"Are you enjoying the World Cup?" my sweetheart asks, sweetly. It's a perfectly reasonable question, but the wrong one, as the true fan knows only too well. This is Nick Hornby territory, whose tremendous book about fanhood - Fever Pitch - is encapsulated in his observation that you don't go to watch Arsenal to enjoy yourself!

wordle image for Re-thinking After The World CupIf diplomacy is war continued by other means, then the same could be said of football. The idea of 'enjoyment' is as alien to the male as that show-stopping (and potentially relationship-stopping) query, "How are you feeling?"

I distrust any man who can answer this question immediately and articulately. And get my recommended response is to make up something - fast! It doesn't matter what it is. A quick reply will help in some mysterious way to cross the gulf between the sexes. And be sure not to say, "Er... I think, um ..." It's got to be a feeling type word - a good thesaurus will help if you don't know any.

Even worse is to duck it and say, "Dunno ..."

NOT ACCEPTABLE! TRY AGAIN! Even a dumpkof can see that this is THE WRONG ANSWER.

So despite possessing this key to successful relationships, what do I do when asked this scary question?

"Er . . not sure really."

The default setting in the male brain will take some almighty new software from the Almighty to be reset unless the emotions are anxiety, nervous distraction, outrage, disappointment, and anger. These are fluidly expressed in watching, for instance, Germany brush aside a football minion, Thierry Henry strategically faking a fall (or two), and for the Englishman the true horror of the penalty shoot out.

Think of the experience of watching football as a kind of fanatical strain of Roman Catholicism: the suffering is good for the soul and it takes an insightful confessional priestess of a wife to fully forgive the sinning in word and thought that her partner has been indulging in. Though naturally, he will still be committing the ultimate crime of believing that his team is more sinned against than sinning...

So here goes: reflecting on the last month, what could do with a good re-think in time for the next World Cup?

1. Referees

Have you ever tried refereeing a game? I did once, and it's not an experience I'd like to repeat in this lifetime. One man cannot see everything that goes on, even with the help of officious 'assistant referees'. So why not have one in each half and allow each team to call three times in a game (like Hawkeye in tennis) for a video replay of critical incidents - off-sides, penalty decisions, an off-the-ball punch, shirt-tug, or other abuse?

Not only would we get a more accurate reading of the situation, but the players would get a few more minutes to cool down, rehydrate, and recompose themselves. Broadcasters and advertisers would also like this as the game would last another 20 minutes or so.

One last thing - no right of appeal from this decision. This should allow all to forget the past, and for God's sake, move on!

2. Kick-ins

If these were taken as kicks rather than throws, it would lead to less Cro-Magnon long balls, a whole lot more goal-mouth incident, and in all likelihood, more goals (thanks to Peter Lanagan for this suggestion).

3. More goals

One sad feature of this World Cup is how few heroic comebacks there have been. Once a side has gone one goal up, they've learned from the Italians and shut up shop.

There are a number of ways to let the net bulge more

  • Increase the goal size. By genetic breeding, goalkeepers have become bigger over the last 30 years, so it's not at all unfair to also grow the goal by, say, 2 - 3 cms.
  • Play 10 a side (40 minutes each way). One of the most open games I saw was a World Cup match some years ago between Holland and Germany where both sides were reduced to 10 men - Frank Rijkaard was sadly removed for spitting.

There is so much more space on the field when mid-field traffic congestion is lessened in this way. But expect a huge 'yes, but' from the players' union, as any workforce would respond to a proposed 11 % reduction in head count!

  • Two goals for a goal shared in open play, only one for a penalty.
  • Changes to the offside rule (as in this weblog, passim).

I think it was Michel Platini who observed that this World Cup had seen the triumph of strategy over skill, and that 2006 wouldn't be remembered primarily for its football. I think he's right, and perhaps this is the curse of narrow, analytical ways of thinking that are reducing life to its constituent parts rather than living the joy of the whole. A victory for the coaches over the players. Teams watch repeated video replays of their opposition and work out ways to nullify their threat rather than displaying their own talents, Portugal being an obvious example. And when the Kaiser himself, Franz Beckenbauer, observed that a team's aim is to inhibit the creativity of their opposition, we know the beautiful game is in trouble (though despite that I have to say, grudgingly, that the Germans did play some excellent, open, flowing football).

To finish, here are some of my highlights of 2006, some very much 'off the ball'.

Best names

I like Fred of Brazil (or, more accurately, Brasil), and also Caca. Shaka Hislop is an old favourite, combining the exotic with the mundane, and Stern John sounds wonderfully biblical.

Best goal

Undoubtedly the best team goal was Argentina's against Serbia (not forgetting Montenegro), Ciambasso netting at the end of an extraordinary 30-odd passes. Probably the best team World Cup goal of all time, as every speculative back flick and pass that could have gone wrong seamlessly combined and found its rightful recipient. (Unfortunately for the English this now means the Argentinians can also claim the best individual World Cup goal ever, Maradonna's solo effort in the '86 finals).

Joe Cole's volley wasn't bad either...

Worst kit

Croatia's Little Chef checked table cloths. Particularly dazzling on the eye when there's several thousand fans sporting the same shirts.

Worst referee

No contest: the Russian who gave 16 cards in one game. The referee is there to make it all flow, not to stop the game continually like a traffic warden handing out parking tickets. Graham Poll, the English referee who gave the same play three yellow cards didn't exactly cover himself in glory either. He seems like a particularly stressed and pedantic man who probably works in accounts receivable for a local authority.

Best result

No question - Germany 0, Italy 2.

Best head-butt

No need to comment. Except to say that it was possibly the only time in the 2006 World Cup that the player who went down wasn't faking it. If you've got to retaliate, you can't accuse Zizou of doing it half-heartedly...

Do you feel bereft, blue, and at a loose end now it's all over? Doubtless suicide rates will soar (and not only at Juventus) - so do write with your rethinks for recovering from the post World Cup Blues and we'll publish the best of them.

Originally published: Tue 18 Jul 2006


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