Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Sweet FAQs: The frequently - and not so frequently asked World Cup questions

The plasma screen is in place. The beer is in the fridge. You've studied the formations and and placed a wager with the bookie. But as the World Cup finally kicks off, the really big questions remain unanswered. What's in it for Labour? Will your marriage survive? Let's go over to our team of top pundits...

1.WHO IS THE WORLD CUP REALLY FOR?

By Hunter Davies

The Big People, obviously. You have to be huge, overpowering, overweening, over everywhere in order to be given the modest title of "England Partner". All it costs is a few trillion, which is why only interglobal whoppers like Carlsberg, McDonald's and Pepsi can afford it. Funny how all three produce products which healthy, growing footballers are warned against. So, the World Cup is a commercial fest, aimed at the Biggies.

The WC is also a big event for Small Fans. It will be noticeable next week when you see close-up shots of England fans and their banners that you are unlikely to spot any Arsenal or Man Utd flags. Most will be boasting they are from Hereford, Carlisle, Cambridge, Darlington, Yeovil. There are several reasons for this. Big Club fans tend to look down upon Little Club fans, considering themselves well above such naff, pathetic display. It is also the case that a Big Club fan is more interested in their team winning the Premiership, the Champions' League or even the FA Cup than in the fortunes of the national team. A Little Club fan, bless him or her, knows their best chance of success is by cheering on England.

Supporting England is a big attraction for Ordinary People. My local vicar here in Lakeland is flying two England flags on her car, is wearing an England shirt and an England baseball cap, yet since Euro 2004, when she did much the same, I can't remember having more than 10 minutes of chat with her about football.

I had my hair cut in Cockermouth today by Beryl, as usual, and she had spent the whole morning decorating her window with England tat. Yet I never talk about football with her either. (I was able to give her a signed photo of Wayne Rooney. She was well made up. I hope she doesn't get her window broken by some fan trying to steal it.)

Ordinary folks, who don't otherwise follow any team, get caught up in the nation's communal feelings when it's the World Cup. Such emotions are infectious, just as they were when Diana died.

For football fans, that's what the World Cup is most of all for. I like the fact that the players are actually from the country they are playing for, unlike players who turn out for Manchester or London clubs. I like the fact that players, on the whole, are on their best behaviour. I also like to think, as I sit there, watching all 64 games, that I am part of a vast brotherhood of football fans, all over the world, understanding exactly what's going on, despite the language differences. I also imagine that I am communing with generations long dead who followed football over the past 140 years. Football is for fantasists, especially those who think England might win...

Hunter Davies is ghosting Wayne Rooney's autobiography

2. DOES THIS OBSESSION WITH FOOTBALL REPRESENT A CRISIS FOR MASCULINITY?

By Deborah Orr

It's neat, the idea that middle-class men have turned to football in reaction against their partners at home asking them icily if they've had their feet up on the Ligne Roset again and informing them briskly that their production of three low-carb courses including fish for eight would be much appreciated, 8pm for 8.30pm, on Saturday night. It's neat, and it's also reductive - just another way, really, of reminding men that They Are Crap.

Certainly, football does offer a crudely comprehensive index of what it is and was to be masculine, in its glory as well as its horror. For more than a century, the working man has venerated the spectacle of athletes joining together in a highly tribal team and waging against other men a contest of skill, strategy, speed and endurance.

Yes, it's significant that their hands are tied, except in the purest defence. It's perfect index of the post-industrial limits on the degree to which a man can use his hands to solve a problem. The fact that on the terraces and out in the street, this ritualisation cannot always be maintained, of course, is part of the attraction.

The men themselves, the players, really are (even though it's a tired cliché to say so) gladiatorial warriors, plucked from the ranks of civilians at as early an age as possible, and encouraged to display the single-minded obsessive dedication to a single end that, in our multi-tasking present, few people are allowed to do.

Outside football, when boys or men do this stuff, they are ridiculed as "on the spectrum" - as coy psychobabblists now like to refer to autism-related syndromes. It is considered by some to be likely that a genuine link between masculinity and autism does exist.

And it goes almost without saying that football covers also those aspects of many men - the list-making, fact-gathering, stuff-knowing tics - that in Nick Hornby novels and trainspotters we find hilarious. Yet in the footballers themselves, an inability to function off the pitch is part of the deal. Often one hears that the bad masculine behaviour of some football stars is only to be expected, due to their rarified and simultaneously deprived situation. Masculinity is portrayed in football as a self-limiting condition, rather than as a wholly positive or superior mode of existence.

Then there's the communality of experience that men enjoy when they take part in football in any way - whether it's watching down the pub or bathing in the dressing room. What is most important of all is the shared expression of emotions. One guy weeping with disappointment on his own (or indeed punching in the air because his doughnuts have turned out like Fanny's again) will be left to get on with it by his embarrassed compatriots. An entire pub/stadium/nation/world doing the same thing entirely circumvents this problem.

Whether any of this indicated anything except the cleverness of men in being able to find an outlet for their ancient definitions of masculinity is a massive debate. But it is worth remembering, too, that the Wives And Girlfriends are also in Germany, characteristically if not all-inclusively taking part in competitive dieting, paddling in their Jimmy Choos and avidly flicking through the gossip sheets in search of stories about themselves and their implants. If football's world domination is an indication of a crisis, I'd say it was a human crisis rather than a masculine one. Football seems like a more useful form of narcissism than narcissism, even though it is every bit as flawed and imperfect as most humans you'll ever meet.

3. WOULD WINNING THE WORLD CUP RESTORE LABOUR'S FORTUNES?

By Peter Kellner

There's a story doing the rounds that Tony Blair's fortunes could be revived if England won this year's World Cup. Look what happened in 1966, say those who are optimistic both about Labour and Sven's squad: Bobby Moore led Alf Ramsay's team to triumph over the Germans at Wembley, and Harold Wilson retained power with a landslide victory over the Tories at Westminster.

There is only one problem with that account. Wilson's victory came in March. Kenneth Wolstenholme did not declare "They think it's all over" until July. Unless Wilson benefited from a massive swing to Labour among at least one million clairvoyants, the story does not stack up.

A more pertinent trip down memory lane concerns what happened four years later. Once again, England played West Germany in the World Cup; this time in the quarter-finals in Mexico. England squandered a two-goal lead and lost 3-2. That match took place on Sunday 14 June. Four days later was election day in Britain. The weekend opinion polls pointed to another big win for Labour. Indeed, Wilson was said to have picked 18 June in order to benefit from a World Cup bounce. In the event the bounce helped Edward Heath, who enjoyed a late swing to return the Tories to power.

So what caused the sudden, last-minute slump in Labour's fortunes? Did England's defeat provoke a bout of national pessimism, which rubbed off on the government? Or does blame lie with some appalling trade figures that were published on the Monday, and which appeared to support Heath's assertion that the economy was crumbling under Labour?

The likely truth is that the two things reinforced each other. Wilson had run a campaign that sought to exploit the feelgood factor, rather than impress the electorate with serious new policies. Unfortunately for him, when a surge in both imports and German goals produced a feel-bad factor, Labour was sunk.

Fresh evidence of the impact of the World Cup came four years ago. The day after Brazil knocked out England, YouGov found that Labour's lead, which had never fallen below six points in the previous six months, suddenly dipped to just three points. However, the dip did not last - Labour's lead bounced back within a fortnight. The evidence, then, is that the World Cup can affect party fortunes, but its direct impact is short-lived. Unless an election is held immediately after triumph or disaster - as it was in 1970 - the political life of the nation is not likely to be greatly disturbed. If England become world champions next month, expect Labour's rating to pick up for a few days, and then to slip back down. As a political event, the World Cup is on a par with a dramatic by-election - making waves for a week or so, before the political caravan moves on.

Whether there is a more subtle, indirect and lasting effect, in contributing to a nation's view of itself, is harder to judge. What Blair and Gordon Brown - ignoring his Scottish roots for a moment - must be hoping is that victory next month would contribute to a wider sense of national revival, which would be good for Labour, and less good for David Cameron's Conservatives.

Do the polls after England's 1966 victory help us pin this phenomenon down? Not really. Britain was in the middle of an economic crisis. Wilson's reputation was in freefall. Our World Cup victory did not reinforce a happy national mood: it briefly countered a gloomy one. Maybe the next few weeks will give us a chance to test what could not be tested 40 years ago. Let's just hope the economy doesn't stumble this time.

And if I were Cameron, I would not be too distraught if Germany once again knocked out England; but I would be careful not to admit to this treasonable thought in public.

Peter Kellner is chairman of YouGov

4. WILL WE SEE GERMANY IN A NEW LIGHT?

By Jonathan Meades

Britons know France, Italy, America, even the Far East - but they don't know Germany. It has not always been this way. If you take a trip back in time and read the accounts of cultured, bourgeois, educated Englishmen before the First World War, they were much more Germanophile than Francophile. They liked Germans; they recognised the many similarities we shared. Germany was not a strange land to those men in the way it has become.

The stereotype cherished by the less sentient among us - let us say those who read or work for The Sun - is of a country populated by men waving sauerkrauts and guzzling beer. They treasure this vision of a potentially dangerous, nationalistic, militaristic state run by repressed Nazis.

Just as the French cannot understand why they are deprecated by the British press, so the Germans are mystified as to why The Sun still fights a 60-year-old war. The false image is born of ignorance; a bizarre caricature we have gleaned from comics and war films.

Most people are more reasonable and less hysterical than the media imagines. Those of us possessing a functioning cortex understand that battle ended in 1945. But we still know very little about Germany.

Those of the gutter-press mentality will simply gloat if the German football team does as badly as it is expected to; they will see another defeat for the country that has "lost two World Wars and one World Cup". But for others, whether they travel to the tournament or watch from afar, the World Cup may offer insight.

Germany has a greater knowledge of its past than does any other European country. People under 60 display a collective contrition for the crimes of their parents and grandparents. But for how long should they be made to?

The World Cup may show up the absolute balderdash that Germans have no sense of humour. Some England fans may also consider why "earnest" has become a dirty word within these shores. It is true that the Germans are not too frivolous; they are not scared of being serious. They show a greater degree of civility (apart from in Bavaria). They are better educated: their footballers speak superior English to ours.

Germany and Britain have great similarities: the extraordinary culture, obviously in music and in literature. The fantastic architecture, especially in the north: Hamburg, Lubeck and Stralsund (which has a skyline as beautiful as Venice). Both appreciate good food (although German food is vastly better on an everyday level).

Germany has not suffered the same 20-year dumbing down we have, which requires every British minister to feel the need to prove their popular credentials by eating burgers or pretending to like Coldplay. Nobody in Germany bothers with that rubbish. Brits may learn some of these things.

We have been persuaded that football is a balm to the sores of xenophobic cliché. However, for all the talk of bringing nations together, the World Cup's potential to fulfil its promises is moot.

The number of people actually interested in football is tiny: the 90 per cent of the population not already enthused by football will not suddenly eat every byte of media hype. Owing to the indifference of most people, I wonder if we can expect such a profound effect? Without enough travelogues, the British still won't know the glories of the German landscape, architecture or inhabitants. But I hope people will realise Germany is not a monstrous country and that we can drop this fixation with the 12-year rule of one of the deadliest regimes of the 20th century.

Even a documentary narrated by Ian Wright - actually no, that's a horrible thought - might encourage people to visit Germany. Not for football but to discover something remarkable: a genial and incredibly diverse nation; excitingly young, yet steeped in tradition; a country peopled by the friendly and thoughtful.

5. WHAT'S IT LIKE BEING SCOTTISH WHEN ALL YOU HEAR ABOUT IS ENGLAND?

By Jenny Colgan

It is, of course, my own fault. Nobody forced me to join the Cosa-Scotia down in London and live my life far away from the misty glens, 90mph winds and terrifying Tizer-swigging, heroin-taking neds of my beautiful homeland. And I do love London. Still, rarely have I pined for a square sausage sandwich quite as much as during the endless, bloody, total mass-media-white-van-man-overkill-run-up to this World Cup.

This is the worst it's ever been, I'm sure. (In fact, a word to the wise - for anyone fancying a mini-break this weekend there are some spectacular deals on flights and the Eurostar for Saturday afternoon.) And the cry has gone up once again: "Why can't the Scots support the English team, blah blah snivel..."

Well, firstly, which bit are we being asked to support: the frenzied and repeated insulting of the host nation bit? The throwing chairs while beered-up bit? Or would you perhaps like us to buy the Neil and Christine Hamilton single?

I remember an old (English) boyfriend asking me if there were any team I wouldn't support against England. France? "Yup." Germany? " Probably." Saudi Arabia? "Well, they're not in the same group." "But why?" he said. "Why not just support us? You live here." "I don't know," I answered, honestly. It's just been habit for so long I can't even remember why I do it.

Oh yeah. I remember. The Clearances. And the poll tax. But here's the real reason. Scottish people don't support England to remind you that we're not the same place, and we don't belong to you, however much you may talk about "English people" when you mean Brits and "England" when you mean the United Kingdom, much of which you tried to subjugate by force, as commemorated in your bloomin' NATIONAL ANTHEM and its line about " rebellious Scots to crush". Is that helpful?

We don't hold any bitterness and have settled for merely controlling your Government, medical establishment and media, but once every four years we just like to point it out. Most worrying of all is Gordon Brown's professed support for the English team, and how great it was when Gazza beat us. Make no mistake, this is a lie, and a stain on what till now hasn't been a bad character for a politician. A Scottish person (and a Raith Rovers fan at that) supporting England is an impossibility; worse, it's a category error. It's like saying your favourite food is hair.

Four years ago the Tartan Army held a vote in its 86-strong executive committee (the mind boggles at what the Tartan Army's 86-strong executive committee is for. What do they do? Are there minutes? Have I been confused all these years and it's actually a real army?) to see if they would support England in its World Cup bid.

"We had three recounts," its chief executive said at the time. "But it still came out the same: 86-0. Against."

And there we have it: proof. We are, at the last, a pale and different race, and red and white really doesn't suit our colouring.

Jenny Colgan's latest novel, West End Girls, is published by Little, Brown in July

6. WILL WE MISS SVEN WHEN HE'S GONE?

By James Brown

Will we miss Sven when he's gone? Yes, I think we will. He has brought a lightness of touch, an element of surprise to the job. He has shown consistency around the box, brought in some unexpected names, has been bold in his selection for playing away. So far I'm just on about his sex life.

For the football fan and the media, Sven has been a revelation. Despite the predictable barrage of resistance that came from the band of rent-a-quote little Englanders upon his appointment, Sven has proven that a foreigner CAN manage England and do it well. He can win matches and provide enough scandal for the front pages of the tabloids, too. He has done everything we expect of our England managers.

His era will be looked back on as a period of enlightenment, typified by his quite un-British demeanour. We'll say: "Blimey! He was brilliant, unpredictable, overpaid." Being paid too much money is not really a crime in itself. It's not as bad as selecting hopeless players, like Graham Taylor did.

The pundits who are now discussing how this squad of England players picks itself are overlooking the fact that Sven has made the England job look easier than it is. He has chosen the most gifted young players, whereas in the past it's tended to be a VERY old boys' network. He has given the England fan hope when, throughout most of my lifetime, there has always been a nagging disappointment.

Off the pitch he's been a revelation. For a start he's an unlikely cross between Gary Oldman's Dracula and Mr Burns from The Simpsons. Historically our managers have looked like villains from Ealing cinema: the pasty-faced Bobby Robson, the avuncular safe-cracker Terry Venables. Either that or no one can remember what they looked like.

The great characters - Jack Charlton, Brian Clough - have never been handed the job for fear of upsetting the applecart. And yet this quiet Swede, who must have looked a safe bet PR-wise, has in many ways been the loudest of them all. People have said he lacks passion, but his ability to win matches is more important than doing a Windsor Davies in It Ain't Half Hot Mum.

In terms of hot gossip, Sven has actually provided more storylines than any other manager since the great Malcolm Allison. From his feisty Italian girlfriend to his affair with fellow Swede Ulrika Jonsson, Sven has shocked everyone by - and I quote Ad, the sex columnist on onemickjones.com here - "banging good-looking sloshpots".

The same goes for money. He's been hounded for taking meetings with Abramovich and fake sheikhs, but who wouldn't want to suck a bit on that flow of black gold? Who'd have thought that oil and not poor results would ultimately have led to Sven's demise? As a way to go, it's certainly in a bigger league than being pilloried as a turnip.

7. HOW DOES 2006 COMPARE WITH 1966?

By Barry Fantoni

In the late afternoon of 30 July 1966, as people started running on to the Wembley pitch because they thought it was all over, I was listening to the match on my car radio outside a boutique on the King's Road.

Inside, my girlfriend was trying to decide which handbag to buy. She'd been at it some time. Eventually, she came out and showed me two bags. Did I like the pink or the cherry red? The people who had run on to the pitch now knew it was all over and started cheering. I preferred the pink. It went better with her lavender and sage-green floral miniskirt. "Why are they cheering?" she asked, nodding at the radio. "England have beaten Germany 4-2. The third goal seems to be in dispute," I explained. She smiled. "You're right about the pink."

There were no flags of St George in 1966. There were plenty of Union Jacks but most were on mugs designed by Pop Artists and had nothing directly to do with the World Cup. There were no big screens in pubs. There were no small screens in pubs. There weren't many screens in houses, either.

The year that an England captain lifted the Jules Rimet for the first and only time there were no TV pundits, no months of agonising about who would or wouldn't play or the billions of words devoted to whether, should he be picked, Joe Cole should play in the hole or on the left?

Unlike '66, when even Sir Alf probably had difficulty remembering his squad, in 2006, every single English man, woman and child can name Sven's men standing on their head. They know how tall Crouch is and that Rooney's fourth bone in his right foot is called a metatarsal in Latin.

As my girlfriend filled her new handbag with things from the old handbag, I drove down the King's Road, the then cultural hub of the civilised world. At around six o'clock it was still heaving but there was little or no evidence that England's plucky island history had just been added to by a Hurst hat-trick and the agreement of two match officials who had no common language. No one was drunk. No one had a red cross flag wrapped around them.

In the summer of 1966, the Top 10 and Twiggy held the public's interest. Football wasn't coming home. It had never been away. Actually, it had never been anything until the penny dropped in the publicity-packed weeks that followed.

In 2006, munching Mars bars renamed Believe for the duration, the entire nation will sit before countless high-resolution plasma screens the size of football pitches, their hearts bursting with pride and expectation.

With the cross of St George printed on everything from toilet paper to freezer bags, this country has prepared itself as never before. And this time, if the Nation's Finest once again reach the final, you won't find anyone out buying a handbag.

Barry Fantoni directs 'Lady Windermere's Fan' at the Landor Theatre SW9 (020 7737 7276) until 17 June

8. CAN I BE A MIDDLE-CLASS LIBERAL AND STILL FLY THE FLAG?

By Peter York

D'you know Chalcot Square, Primrose Hill? It couldn't be nicer. It's a thoughtful square - Joan Bakewell and Jonathan Miller round the corner - and a quietly well-off one. A combination of 1960s and 1970s artigentsia and, more recently, successful Britpop musicians and record producers. All, as they say, bien pensant and tremendously liberal. So try unfurling a giant red cross English flag from your charming 1845-ish balcony there. I'd love to see it.

The Fever Pitch generation of Primrose Hill Worrieds - thoughtful, educated men, 30- to 50-ish who look and sound rather like adorable Nick Hornby himself - are, of course, mad about football. They have been for some years, though they weren't necessarily at school. (Many of them will have been to schools where other games mattered more. Rugby, for instance.)

Demotic, masculine, successful - and that's only the girls - the idea of football sweeps all before it. But Primrose Hill Worried has a huge burden, worn as lightly as possible in public. He's wildly over-educated, and painfully overinformed. In that great rostrum camera assemblage in his head he's got Victorian pictures of the Crusaders with that flag, and he knows (History 2:1 from Magdalene) that the Crusaders weren't 100 per cent nice. He knows what they did. And he's always (schoolboy member of Rock against Racism 1979) been on the lookout for incipient Fascism in any dark corner.

Until 1996, over-use of the Union flag was considered "offensive" and potentially BNP-ish in some quarters. Then with the flag devolution provided by the European Championship that England hosted that year, people started waving the English flag.

But by 2006, that flag's got baggage, too. PH Worried is just that bit fretful about it. He's not going to say so because that would sound mimsy, but he's not about to put a giant flag in his window either (actually if he did, his friends - football-loving and over-educated like him - might think it was sort of chavtastic/ironic).

Across the road from my house are three white vans - glaziers, marble and granite, plumbing; the two-gentlemen-sharing next door are having the lot done - and each has an English flag on it.

One's Essex, it says so (Rainham), so what's the betting the others are, too. Or the Essexy part of Hertfordshire. And their kit - shaven heads? Singlets? Tracky bottoms? Trainers?

And the mindset? Think of those taxi conversations that start with Tony Blair's shortcomings, range through David Cameron's imitating mock-Blairiness and end up with the driver saying you don't know who to vote for...

So let's update that cockney taxi conversation (yesterday lunch, actually). I remark that the driver's got the Inger-land flag hanging from the mirror. He says he's looking forward to the Cup. I say isn't the flag a bit anti-Scots/Welsh, etc. and he's clearly bemused - it's the England team after all. Then, fishing, I say something about white vans and Essex and he says, "What's wrong with that?" So I have to say, "Some people think it's a bit, well, you know..." "You know what?" he says. "Well BNP." "That wouldn't do for me would it?" he says. At this point think Lenny Henry sounding like Danny Baker.

9. WILL MY MARRIAGE SURVIVE THE NEXT FOUR WEEKS?

By Lucy Cavendish

As I sit here in my kitchen, surrounded by my three male children and their father, I am wondering what the answer to this question is. For something has happened in this household. World Cup Fever has taken over. Fridge doors are littered with stickers of the England team. Flags are Sellotaped to bedposts. A chart of the matches is stuck on the bathroom wall. There are newspaper guides littered round the sitting room. My partner spends his time obsessively talking to no one in particular about whether or not he should put a bet on Ivory Coast to reach the semi-finals.

There is seemingly nothing I can do about it. Plans are being made, the television has been booked out, our social life has nose-dived. Every time I try to make an arrangement to go anywhere, my partner dashes into the bathroom and looks at the chart, that bloody chart, and shakes his head. "Can't go anywhere that day," he'll say. "There's a match."

Yesterday, at a children's birthday party, I even found him and two other fathers muttering behind a rose bush. The words "beers" and " flat-screen television" were being used. Then they all got very excited and said that on Saturday they were all going to meet up and watch the match. "What match?" I asked, and they all looked at me as if I was from Planet Zog.

I can see where this is all going. My partner is, essentially, about to check out of what I would consider normal life. My eldest son, Raymond, who is nine, will probably follow suit. The two of them will cease to acknowledge their paternal and fraternal duties and I shall be left with the two youngest children all on my own.

I shall feel like a single mother, wandering around deserted parks and strangely quiet playgrounds, bereft of the weekend dads vaguely bonding with their offspring. I shall spend my evenings having my own private party for one.

While my husband bonds with the television and ignores the mounting laundry and ironing, I shall make picnic lunches and check homework and probably start feeling a bit resentful.

For football does nothing for me. I have absolutely no interest in it at all. For me, Wayne Rooney comes across as an ignorant, overpaid potato-face. I don't even know anyone else in the team bar David Beckham and Theo Walcott.

I do, however, understand that all this World Cup stuff is terribly and overwhelmingly important to my husband. The filling in of forms and endless overheard conversations conducted in "manager speak" seem to be an important ritual. It is just one that leaves me cold.

As I am indifferent to it, I almost fail to see why a grown person should be indulged. I am not sure if it would be possible for me to just disappear behind the television for weeks on end without (a) there being a mini-revolution in my household and (b) everyone dying of starvation and thirst.

But, as manager of this small family, I shall continue to do my job and keep everyone onside or offside or whatever the term is.

When all this football mania gets too much, I shall retreat into the garden with a good book and a bottle of cold white wine.

I just may not re-emerge when it's all over, that's all.

10. SO WHO'S GOING TO WIN?

By Stan Hey

If you're going on holiday to Europe this summer, a common source of conversation will be how the national team did in this year's World Cup. So imagine how much better your stay will be if the country you're visiting has won the World Cup. No surly service and no cloning your credit card. Instead, a spirit of carnival will envelop you.

Most of our favourite holiday destinations are taking part in this World Cup - just don't mention the tournament if in Greece or Turkey, as neither qualified. Certain countries will be more relaxed about defeat than others. The Italians ambush the team at the airport in the middle of the night with bags of rotten pomodori. The Germans will shrug and say they have a sense of humour, while French fans will give President Chirac a last kicking.

But what about the country where the majority of Brits holiday? Spain remains one of the only major European football nations without a World Cup victory. Germany and Italy have three wins, while France and England have one. Spain would love to join the club.

Given that two of Italy's wins came under the rule of Mussolini, who dined with the match referee before the final in 1934, it's surprising that Spain didn't get a result under Franco. He could boast only a symbolic victory over the Soviet Union in the 1964 European Championships - Fascists 2 Communists 1.

Post-Franco, Spain's strong regional identities flourished and may have worked against the notion of a national team. But now that the Catalans, and to a lesser extent the Basques, have greater autonomy, there's a hope that Spanish players will put aside rivalry, allowing football itself into play.

Spain's La Liga is at least the equal of England's Premiership in terms of financial power and football technique - this year the Champions' League and Uefa Cup were both won by Spanish clubs, Barcelona and Sevilla. Spain also has its own "golden generation" of players - Fernando Torres, David Villa and Andres Iniesta are admired across Europe, while Xabi Alonso of Liverpool and Cesc Fabregas and José Antonio Reyes of Arsenal have enhanced their reputations. It's felt that Spanish players now have a winning, rather than fatalistic mentality.

Football aside, Spain has made remarkable cultural progress since the shackles of fascism were unlocked by Franco's death in 1975. It staged a wonderful Olympics in 1992, and in design, film-making, fashion and architecture it has such world-class players as Javier Mariscal, Pedro Almodovar, Adolfo Dominguez and Elias Torres. There's a vibrancy reminiscent of the Swinging Sixties that England surfed to World Cup victory on in 1966. Spain also has some of the best restaurants in Europe, and certainly its most innovative chef in Ferran Adria.

As English businesses have found out, and the British Airports Authority is currently discovering, Spanish financial institutions now have global clout. The days of clumsy waiters, productivity-defying siestas and mañana-minded workers are gone. A World Cup win is overdue for Spain, and national self-confidence is high. Besides, the French and Italian teams are too old, Germany's is too young, and ours is too hyped. But wait till after the final before booking.


Source: The Independent


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