Belfast Telegraph

A paradise lost?

The World Cup as a glorious contest is a thing of the past. Widespread cheating and prima donna players are ruining the spectacle, argues Malachi O'Doherty

Do you remember how exciting the World Cup used to be? I was never a great fan of football. When other boys asked me whom I supported, I couldn't answer them. I would marvel at how grown men might immediately click around a question of United's chances.

I once had to pick up Billy Hutchinson and Paddy Devlin in the same taxi and they were talking over my head in the recondite language of the true fan before we had got out onto the main road.

But the World Cup was for everybody. It had the power to penetrate the indifference of the swot.

This was partly because it was a self-contained tournament of football, so you didn't need to be especially attuned to the past history of the teams.

And the football was the best you were ever going to see: Pele taking a ball on his chest, bouncing it to his toe and belting it into goal without breaking his stride.

I refused the whole terriitorialism and the identification of self with team. I would never say, "Didn't 'we' do well" or "'We' was robbed".

Yet I found the glorious carnival of competition and the balletic physicality of the world's best just enthralling.

But this year? Naw. The most interesting thing about this World Cup is the vuvuzela and the African platform.

For one thing, it is hard to think well of men who are such whingers as the England team.

I don't know what is more disheartening - the image of Wayne Rooney complaining about boos or the picture of a fan in handcuffs for going into the dressing room to tell them how lamentable they were against Algeria.

Fans are entitled to boo when they have been let down, as much as they would be entitled to send back a plate of congealed beans and rubbery chips in their local fry-up.

And what was shocking was the failure of Rooney to grasp that the team owes these fans anything; people who have spent thousands to spend weeks in South Africa when they could have had a better holiday playing table football with their mates in a beach bar on Corfu.

In defence of Rooney, it was argued that he is a player who depends on others getting the ball to him before he can deliver his lethal strikes against the goal mouth.

But in the game against Slovenia he got his foot to the ball often enough, he just didn't kick well or straight.

If he had done what he is paid to do the score might have been 5-1.

Of course, the country was ecstatic that England had made it through to the final 16, but there is nothing much to celebrate in such a narrow margin.

I can't help thinking that excellence in football depends in some kind of personal excellence and maturity. At least we would want that if players are to be inspiring role models.

And when the men of a team seem unable to bear each others' company for a fortnight and concentrate on the job in hand, then you have to consider that what is missing is not necessarily skill, but ordinary patience, a realistic sense of the requirements on them as people.

Are they bored? Well, I bet it is boring in Helmand sometimes, but what kind of excuse would it be for an army at war that the men are feckless and young and can't focus or rally their spirits?

And what sort of team spirit is it when they revolt against the manager during the actual tournament?

John Terry knows that the players don't pick the team. He knows that team morale is decisive in games. So why did he blather about Capello?

Only because he couldn't hold it in. And keeping your gob shut when opening it can do more harm is surely not harder than the sort of self-discipline that produces winning football.

If a man has no self-control off the field, what use is he likely to be on it? One of the shocking things about modern football is the indulgence of fouling.

In other walks of life it is a criminal offence to kick a man or trip him up. In football - even World Cup football - the only crime is getting caught.

That's why I don't want to watch these people; they are thugs. When France got through to the World Cup with a hand-ball, the normal good sense view of most commentators was that was okay.

The early departure of France must raise mixed feelings for the Irish, who were excluded from the tournament by the Hand of Henry, the handball by Thierry Henry that facilitated France's qualifying goal in November.

On the one hand it looks like natural justice that a team trying to ride on to glory after cheating should fragment in dissension; on the other, the eclipsing of France must make small countries like Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland gawp at the low calibre of play in this contest and see that they could be doing better than the big boys themselves. David Healy would not have fluffed as many kicks at the goal mouth as Rooney did against Slovenia.

It is hard not to feel that the World Cup in future will be more fondly remembered than anticipated.

England has been living with the delusion that it can win, though it is more than 40 years - that's 10 competitions - since it last did so.

British hopes of being revered around the world again can no more be realistically invested in the World Cup than in the Eurovision Song Contest.

And why? Who knows. The wonder is that so many Brits retain that old sense of entitlement, as if they trusted that destiny is naturally with them.

They can learn to live with not being the best in the world. Look at South Africa, enjoying the whole thing, even when they are losing, because it's fun and they feel honoured by the opportunity to host global football.

They are not whingeing about how badly it went for them. No one has been summoned to a dressing down by the president the way Henry has been called in by Sarkozy. It's only football, after all.

And maybe that is what Britain has lost sight of.

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