Flies, millions of them, vast swarms of them, spawned in the filthy Volga river: mutant flies, probably. Gathering in clouds around each player on the pitch (one crawled into a Tunisian’s ear), the footballers suddenly resembling 22 Simon Schamas, flapping their hands about in outrage. Bitey Russian flies. As a trope for this tournament, and indeed the city formerly known as Stalingrad, it couldn’t much be bettered — an image of pestilence and death. But then the animal kingdom has become quite adept at providing meaningful commentary on England World Cup games. Eight years ago in Cape Town, a pigeon roosted by the opposition goal and did not have to shift its position once during the whole of the first half. It was entirely untroubled by England’s forward line.
That was the soul-destroying nil-all draw with Algeria — England always struggle when the Arabs are in town. The only country in this World Cup which we have played and never, ever beaten, despite being given two chances to do so, is Saudi Arabia, the worst team in the tournament. This time it was the Tunisians, who began time-wasting in the 12th minute and spent the rest of the game diving, wrestling, cheating and packing 11 men in their own penalty area, aided in this endeavour by a Colombian match official who was perhaps the worst I have seen at a major tournament.
They had just one shot anywhere near the target — and that a dubious penalty. England were — a couple of the gobbier rude boys excepted — intermittently excellent and did that unheard-of thing, won; even if victory was secured in archetypal English fashion by a header from a set piece in the second minute of injury time. They had started well but the flies got to them and you could see the confidence and imagination draining away as the game progressed.
The rest of the world was cheering for Tunisia, just as the rest of the world also cheered for Iceland in their unexpected draw with Argentina. Iceland are also foul and make Tunisia look like Cruyff’s Holland in their agricultural hoofing and complete lack of ambition. But we all cheer the underdog, no matter how unjust their cause might be. It is in the nature of football that 11 well-marshalled sacks of potatoes can often thwart the most talented of teams, which is why we have cup ‘upsets’ every year without fail.
Brazil and Argentina have both failed to beat lumpen but muscular opposition so far in this World Cup, and France and England did so only by the skin of their teeth. (Germany losing to Mexico was a different kettle of fish. The Mexicans seem to have at last woken from their decades-long siesta.) And I suppose you cannot blame the Tunisians for doing a passable imitation of Marshal Zhukov’s troops and hunkering down for aeons, waiting for the flies of summer to disperse and General Winter to finally arrive. But all for nothing. Carthage fell, just as it did in the Third Punic War — in injury time, Gary, what a great result for this talented Roman side, now can they go all the way?
It has been a moderately exciting World Cup so far — and one which is in danger of being ruined by football’s latest act of immense hubris, something called VAR. This is the Video Assistant Referee — and it is rapidly becoming a farce, as Luddites like me suggested it would from the word go. The actual referee wears an earpiece wired up to a small room in some grim Moscow Lubyanka, where four other referees are watching the action from 33 different camera angles. All dressed in full referee kit, just for a laugh. This is an attempt to make football, which has grown far too big for its lightweight slip-on boots, pristine and beyond the realm of human error. A mistake. Football is all about human error, and a dingbat of a referee, such as the idiotic Colombian, is all part of the panoply of what is an intensely human affair.
Before the World Cup, my views were in a small minority. The majority view was: if we have the technology, why not use it? Not any more. So far VAR has resulted in the opening games being festooned with penalties and the real injustices not being punished at all. There is a non sequitur at work, too. You are not removing human error: you are expanding it. Anyone who watches Match of the Day will know that Lineker and his three pundits can never agree on whether a card should be red or yellow, whether it was a penalty or a fair challenge — and that’s with a similar range of camera angles and slow motion and six hours to debate the issue.
But football thinks of itself as too important to allow for the judgment of a single individual, and too much money is involved. And so we have this charade which I suspect most people now wished hadn’t happened at all. Hell, in the first days of football there was no referee at all because it was considered impossible for a gentleman player to cheat or foul. But then we let in the riff-raff — first the lower classes, then the foreigners.
But as I say, it’s a game in which human frailty matters as much as human brilliance. No side has looked quite the finished article at this World Cup — certainly not France or Brazil or Germany. The best football has come from Belgium (third favourites) and Spain, with honourable mentions to Mexico, England, Portugal and Russia. It will be a European team which takes the title, I suspect. Germany tend to grow into tournaments. Spain will be there and thereabouts. And England, once the flies have been banished? The semi-finals are not impossible.