England v Belgium – We’re Never Really Neutral

An English novelist, a wonderful writer whom I greatly admire, Tweeted yesterday after Germany were knocked out of the World Cup. He wished there was a word that would denote one taking pleasure in another’s misery. Haha, very good.

And fair enough, too. The English have suffered a lot over the past 12 years, not winning one knockout game in any championship. Meantime, Germany only went and bloody won the last World Cup in the Maracanã, claiming their fourth in all. Three more than England.

I wrote in my last blog about having no grudge against Engerland but still, if they happened to make a semi-final or even a final … well, no.

A friend told me the other day of his watching England in the first game against Tunisia, with his twin boys, aged five. ‘Who do you want to win, Dad?’ Tough question, and he was a bit ashamed he had to tell them that he didn’t want England to win. ‘Why not, Dad?’ Then he had to explain. 800 years and so on. Teaching your lovely boys how to hate so young is a tough job for a father, but it has to be done. It’s for their own good.

Because, of course, if England go and win the bloody thing, we’ll never hear the end of it, and then we’ll have to put up with another 52 years of nostalgia. They think it’s all over and all the rest. Well, we won’t have to listen to it, we’ll be dead, but the five year olds will, so, as I say, it’s for their own good.

It’s nothing personal against England. Au contraire, as a Belgian (come on Belgium) might say. We all have our local rivalries.

There’s the story of an English tourist watching a match in a pub in Wexford, where England were playing. A local man was cheering away mad for the opposition and the tourist said: ‘Can you ever see yourself cheering for England in a match?’

‘Oh, yes,’ says the yellabelly, after some thought. ‘If they were playing Kilkenny.’

All politics is local.

And we engage with most sport when we are affiliated to one team/individual or another. This heightens the emotion – the emotion we want, we need, to make us feel alive, and less alone and to enhance our sense of identity. There are other reasons, too, I’ll come to those in due course.

I have an idea that we can watch and be engrossed by sport because of it’s pure beauty and because of the nature of the agon (from the Greek agōn), or contest (hence the word agony, by the way which the Germans know all about today). Tennis is a good example. I think it’s the most beautiful and wonderful sport. Aesthetically and in its purity. One against one is far more compelling that eleven against eleven or fifteen against fifteen etc.

I think the rhythm of tennis is the most compelling, too. That back and forth is so like music, or iambic pentameter, as steady a beat as poetry. Other sports have far more unruly rhythms, too complex really to decipher, at least for me to decipher. A physicist probably could.

I think the movement of the protagonists in tennis (there’s the agon again…) is also the most beautiful. And the self-expression. And also the fact that tennis is one of those sports governed not by time, but by scores. At any point of any tennis match, either player can win. That’s true too of athletic races and other sports, but not the likes of hurling, football, basketball, where time is the governing factor.

That’s a limiting feature of those sports. I mean in terms of aesthetics. And tension.

But we’re never fully neutral. Deep down, there’s some spark of bias.

Now it’s 0-0, after 25 minutes. Rashford is looking sharp, but the Belgians are resting Lukaku, Hazard and De Bruyne. Come on.

Good game. Good linking between the midfield and forwards. Good defending, intelligent. England spreading the ball nicely and drawing out the back four and then getting in behind them for the long ball – Vardy and Rashford are speedsters. Rose is a lovely attacking full back – not so good defending, as we’ll see later.

And then there’s Fellaini. He’s like a giraffe in a china shop. It’s not pretty, but it’s some laugh, anything can happen. I love his first name: Marouane. Something so redolent of the Middle East about that name. Like Anouar Brahim, the master of the oud, that plaintive, ethereal instrument of the Arab world.

I really like the way England are going about their business this championship. Something so very workmanlike about it. That suppression of ego they are so good at and which can generate great power in a team and confrontational situations.

Still 0-0after 45, but both teams keeping the ball well. Lacking that spark, maybe, but Brazil are looming, too. Brazil will fancy themselves now that the Germans are gone. Can o jogo bonito win out the day, again? Samba football? Not that it was so beautiful under Dunga in 2002, either.

Minute 51. What a goal by Januzaj. Jaysus, pity he didn’t score more of those at United, instead of acting the gowl out on the wing giving away possession trying to beat full-backs and diving like a toddler. Only saying.

Now let’s see the bulldog spirit. Not that’s it’s do or die, either, both teams are through. ‘Arry Kane looks on. And the boy Lingard – very hard not to love him, in fairness, joining United’s youth academy at the age of seven. Yes, seven.

On 55. Jaysus, Vermelen is fair split, Vardy caught him nicely and knew it too, see the look on his face? No place for a parson’ son.

Good game. England chase it but not too hard. ‘Tisn’t do or die, no need for the Dunkirk spirit.

God, with those three on the bench coming back full throttle, maybe Belgium could to it. But I can’t bring myself to believe it, either. And I think England’s back three will be penetrated by the midfields of Spain and Brazil and by Messi. I like Henderson but he doesn’t break down defences like Iniesta and the boys

On 93. England can’t equalise. 1-0. They move on to meet Colombia, Belgium to play Japan. And then Brazil, maybe. Eek. England for the semis, then the hype would be heard across the Irish Sea. ‘I would love it’. Hmm.

This will damp down the red tops’ crazy ’66 again rubbish, which might play into England’s hands. Very impressed with Southgate and I really like the beard and the suit and the tie and the waistcoat. Almost as much as Fellaini’s mop.

Still, it’s a very fine waistcoat.

Clothes maketh the man.


Novelist, short story writer, essayist, sports writer. Crime novel: Whatever it Takes due out 31 July 2020. The First Sunday in September, debut novel, published in 2018. Mercier Press, Stinging Fly, Irish Examiner, Irish Times, The42.ie, Holly Bough, Honest Ulsterman, Quarryman, Silver Apples.

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