despite the fact the game’s world governing body, FIFA, has about as much credibility as the elections in Syria, that didn’t matter last night when hosts Brazil kicked off the World Cup against Croatia.

The suits were out in force, amid all the pomp and ceremony, as the first match provided a welcome distraction for the embattled charisma vacuum that is Sepp Blatter.

The internal strife of the South American nation has been forgotten. The furore surrounding FIFA’s dubious decision to award the 2022 tournament to a country which is hotter than the sun has been conveniently parked.

As much as the World Cup is an inspirational event, we must accept that it’s also the poster boy for corporate largesse and hyperbole.

Here in England, the Spirit of ‘66 lives on – well at least it does in supermarkets up and down the country where you can buy flags of St George and T-shirts showing the late, great Bobby Moore OBE which will be worn by people of all ages – many of whom have no idea who he was.

England play their first game on Saturday night in a brand new stadium in Manaus – a place more suited to a location shoot for Raiders of the Lost Ark than top flight football.

The pitch is of a standard that many pub teams would baulk at and the stadium itself will only be used for four World Cup games because no major team in Brazil wants to base themselves in, well… the jungle.

But the lunacy that accompanies the tournament will be overlooked by fans of England and Italy because all that matters on Saturday night is the result.

I suppose it’s easy to understand why your average fan isn’t too bothered by what happens off the field or the domestic problems of the host nation.

The World Cup is one of those rare events – a sporting occasion which brings nations together, united in hope for an improbable dream.

Club allegiances are set aside (we’re all England now) and the only debates take place over matters such as whether Wellbeck or Sterling should start a game and the fitness or otherwise of Wayne Rooney.

For the millions of supporters of lower league clubs, like myself, the World Cup gives us – albeit briefly – a seat at the top table.

Whether you’re Port Vale or Rotherham, Crewe Alex or Yeovil, the multi-million pound Premier League superstars are now yours to support.

Even if it’s only for the group stages.

I was born in 1972 – by which time the glow of England’s only World Cup triumph was already fading.

Even so, I dare say few people who were around to see Geoff Hurst’s heroics would have thought that almost 50 years later the Three Lions would still be waiting to appear in another World Cup Final.

For as long as I’ve been watching England, they’ve been hugely disappointing.

Glorious and not-so-glorious failures are all I can remember.

We cling on to Bryan Robson’s lightning-quick goal, Lineker’s Golden Boot, David Platt’s sublime volley and Gazza’s tears.

We have recurring nightmares about penalty shoot-outs and still feel aggrieved that the greatest footballer of his generation used his hand to knock us out of the tournament.

We’ve seen a so-called ‘golden generation’ under-achieve hugely and been left questioning whether or not Champions League football perhaps matters more to overpaid Premier League stars than representing their country.

If I sound cynical I am. But it doesn’t mean I won’t enjoy the World Cup.

The one saving grace this time is that I can’t find anyone who thinks England are a force to be reckoned with.

Like Germany in 2010, we have an interesting mix of experience and youngsters with potential. We have no superstars. None.

No-one expects us to tear up any trees and that may just be Roy Hodgson’s greatest weapon.

I don’t expect miracles. I don’t expect beautiful football. But I do expect the national anthem to be sung with gusto and for the players representing our country to give their all. To show some passion.

Come on England. Do us proud.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

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Can Roy Hodgson’s England erase 46 years of hurt?

We’re doing it again, aren’t we? Building our hopes up. Having those ‘what if?’ conversations in living rooms, workplaces and pubs.

What if we can get past the group stage? What if Andy Carroll comes good? What if Roy Hodgson’s appointment is actually a stroke of genius? What if Rooney doesn’t get sent off?

Despite years of crushing disappointment and the failure of the ‘Golden Generation’ to shine, we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and roll out the Three Lions song from Euro ’96.

It’s no longer 30 years of hurt. Or even 40. It’s, er… 46 years since the England football team actually won anything.

Since then we’ve had odd flashes of brilliance, the occasional dalliance with a semi-final and plenty of penalty shoot-out misery. But, for my entire life, it’s been soul-crushing, gut-wrenching, toe-curling disappointment and endless frustration. It’s been a montage of tears, tantrums, bizarre dismissals and the obligatory elimination courtesy of Teutonic spot kick efficiency.

OK. So we may not have had the most technically-gifted footballers in the world.

But we humble England fans would just like someone to explain to us why talented individuals who play out of their skins for their clubs in what is billed as the best league in the world become useless donkeys when they pull on an England shirt. Why does a lion of Istanbul become a lamb in Bloemfontein? Why does the top of the bill at the Theatre of Dreams suddenly get stage fright?

Is it because there’s no money at stake? Is it because their club contracts are so much more important? Is it because our many and varied managers have been deficient?

Or are we just, well, rubbish? Do we delude ourselves that we have ‘world class’ players when, in actual fact, they can’t do it on the biggest stages?

If we are being honest, it’s probably all of the above which explains the love/hate relationship England fans have with their team. Combine that with some pretty tepid or downright dire performances and we could be forgiven for chucking our St. George foam hats and red novelty wigs in the bin with our dog-eared copies of Hoddle and Waddle’s Diamond Lights.

In spite of all this, we can’t help ourselves but be reinvigorated with renewed optimism every time a major tournament comes around. It’s tribal, so I’ve been told.

We simply can’t prevent the hope of the glory.

We all have our favourite moments but some bond us together in the way that only sport can.

Moments such as captain marvel Bryan Robson scoring the fastest-ever World Cup goal against France at Spain in ’82.

Or never-booked Gary Lineker scoring a hat-trick against Poland at the ’86 World Cup in Mexico.

We get all choked up remembering Gazza’s tears at Italia ’90 and eulogise about THAT goal he scored against Scotland at Euro ’96.

We talk about Shearer and Sheringham dismantling Holland on that memorable night when we put four past the pass masters.

We recall David Platt’s sublime volley to end Belgium’s World Cup challenge.

We remember lion-hearted Stuart Pearce having the bottle to take a spot kick against Spain after messing up in a previous tournament shoot-out.

We savour shaven-headed Becks’ astonishing free kick against Greece and his fearless penalty against the Argies which exorcised the demons of his youthful indiscretion against Diego Simeone.
We enjoy replays of the 5 – 1 demolition of Germany in Munich when even Emile Heskey managed to score.

You see, England may have won nowt in the last four decades but we now have a rich history of glorious failure.

It is a heritage which marks us out as the nearly men of European and world football.

Roy Hodgson may be as dull as a dissertation on the Yellow Pages but that’s maybe no bad thing as, for once, expectation levels have not gone beyond the borders of reality.

Not just yet, anyway…

For now, at least, he’s our Roy and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is this year’s Theo Walcott.

As always, hope springs eternal in the birthplace of the beautiful game.

It’s back to two banks of four, men behind the ball and a big bloke up front.

All is well with the world.

Come on Engerland…

Mon dieu! Gary’s goals didn’t half quieten the French lads

England's World Cup goalden boy Gary Lineker.

England’s World Cup goalden boy Gary Lineker.

It was damned hot, as you’d expect, in Majorca in June 1990. I was 18.

I remember it fondly for a couple reasons. Firstly, because it was my last holiday with my mum, dad and brother before I flew the nest (and they let me take my then girlfriend with me).

Secondly, it was there where I experienced the genuine agony and ecstasy of the World Cup as only an Englishman abroad can.

Our hotel’s guests were a genuine mix of nationalities and each night we would all gather in the cinema room to watch the footy.

I recall there being an awful lot of noisy French lads in there who would adopt any nation that was playing England as their own, much to my annoyance.

No wonder we do so badly in the Eurodrivel Song Contest.

“Belgique! Clap, clap, clap, clap, clap – clap, clap, clap, clap, Belgique!

That’s all I could hear for almost two hours.

Still, no matter. A dinked free-kick from Psycho and there was ex-Crewe boy David Platt to swivel and volley home from eight yards out in the dying seconds of injury time.

Cue unbridled joy among the English contingent and much gnashing of teeth among the pseudo-Belgians.

A couple of days later mes amis adopted Roger Milla’s African surprise package and chants of ‘Cam-air-rune’ (trust me, that’s what it sounded like) drowned out the commentary.

Then suddenly, mon dieu, it all went quiet over there. God bless Gary Lineker’s penalty-kicking boots, that’s all I can say.

In the semis, the French lads even sided with the Germans – which I thought was jolly unsporting.
I think we all knew it would end badly, didn’t we?

The Germans went through on penalties and the French contingent whooped like they had just won the trophy themselves.

Gazza cried. He wasn’t the only one.

To be fair, the German guests were magnanimous in their victory – shaking hands and even buying the beer. You remember stuff like that.

Twenty years later and here we all are again getting our hopes up, planning barbecues when it’s bound to rain and coming up with excuses to skive off work when Fabio’s boys are playing.

And who can blame us?

Forget the 2012 Olympics, forget Britain’s Got Talent, forget the General Election – there is simply no show on Earth which raises our passions quite like the football circus which has just arrived in South Africa.

Now all this talk about the flag of Saint George being an offensive symbol which has been appropriated by the Far Right is shown to be rubbish.

Suddenly the PC brigade have gone quiet because you can’t move for English flags hanging from windows, fluttering on vehicles and branded on to every product under the sun.

Nonsensical studies and predictions abound – claiming, for example, that every goal England score beyond the knockout stage of the World Cup (if we get that far) will be worth £126 million to retailers back home.

I mean, come on! On the back of which fag packet was that calculated?

We lap it up, nonetheless, along with the proper ‘Rio crocked’ type news from England’s base.

Meanwhile, one national newspaper is already digitally placing a second winners’ star above the Three Lions badge in its TV adverts as Terry Venables croons at us from the goggle box like your mad uncle at a wedding.

Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that never has so much hype been written by so many, about so few.
‘Fifty million believers’ screams a Sky TV poster.

And yes, I’m one of them.

On Saturday family and friends will gather round the telly in my living room as the action unfolds and yours truly sits there, wrapped in a Port Vale-doctored flag of Saint George, no doubt resorting to a bit of Anglo-Saxon now and again. (Sadly, we’ve no room for French spectators).

Of course, on Saturday it won’t matter if you’re Stoke, Vale or Crewe, black or white, or if you only watch football every four years.

On Saturday, for better or worse, we are all English and it’s glorious. Bring it on…