THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Saturday June 24
Germany 2 Sweden 0
“Even when they’re supposed to be rubbish, they’re good,” says Gary Lineker after a first half dominated by Germany, who lead by two early goals from Podolski. Sweden are failing to close down opponents, picking the wrong pass and exchanging shrugs. Worse still they’re offending Mark Bright: “Basics... absolute basics.” Lucic gets a second yellow for a shirt tug in the middle of the pitch; Mr Simon of Brazil, having been cajoled into taking action by German protests, produces a sickly smirk while holding up the red. Lehmann doesn’t look at all secure during rare attacks but he’s not made to work by Larsson’s poor penalty, skied into the stands. Germany look for more: Schneider’s deflected shot comes off the post, Isaksson beats out an effort from Neuville. A German supporter is waving a model of the World Cup. “A bit premature,” sniffs Stuart Pearce.

Argentina 2 Mexico 1 (aet)
Mexico are transformed, pacy and inventive. “We expected it to be slow-quick-quick-slow but it’s quick-quick-quicker!” says Mark Lawrenson as Marquez scores after five minutes. Argentina are soon level, Crespo loudly claiming what was clearly an own goal off Borgetti; both players then miss good chances. Ricardo Lavolpe is wearing a different, but equally loud, tie today, featuring yellow clouds on a blue background. No one should be surprised if he’s also got Winnie the Pooh boxer shorts. Heinze is very fortunate to get only a yellow after bringing down Fonseca on the edge of his area just before half-time. The cameras catch Diego Maradona burping distractedly. No sign of that from Franz Beckenbauer, which is a pity as Sepp Blatter keeps leaning over for a chat. Argentina take control in the second half as the pace drops, though Mexico still have chances through Borgetti and Fonseca, who heads wide with five minutes left. In injury time Messi could have wrapped it up but is wrongly given offside. Rodriguez then volleys a spectacular winner after chesting down Sorin’s pass. Argentina had looked vulnerable against the first team to harry them. A fantastic game. 

Sunday June 25
England 1 Ecuador 0
“Relief!” says John Motson. “Peach!” says Peter Drury on ITV, as Beckham, who has apparently played in every England game, scores with a fine free-kick. He celebrates by pointing at Rooney and laughing, possibly figuring it might be the only time he can get away with it. Motson later passes on the news that Beckham was sick after scoring. “Glad you brought that up!” says Mark Lawrenson the office wag, who keeps up his habit of chortling off mic. After winning twice playing possession football, Ecuador seem to have decided that an agricultural long-ball game is the way to beat England. Sven has had a similar idea. “He’s frustrated, the Wayne boy,” says Lawrenson as Rooney does his best as a distant target man, chasing punts from a misfiring midfield; Lampard is still crashing shots all over the place like a golfer with the yips. Ecuador have the best chance early on, Carlos Tenorio thumping the bar via Ashley Cole’s foot after a mistake by Terry, who’s later booked for trying to wring Tenorio’s neck. Ecuador’s remaining efforts are summed up by a De La Cruz corner that goes out for a throw-in. The final whistle is a merciful release, but Motson has prepared a horrendous stream of alliteration: “England may have been patchy against Paraguay, tentative against Trinidad, but they’ve been... energetic against Ecuador.” You know he’d jotted down “excellent”, but couldn’t say it.

Portugal 1 Holland 0

Two yellow cards in the first seven minutes set the tone for an evening of mayhem that ends with a World Cup record four dismissals. Ronaldo has to be taken off after Boulahrouz’s wild lunge that brings only a yellow, but Clive Tyldesley is more enraged by Robben’s diving: “That’s shocking, really shocking, who’s he trying kid?” Portugal are on top – Maniche scores with a clever sidestep, a Pauleta shot is blocked by Van der Sar – but they’re down to ten on half-time as the busy Costinha (“the poor man’s Makelele and I don’t mean that disrespectfully” – David Pleat) gets a second yellow for handball. As is now the custom, Kuyt applauds. Aside from a Van Bommel shot scooped away by Ricardo, Portugal cope easily with ponderous attacks. A bout of shoving leads to Figo brushing his head against Van Bommel, who takes a while to fall. Minutes later, Boulahrouz is off for swiping an arm across Figo on the touchline, leading to players and coaching staff extravagantly holding one another back like a cab-rank dispute after closing time. Sneijder is booked for “a big girl’s push” as the harassed Mr Ivanov racks up 14 yellows. Deco goes for timewasting, Van Bronckhorst follows him – they watch the closing minutes sat together on a step like penitent children in Super Nanny. Fantastically, they seem to have swapped shirts. Van Nistelrooy had warmed up for an half an hour, with the occasional break to shove someone, but Tyldesley is raging about “a huge snub” as Vennegoor of Hesselink comes on instead for the hapless Kuyt. A worn out Mr Ivanov wanders away muttering to himself at the final whistle while the Portuguese celebrate wildly. Gabby thinks they’re about to get theirs from England: “Beware Big Phil, hell hath no fury like a country scorned.”

Monday June 26
Italy 1 Australia 0
“Here they come – Azzurri blue and Socceroo!” says Jon Champion. Australia have plenty of possession but no edge, Italy get the chances – Schwarzer touches a Gilardino shot over the bar in the first minute and saves with a trailing leg from Toni. Jim Beglin keeps saying Materazzi “might do something daft”. Ten minutes into second half, he is sent off for a tackle on Bresciano that should only have been a yellow at worst. “Italy, sticking to the defensive manual that they themselves wrote,” sighs Champion as they pass it around in defence. Buffon punches away a Chipperfield shot and ten minutes from time Cahill squanders the best Australia chance, heading over from a corner. Towards the end Champion declaims, “Lucas Neill – adhesive!” as he puts in a block. Seconds from full time, Grosso falls over the prone Neill in the area. Totti scores the penalty and runs off sucking his thumb. “It is cruel beyond belief,” says Beglin but you sense that Italy would have remained in control had they kept 11. The injured Kewell was cleared missed and that’s not something you say often.

Switzerland 0 Ukraine 0 (0-3 on penalties)
Shevchenko and Vogel exchange affectionate kisses on both cheeks before kick-off. After 12 minutes Wicky has a good shot from distance. Moments later Zuberbühler is yelling at his defenders after hurling the ball straight out of play. “That’s the blame culture that we live in,” sighs Mick McCarthy. With 20 minutes gone Shevchenko heads the ball down and up on to the bar, after “going in where it hurts” at a free-kick. Three minutes later Frei hits the angle of post and crossbar. And that’s pretty much it, with Switzerland in particular unwilling to attack in numbers and Ukraine, despite flying the flag for eastern European teams with mid-90s Britpop hair, largely ineffectual. Ninety minutes pass without a single offside. “Switzerland will kill the game of football,” says Alan Shearer, who probably won’t be asked to help with the draw for Euro 2008. The extra-time commentary is taken up with Mowbray and McCarthy competing to demonstrate how bored they are: “I went quiet because I was looking at my stopwatch.” “I thought you were having one of your teeth pulled.” Finally penalties. Shevchenko misses the first; the Swiss fail to score any of their three. Köbi Kuhn blinks back tears and the Ukrainians rush over to their final scorer Gusev, except for one who hurtles off in the other direction, possibly to pick a fight with the BBC commentators.

Tuesday June 27
Brazil 3 Ghana 0
Another Brazil game in which the commentator repeats a series of mantras rather than describing the match. “The beautiful game played beautifully,” says Peter Drury as Ronaldo shimmies past the keeper to score, though it’s a poor offside trap played by Ghana. “The queue for a Brazilian free-kick is an illustrious one,” Drury announces, before Ronaldinho wafts the ball ten yards over, then “Ronaldinho always only has eyes for the ball” just as the replay shows him raking his studs down (or “falling on”) Eric Addo’s leg. After Adriano scores the second off his knee, Drury blurts out: “That’s Brazil! That’s Brazil in a nutshell!” It was also miles offside. Ghana come back, Amoah scuffing a shot wide then firing straight at Dida, who then saves with his legs from Mensah’s header. “They’re having a right rattle at this!” says Drury who appears to have been expecting a non‑League team to turn up. Ghana create several openings in the second half but waste them. Gyan is sent off for a second yellow for diving. Juan, who’d requested the card, then pats him on the back. Drury can count on receiving a Nike package in the post after twice yelling “They just do it!” during a sequence of Brazilian passes. When Ze Roberto scores Brazil’s third they are being booed by the crowd for not putting on enough of an exhibition; two sharp saves by Kingston prevent an even more distorted scoreline. Jim Beglin is on about “naivety” yet again and you wonder if he’s making a joke about cultural assumptions rather than... no.

France 3 Spain 1

“Zidane’s got just about everything but pace,” says Clive Tyldesley as France’s ageing stars produce their best performance in several years, with the possible exception of Henry who’s constantly caught offside. He’s off, but not interfering with play, for Ribery’s goal, which equalises the penalty given for Thuram’s clumsy toppling of Pablo. “There’s one for March, mate,” says Tyldesley, convinced of Champions League retribution as Vieira barges Fabregas and is later booked for another foul on him. Spain, “kings of the torn betting slip”, barely create a chance despite using all three subs before their much older opponents have brought on any. Vieira makes a shushing gesture to a rattled Luis Aragonés, who’s ordered to sit down. Henry is shoulder-barged by Puyol, but falls clutching his face. “It’s got to stop!” says Tyldesley in the exasperated tones of a teacher discovering more porn in his pigeonhole. From the free-kick, Vieira “bullies it in” from a header at the far post via Ramos. French fans in costumes are celebrating, one dressed as a pink rabbit, when Zidane’s fine finish makes it three. He has just begun a comedy walk with a high elbow action when his team-mates reach him – we’ll never know how it might have ended.

Friday June 30
Germany 1 Argentina 1 (4-2 on penalties)
“The moment that is meant to be has yet to happen,” says Peter Drury after a cautious first half notable only for a badly misplaced Ballack header and some touchline cavorting from Goleo, the unsettling pants-less lion mascot. Argentina look comfortable after Ayala heads them in front (“The man they call the mouse was huge!”) with most of the play taking place in an area known to David Pleat as “much-ado-about-nothing land”. Both sides go tumbling for free-kicks – Tevez appears to punch himself in the face at one point – but referee Michel seems much more inclined to whistle for Argentine fouls. Rodriguez is booked for diving in the area, though there had been contact from Lahm who has an approving pat for the referee after a card is produced. The commentators think Abbondanzieri is time-wasting when he falls clutching his side but he has to be substituted; there are gasps of surprise when Riquelme is taken off and replaced by Cambiasso rather than Messi. Klose, invisible for much of the match, heads a fine equaliser with ten minutes left. Ballack seems to be injured after Germany have used all their subs and goes through extra time at half-pace, but then so does Argentina’s final replacement, Cruz, who’s “laden-footed” in Pleat-speak. “The nation in one man,” says Drury as Ballack scores in the shootout. Cambiasso is led away in tears after his decisive miss. Before Berlin can become “the party city of the world”, there’s a major post-match mêlée, during which Heinze seems to be telling the entire stadium that he’ll see them outside.

Italy 3 Ukraine 0

Mark Bright has heard that Oleg Blokhin “will shave his head off” if Ukraine win the World Cup, but Shovkovskiy puts paid to that notion, palming in Zambrotta’s shot. Ukraine can’t get going – the simplest passes bounce off shins, while young striker Milevskiy attempts to shove over each opponent in turn. Jonathan Pearce has been the best commentator on either channel, but today goes through an absurd spell of pronouncing each player’s name with an exaggerated accent (“Pirrrlo... Teeemoshchok... Gattoooso”). At half-time, Leonardo, who increasingly resembles a retired Californian porn star trying to carve out a career in politics, worries about the Ukrainian players’ “comportment”. Buffon is finally made to work, pushing a Kalinichenko header on to the post and saving Husin’s shot, but Italy get their second with a free header for Toni, who celebrates scoring by adjusting the volume on an imaginary hearing aid. A Husin header bounces off the bar before Toni’s second, a tap-in following a good run by Zambrotta. Shevchenko reminds us that he’s on the pitch with a swerving free-kick punched away by Buffon. But Italy have barely broken sweat.

Saturday July 1
Portugal 0 England 0 (3-1 on penalties)
The outcome is so predictable it’s almost funny – like a catchphrase. Reaching the pay‑off takes considerable longer than on The Fast Show, however. Rooney rampages about with a couple of players hanging off him like Lilliputians trying to wrestle Gulliver. Eventually it is all too much for him and he aims a back-heel stamp at Carvalho, who reacts with the kind of startled yelp a dog emits when someone almost stands on a paw and a predictable scrum forms. Rooney sees red. “He can have no complaints about that whatsoever,” Mark Lawrenson says after a replay. But somehow the blame is quickly switched to Ronaldo for getting his club colleague sent off and then winking at the bench. Alan Shearer advocates punching him while Ian Wright becomes so incoherent he might as well be banging a dustbin lid with a hammer. So no change there, then. England play much better after Rooney has gone off – as if his dismissal has lifted a load off their shoulders (the weight of expectancy, perhaps?). Portugal are so lacking in attacking ambition it seems Scolari’s game plan may be to wait until everyone has fallen asleep and then sneak a winner. “I’d look away myself, but I’m paid to watch!” gurgles Motson before the shootout. Penalty specialist Carragher, brought on two minutes from time, places the ball, walks brusquely back to his mark, then immediately turns and, without apparently looking up, runs in and boots it into the net. Sadly he has not bothered to listen for the whistle, nor has he noticed Ricardo signalling that he is not ready. As an indicator of the rabbit-in-the-headlights effect of the shootout on England’s players it is hard to beat. No one apart from Hargreaves even looks likely to score. And he plays in Germany. Afterwards Beckham and co blub like babies – a fitting end to a day marked by England’s emotional incontinence.

France 1 Brazil 0
Something like religious ecstasy passes across Terry Venables’s curiously taut face during a chat about Zidane, who’s outstanding again, setting up chances for Vieira and Gallas then floating in the free-kick from which Henry lamps in the winner. “Most of these players are part of the furniture of the penthouse suite of the modern game,” says estate agent Clive Tyldesley, but Henry’s notional marker Roberto Carlos had stood watching from several yards away. Other Brazil stars have as unhappy a time. Ronaldo has a sharp shot fumbled away by Barthez, but is otherwise reduced to lowering himself groundwards in search of a penalty; aside from one free-kick that zips over the bar, Ronaldinho’s only noteworthy contribution is a monogrammed headband, ditched at half-time. Brazil’s best hopes lie with Barthez, who totters around like a silent comedian feigning sea-sickness. Ribery, the “fiery dribbler”, is outstanding and will be thrilled to be rated as “definitely good enough for the Premiership” by David Pleat, while a superb passing move leads to Tyldesley imploring Zidane to “please, please” not retire. Robinho snatches at a shot inside the area and Ze Roberto just fails to connect with a cross, but France are well worth their win.

Tuesday July 4
Germany 0 Italy 2 (aet)
“One for the library of great 0-0s,” says Clive Tyldesley at full time in the first really outstanding game of this World Cup – full of flowing football and mercifully free of diving, writhing, the brandishing of imaginary cards and pointless stepovers. “This is one for the purists,” says a plainly delighted David Pleat and anyone who doesn’t think that the height of the football arts is ball tricks (yes, that’s you, Nike) will have nodded. Cannavaro is superb again, as is Gattuso, living up to Pleat’s description of him as a “splendid ferret”, though by extra time his hair and beard are so damp with sweat he looks more like a Scotty dog who’s just clambered out of a pond. Tyldesley’s cry of “Ballack!” on the unleashing of a free-kick in the 80th minute may be the loudest piece of commentary ever, especially the brutal second syllable. If only Ballack had put somewhere near the same effort into his shot, which heads harmlessly over the bar. With penalties a couple of minutes away, Grosso scores with a beautifully judged curling shot then does what looks like a karaoke version of Marco Tardelli’s famous 1982 celebration. Del Piero adds a second on the break. Terry Venables now struggles to release words first time, or stops in the middle of a long word and goes back to the beginning. Tonight, an idea he’s begun on the Italian back four escapes him in mid-sentence, forcing Terry to begin a new topic quickly to avoid an elderly silence.

Wednesday July 5
France 1 Portugal 0
Apparently Portugal invented everything that’s wrong with football. The panel are almost speechless with fury at Ronaldo when he dives, looking for a penalty; when Carvalho is booked, Motson says: “I don’t wish to be spiteful but he was the player involved in the... alleged stamping the other night.” The match is settled by the penalty for Carvalho’s lunge at Henry, who twists in the air after the contact just to make sure. France look very weary and spend the second half edging backwards, though they’re not exactly being bombarded. Ronaldo, booed throughout, creates Portugal’s best moment when his free-kick is spooned straight up in the air by the relentlessly peculiar Barthez, but Figo heads over. Centre-back Meira is pushed up front and fires badly wide in injury time. Big Phil rushes after the referee at the end with one finger extended as though ready to poke him in the eye. We see a montage of villainy from Portugal’s matches. “It’s time something was done about it,” says Alan Hansen. At a replay of the penalty, showing Ricardo concentrating on Zidane, a brick-faced Shearer mutters, “It’s all right him staring like that,” as if thinking aloud. When Gary Lineker mentions that Ricardo got a hand to it, Shearer’s moody response is: “He might as well have dived the other way.” This foreign habit of saving people’s penalties is not to Alan’s liking.

Saturday July 8
Germany 3 Portugal 1
“This is the most meaningless game in football history,” says Martin O’Neill, abdicating punditry duties after a goalless but entertaining first half. Portugal dominate possession, Pauleta squandering their only chance; Ricardo saves well from a Podolski free-kick. “It’s open season on Cristiano Ronaldo,” says Steve Wilson as Public Enemy Number One is jeered by the crowd again and there is another volley of tutting in the studio after he tumbles over. Schweinsteiger seizes control of a game that has been rolling along at testimonial pace with two swerving shots that zip past Ricardo – in between there’s another that’s going wide before being deflected in by Petit. Kahn struggles to push away a 35-yard free-kick from Ronaldo and is finally beaten by a Nuno Gomes flying header from a great cross by Figo, on as a sub for his last international appearance. Gary Lineker wraps up with a burst of invective about Kahn, who must have once barged him aside at a sponsors’s buffet: “There’s something Neanderthal about him, like he should be on a David Attenborough programme."

Sunday July 9
Italy 1 France 1 (4-2 on penalties)
The Marco Materazzi final. His towering header levels the score after Zidane’s chipped penalty gives France the lead. “Eight years ago he was an... Everton player!” says Clive Tyldesley, as though marvelling at a recovery from serious illness. He then scores in the shootout and collects his winner’s medal while wearing the sort of novelty stovepipe hat last seen on an FA Cup lap of honour around 1973. In between, he’s butted in the chest by Zidane, whose dismissal becomes the biggest talking point. Italy shade the first half, going close with another Toni header, but France take charge thereafter and might have had a second penalty when Malouda is brought down by Zambrotta. Henry only gets into the game in flashes, again lacking support from midfield. Italy bring on three attacking substitutes but make no headway against a resolute defence who prompt Motson into an idle dream about laundry: “Watching Makelele play is like watching someone iron a shirt!” Zidane’s glancing header pushed over by Buffon is the only chance in extra time. Five minutes later he’s off, after a long delay while the referee consults his assistants with a big word from the fourth official, and walks past the World Cup trophy on its pitchside plinth while Raymond Domenech sarcastically applauds what he assumes to be Italian gamesmanship. “Does Materazzi tweak the nipple of Zidane?” asks Tyldesley on viewing the replay; “That only happens every 15 seconds in a match,” says a despairing Martin O’Neill during several repeats of the two players exchanging words before the big moment. France are also missing the injured Vieira and Henry for the shootout; Trezeguet is the only one to miss, his shot bouncing off the underside of the bar. There’s then an interminable wait during which Gattuso strides around in his underpants and Camoranesi fulfils a pre‑tournament promise to have his ponytail snipped off. While Cannavaro lifts the trophy, Motson rolls out a bon mot, semi-disguised as a conversational gambit: “You might say, Mark, that they threw off the straitjacket of negativity and acquired a cloak of adventure!” Lawrenson should then have repeated this, in several different voices, faster each time, until they cut back to the studio.

From WSC 234 August 2006. What was happening this month

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