Archive for June, 2014

The World Cup: biased and unreliable memories of a Scotland fan

Note to the reader: This is a very nostalgic post written for my own pleasure, and, since there is nothing more tiresome that other peoples’ nostalgia, do please feel free to skip this one. I’ll be back to writing about Shakespeare and Tolstoy shortly.

I’ve been neglecting the blog of late, I’m afraid. It’s inevitable, really, with the World Cup now showing every day. The Football World Cup, if you need to be told. Or the Soccer World Cup, depending on where you live. I’m not usually the greatest sports fan in the world, but yes, I do enjoy my football, and the World Cup is special. I remember the 1966 World Cup being on television, but I was only 6 then, and didn’t really understand what was going on. It was the next World Cup competition, held in Mexico in 1970, that I first watched, and I have followed closely every World Cup competition since, and by my reckoning, the current World Cup is my twelfth. With each World Cup marking some stage of my life, a record of all my World Cup memories could easily read as a sort of potted autobiography – but please don’t be alarmed: I won’t attempt anything like that here. If, after this none-too-promising opening paragraph, you decide to read on, you will find only warm recollections, fond memories, and a few anecdotes, all supplied by the Ghost of World Cups Past. And also a few irrational biases, and prejudices. After all, if you can’t be a bit irrational and biased about football, what can you be irrational and biased about?

To lay my cards on the table at the outset, I am a Scotland fan. We are not in this particular World Cup, and it’s little consolation to think that we may well have been had Gordon Strachan been our manager from the start of the qualifying campaign, instead of being appointed when we were already more or less out of it. “If only…” These are the two words most frequently on the lips of any Scotland fan. Along with a few choice epithets regarding our more prestigious and favoured neighbour, England, but I will not sully this blog by repeating them, especially as I am now happily settled in this same England. But wherever I live, Scotland is my team: that’s where I grew up, and that’s where my footballing allegiances were formed.

Scotland had been in six of my twelve World Cups – not a bad record at all given the size of the country. In 1974 and 1976, Scotland qualified by putting out Czechoslovakia, the team that won the European Championships in between in 1976. And from 1974 onwards, for three World Cups in a row, we were knocked out only on goal difference. (Yes, I know, “If only…”) This was thanks partly to a string of outrageous bad luck stories, partly to the lack of an international class goalkeeper, and also partly, it must be said, because Scotland has a knack of repeatedly pushing the self-destruct button. We went to the 1978 World Cup in a state of jubilation, as if we had already won the thing: I was only 18 then, and was a student in Glasgow, and I bear still the psychological scars of that tournament – as does anyone else of my generation who remembers it. (Most prefer not to.) The night we were humbled 3-1 by Peru, I remember seeing my room-mate, who was very, very drunk, being spoken to in the street by a policeman. I went up to see if I could get my friend out of trouble by assuring the police officer that I would take him home and make sure he behaved himself, but as I approached, I heard the police officer saying, his voice choking with tears: “Aye – they should have played Derek Johnstone!”

In our last game in that competition, we put on a mighty show – even without Derek Johnstone – to beat Holland, the team that subsequently on to make their way to the final; and wee Archie Gemmill scored one of the great iconic goals of any World Cup. But it wasn’t enough: “If only…” If only Billy Bremner hadn’t missed from a couple of yards four years earlier when we actually outplayed the mighty Brazil, but could still only manage a draw! If only we had played our first two games in 1978 the way we played our third! If only…

England hadn’t qualified either for the 1974 or for the 1978 World Cups. They made it to the next one though, and, although they had failed to qualify for either of the previous two,  they were seeded in the top group, and were handed a fairly straight-forward draw. As for us, despite having qualified for the previous two World Cups, and having been put out on goal difference on both occasions, we were shoved into the third group in the seedings, and were drawn with a strong Russian team, and the best Brazil team since 1970. Oh, how the injustice of it hurt! And – would you believe it! – we went out on goal difference yet again. “Once again, Scotland prove they aren’t good enough” was the only consolation the English commentator on BBC had to offer.

Scotland qualified again in 1986, 1990, and 1998 – but in terms of quality, it was a steady decline. When we might have made a mark – in the 70s – we failed to do so, and I can’t see us getting back again in the foreseeable future to producing players of that quality. But let us not weep into our single malt whiskies: looking beyond Scotland, there has been some quite fabulous football from other countries. The first World Cup I saw, in 1970, was distinguished by the team many still consider the greatest ever – Brazil. And Pele, despite arguably being past his best, put on a show that even now is legendary. Four years later, West Germany won on home soil – that team captained by the magnificent Franz Beckenbauer simply was not going to lose! – but most of my memories of that tournament are of a flamboyant, free-flowing Holland, with Johann Cruyff leading from the front; and of Poland, the surprise package of the tournament, who astonished everyone by qualifying from the group stages with superb wins against Argentina and Italy. Sadly, they were in the same half of the draw as West Germany (to whom they lost by a single goal on what looked like a badly waterlogged pitch), and had to settle for third place.

Holland's Johann Cruyff and Germany's Franz Beckenbauer, two of the greatest players ever to grace the game

Holland’s Johann Cruyff and Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer, two of the greatest players ever to grace the game

Four years later, it was Argentina’s turn to win, deservedly, on home soil. But I have already dwelt on the Scottish trauma of that competition, so let us move on: it remains a sore point even 34 years later.

I was a schoolboy in 1974, an undergraduate in 1978, and a postgraduate student in 1982, working then in my own time; and I must admit, that work more or less stopped for the World Cup. It was simply the best World Cup I have seen. It was fabulous. Sure, there were a few dull patches: England, for instance, though favoured by the seeding committee (and no, I haven’t got over that yet!), were arse-numbingly dull: after qualifying from their group after three relatively easy matches, they went out after playing out two insipid goalless draws. But these few dull patches aside, the teams in 82 really put on a show. France, after a very dodgy start (losing to a mediocre England), changed their team line-up radically, and, with a midfield now consisting of Giresse, Tigana, Genghini, and the masterly Michel Platini, went on to play some of the exhilarating football I’ve seen. They got as far as the semi-finals, where they were put out by West Germany, with the German goalkeeper, Harald Schumacher committing on Patrick Battiston what can only be described as a horrific assault, which, if committed on the streets, would have led to police prosecution and possibly imprisonment; but the referee, absurdly, thought it an accidental collision of bodies, and didn’t take any disciplinary action. After extra time, the match ended 3-3 (with West Germany coming back from being 3-1 down), and was decided on a penalty shoot-out. France going out in that manner somehow put even Scotland’s grievances into perspective.

And Poland were resurgent in 82. After a slow start, they came to life spectacularly against Peru, with a fabulous 5-1 win. There’s little point embedding YouTube clips on here, as they come and go; but I would urge anyone interested to look up the YouTube clip of that match, as there were some terrific goals. Best of all was an intricate passing movement culminating in Zbigniew Boniek back-heeling the ball into Buncol’s path. In Poland’s next match, Boniek gave one of the very greatest individual performances I have seen in a World Cup match, scoring all three goals (and what goals they were!) against a rather good Belgian side, and controlling seemingly every aspect of the match. Boniek was suspended for the semi-final (against Italy), and once again, this fine Poland side had to settle for 3rd place.

But best of all were Brazil. Of all the World Cups I have seen, the memories I treasure most are those of that flamboyant, exuberant team strutting their stuff. Even their defenders looked world class when they came forward to join the attack. (Shame they couldn’t defend so well, though!) In their first game, they went 1-0 down to Russia, but then, in the second half, they turned it on: first Socrates made room for himself some 30 yards out, and then, as if casually, blasted the ball into the top corner; and then, Eder, from a similar distance, teed up the ball for himself and hit a volley so hard that you didn’t see it till it was hitting the net.

Socrates (with the beard) and Zico, setting the 1982 World Cup alight

Socrates (with the beard) and Zico, setting the 1982 World Cup alight

And then, they played us. Like Russia, we too took the lead against Brazil, with David Narey spectacularly rocketing his shot in from distance. We were exultant: this was a goal worthy even of the Brazilians! (Although sour-faced BBC presenter Jimmy Hill dismissed it at half-time as a “toe-poke”: well – do please see the Youtube clip and decide for yourself!) But it was our bad luck that Brazil turned it on against us a bit earlier than they had against Russia: first, Zico with a wonderful free-kick; then Oscar; and then, two quite magnificent goals from Eder and from Falcao. 4-1 it ended: we had been well and truly drubbed, by, admittedly, the best side I have ever seen us play against. Disappointed though I was, I was also exhilarated: my reaction was merely a somewhat inarticulate “Wow!”

Scotland's David Narey's famous toe-poke against Brazil

Scotland’s David Narey’s famous toe-poke against Brazil

Brazil went on to score a 4-0 win against New Zealand (featuring a spectacular goal from Zico with a “bicycle kick”), and then a 3-1 win against their rivals Argentina, featuring three of the best goals you could ever hope to see. And then, they met Italy, needing only a draw to progress to the next round. And here, their defensive frailties let them down: Italy’s Paolo Rossi scored three goals that no international defence should have let in. Brazil scored three goals as well – three great goals: they only knew how to score great goals – but the third goal, by Socrates, was wrongly ruled off-side. Well, these things happen, I guess. But I think I was more upset by Brazil being put out than I was even by Scotland being put out. By the time Italy played West Germany in the final, I think all neutrals, remembering the Schumacher-Battiston incident in the semi-final, were supporting Italy. They certainly delivered, winning the final 3-1. Brazil didn’t win, but sometimes, winning isn’t everything: their joyous, exuberant style of play left behind were the greatest World Cup memories I have.

By the 1986 World Cup, I was no longer a student: I was gainfully employed and was engaged. My future wife was from France, and that gave me a team to cheer on once Scotland (again drawn in the third group of seeds) had made their customary early exit. However, Brazil, though not quite so flamboyant as they had been four years earlier, were sufficiently brilliant to sway my newfound allegiance. It all culminated in a pulsating match between the two, with Brazil’s Zico, not fully fit and just on as substitute, missing a penalty. France ended up winning on penalties after the match had finished at 1-1.

Russia also had a great team that year: they started off by putting six goals past Hungary, and then played superbly to draw against France, before being put out by Belgium, thanks to what seemed to me to be some unfortunate refereeing decisions. England had a dodgy start – beaten by Portugal and drawing against Morocco, before Gary Lineker sparked them to life with a hat-trick against Poland, taking them through to the next round. Was I the only one thinking of the injustice of it all, I wonder? In ’78, we had lost to Peru and drawn with Iran, and a fabulous win against a great Holland team wasn’t enough to take us through; and we were deemed failures. In ’86, England lost to Portugal and drew with Morocco, but went through by beating a middling Poland team, and they were heroes. Life really isn’t fair sometimes!

(Scotland needed a win against Uruguay in their last group match in ‘86 to get through to the next round, but we only managed a 0-0 draw, after being kicked and hacked throughout the ninety minutes. In the recent England vs Uruguay match, many Scotland fans cheered on Uruguay, but I didn’t: I’m afraid I have a long memory, and I bear a grudge, even if it’s an unreasonable one)

Lineker scored a further two goals in a convincing 3-0 win against Paraguay. But then, came that notorious match against Argentina, dominated by possibly the best player I have ever seen – one Diego Maradona. Yes, it is true that Maradona took a lot of kicking in that match, with little protection from the referee; but his knocking the ball into the goal with his hand really was the most blatant piece of cheating I have seen in the World Cup. Soon afterwards, he scored the most fabulous solo goal imaginable. Both goals are now legendary, for very different reasons. Lineker got a late goal back for England, but this time, it was England’s turn to feel aggrieved. At the end, even a Scotland fan such as myself did not know whether to hero-worship Maradona for that extraordinary second goal, or to excoriate him for being a cheating bastard with the first.

Argentina went on to win that World Cup, with a team consisting of Maradona and ten others whom hardly anyone remembers. I am told that back in 1962, Garrincha virtually won the World Cup single-handedly for Brazil after Pele was injured, but I hadn’t seen that. I have, however, seen Maradona win the World Cup for Argentina virtually single-handedly – in more ways than one.

1990. I was now thirty, and, settled in London, was by this stage gently easing into middle age. But this World Cup was a damp squib. There were a few decent things in the group stages – Germany’s awe-inspiring 4-1 dismantling of Yugoslavia, Roberto Baggio’s terrific goal against Czechoslovakia – but by the time we got to the knock-out stage, most of the matches were unutterably dull, often ending in penalty shoot-outs. Germany, who had started so strongly, faded into the light of common day, and the final, where they scrambled a 1-0 win against Argentina thanks to a penalty, was, I think, the worst I have seen. The 1994 World Cup was much better, despite, once again, an unremarkable final, this time between Brazil and Italy (Brazil won on a penalty shoot-out). But earlier, we had seen some wonderful things: there were some fine performances from Brazil; the superb Roberto Baggio, though not fully fit, took Italy to the final virtually by himself; and there were some superb performances from the unfancied Romania and Bulgaria – the former led by the brilliant Gheorghe Hagi, and the latter by the equally brilliant Hristo Stoichkov. I don’t think I have ever seen a more entertaining and exciting match anywhere than the Romania vs Argentina game that year, which Romania won 3-2. Hagi , especially, became and remains one of my great World Cup heroes.

Gheorghe Hagi of Romania (in the yellow strip) in action against Argentina in a pulsating match in 1994

Gheorghe Hagi of Romania (in the yellow strip) in action against Argentina in a pulsating match in 1994

And so they kept on coming. Some, like J Alfred Prufrock, measure out their lives by coffee-spoons: I measure out mine by World Cups – another four years older, another World Cup. And, such are the strange workings of memory, the earlier World Cups are far more vivid in my mind than the later ones, which tend often to merge into one. There were still wonderful things, of course: who could forget Bergkamp’s miraculous goal for Holland against Argentina in ’98? Or Zinedine Zidane of France strutting through the match against Brazil in 2006? Zidane, of course, had won the World Cup eight years earlier, but many felt that France had beaten Brazil in the final only because Brazil’s star player Ronaldo had been seriously ill immediately before the match, and should not have played: I get the feeling that Zidane was out to show the world that he was as good as if not better than any Brazilian. Of course, as is well-known, Zidane ended his career in disgrace, sent off in the final that year (which France lost on penalties to Italy) for head-butting Marco Materazzi. How could such an experienced player lose his calm like this, everyone wondered, on the world’s greatest footballing stage? Some opined that Zidane may well have felt that nutting Materazzi was a splendid way of signing off his career.

France's Zinedine Zidane holding aloft the World Cup in 1998

France’s Zinedine Zidane holding aloft the World Cup in 1998

Brazil won the 2002 competition – somewhat inevitably, perhaps, given they boasted Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Rivaldo all playing for them. And the last World Cup saw Spain emerge as the world’s top footballing nation. Given that they also won the European Championships both two years earlier and two years afterwards, it is frankly difficult to argue against the assertion that they are the best international team Europe has ever produced: no other team has won these big competitions three times in succession. Their style of football – short passes to each other, with the emphasis on retaining possession – is known as “tiki-taka” football, and, although requiring immense technical skill, it did not please everyone; but I must admit that when Holland tried to kick and hack Spain out of the World Cup Final, helped on by an absurdly lenient referee, my allegiances switched very definitely towards the Spanish; and I remember cheering wildly when Iniesta scored that winning goal. I couldn’t help wondering, though, what the greats from former Holland sides – Cruyff, Neeskens, Gullitt, van Basten, Bergkamp, etc. – must have thought on seeing the colours they had once graced now being tainted with this kind of thuggery.

And now, another four years older, I am in the midst of the latest one – my twelfth. I’ve got used to Scotland not being there: it’s more relaxing that way – there’s no tension, no emotional rollercoaster, no sick feeling in the stomach, as we are placed – as we inevitably are – in the most difficult group of the tournament. One can only hope that the current revival under Gordon Strachan continues, but where the players will come from that can raise Scotland a few notches higher remains uncertain. But with Scotland not in the running, and with no particular allegiances apart from those that come naturally for teams that play the most exciting football, it’s easy just to sit back and enjoy. And when I’ll be yet another four years older – long past being a schoolboy, or a student, or a newly engaged young man, or even a middle-aged paterfamilias, but, rather, as someone in late middle age, staring into oncoming old age and decrepitude – what I am enjoying now will become yet more World Cup memories.

Makes you think, doesn’t it? Not quite sure about what, but it definitely makes you think.

O Scotland, Scotland!
– From “Macbeth” by English writer William Shakespeare, IV, iii

 

(Note: I haven’t littered this post with YouTube clips, but every goal or incident I have mentioned here may be found in YouTube quite easily.)

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On epileptic pigeons, and other matters

I had always thought of Turgenev as an essentially lyrical writer. So, on reading “My Neighbour Radilov” from Sketches From a Hunter’s Album, I was bit surprised by the following passage, in which the narrator describes how difficult it is to engage his neighbour Radilov in conversation:

I was struck by the fact that I couldn’t find in him any passion for food or wine or hunting or Kursk nightingales or epileptic pigeons or Russian literature or trotting horses or Hungarian jackets or cards or billiards or going dancing in the evening or paying visits to the local town or the capital or paper and sugar-beet factories or brightly decorated gazebos or tea parties or trace-horses driven into bad ways or even fat coachmen with belts right up to their armpits , those magnificent coachmen whose every movement of their necks, God knows why, makes their eyes literally pop out of their heads…
– Translated by Richard Freeborn, Penguin Classics

I had to make sure I hadn’t picked up something by Gogol by mistake. It’s not just that the narrator is depicting lunacy: the narrator himself is lunatic.

Nothing in this list is glossed by an editorial note. Does anyone know if “epileptic pigeons” have some sort of significance in 19th century Russian culture that I don’t know about?

A night at the opera: “La Traviata” at Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

The best presents to give are those that one can enjoy oneself. So when my wife had a somewhat significant birthday recently, I had little problem choosing what to get her: tickets for an evening at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, of course. That’s tickets, in the plural, as, quite naturally, she wouldn’t want to go on her own now, would she?

And the show was Verdi’s La Traviata. Her favourite opera, Verdi’s Don Carlos, would I suppose have been even better, but one can’t very well expect Royal Opera to schedule their season just to please us: La Traviata was playing at the time, and that was more than good enough.

Ailyn Pérez and Simon Keenlyside as Violetta and Giogio Germont in La Traviata (picture courtesy Royal Opera, Covent Garden)

Ailyn Pérez and Simon Keenlyside as Violetta and Giogio Germont in La Traviata (picture courtesy Royal Opera, Covent Garden)

It’s one of those works known as a “warhorse” – i.e. a very popular work that has possibly been revived more often than is good for it – often at the expense of less popular works that deserve a greater exposure to the public. This has, perhaps understandably, incurred the wrath of many seasoned opera-lovers: not another tired old revival, they moan, when we could have been seeing …. or …. instead! (Opera lovers can easily fill in those blanks, I’m sure.) I sympathise. I agree also that putting on the same piece so frequently often results in performances that are stale, routine, and tired. However, we are far from regular visitors to Covent Garden: it’s not that it’s prohibitively expensive, as is often claimed – usually by those who spend much more going to rock concerts or to West End musicals – but it’s expensive enough to make a night at the opera a rare treat rather than a regular occurrence. So no, we haven’t been over-exposed to the work, and neither are we jaded. And what’s more, we both like Verdi.

I suppose admitting to liking Verdi places one in many people’s books as a diehard musical conservative; as someone whose idea of good music is no more than a nice, comfortable tune to hum along to; as someone who dislikes all that horrible tuneless cacophony that passes for music these days; and so on, and so forth. I plead “not guilty” to all such charges. But I still love Verdi. Oh, I can recognise weaknesses: it’s not blind idolatry on my part (I reserve my blind idolatry only for Shakespeare). But these weaknesses are like the character flaws of a good friend: even if they annoy you from time to time, you’re prepared to put up with them because … well, because you’re friends. And Verdi has been like a good friend to me for several decades now. Even in many of his weaker works, he makes me feel certain things that I don’t feel with any other composer. And yes, I know, he has his detractors – some of whom are so learned in matters of music that I wouldn’t even think of entering into dispute with them. But he has, and has had, many great admirers also: Stravinsky, for instance, and Britten. So if my love of Verdi is indeed a lapse of taste on my part, I am at least in supremely good company.

I haven’t read the novel – La Dame aux Camelias by Dumas fils – on which the opera is based, although, if the Royal Opera programme notes are to be trusted, Verdi’s opera is very, very different from Dumas’ somewhat misogynistic novel. I suppose modern audiences can no longer feel the shock that Verdi’s first audiences must have felt on seeing as protagonist a courtesan – effectively, a prostitute – and, further, seeing her endowed with a tragic and even with a moral dignity. But the shock effect is not central to our appreciation of the work, so not much is lost on that score. The charge of sentimentality is more difficult to answer, but then again, that charge is always difficult to answer, since there appears to be no commonly agreed definition of the term. Generally, the term is applied to works that we feel we are intended to find emotionally moving, but don’t. But since I find La Traviata very moving indeed, I obviously cannot see it as “sentimental” – although it is not possible to argue against those who do.

At the heart of this work is one of Verdi’s finest scenes: the soprano-baritone duet, between Violetta and Giorgio Germont. Violetta, formerly a prostitute in the Parisian demi-monde, has, unexpectedly, found happiness with the young Alfredo. However, while frequenting the demi-monde is not particularly frowned upon, setting up a relationship with someone from that half-world is. And as a consequence, Alfredo’s family is viewed as tainted, and his younger sister is unable to marry. Of course, by our modern moral standards (in the Western world, at least), this is bizarre: but it usually doesn’t, I feel, require too great a leap of the imagination to imagine ourselves living in societies with very different moral codes: if it did, it would have been unlikely for so many people to be able to engage so readily with this work.

So now, Alfredo’s father enters the scene: he has come not to plead with Violetta, but to order her, to leave her son alone. He is, after all, a respectable citizen and she is a prostitute: he has every right to issue orders. But what happens when they meet is unexpected, and Verdi’s music – to my sensibilities, both beautiful and dramatically convincing – captures unerringly every facet of what passes between ex-prostitute and respectable citizen. First of all, she refuses to be browbeaten by him; and he, almost immediately, recognises in her a dignity of bearing that he had not expected. So instead of ordering her, he tries persuasion. He tells her of his beloved daughter, whose society marriage cannot go ahead because of her brother’s unfortunate attachment. Violetta’s immediate reaction is horror at the suggestion that she should leave Alfredo; but eventually, in music of the utmost poignancy, she agrees. I know that many see this as psychologically improbable: to me, however, it seems all too probable. She agrees to leave Alfredo not, I think, because Alfredo’s father convinces her: rather, it is because she convinces herself. He says nothing to her to add weight to his initial request: she, however, knowing what she has been, and, possibly, hating herself for having been so, feels increasingly unworthy to stand in the way of someone else’s happiness. Even without the music, this does not strike me either as improbable, or – as has also been claimed – as corny: and with that music, it is heart-rending. Does that make me a sentimental old sap? Fair enough – sentimental old sap I am.

The production, an old one directed by Richard Eyre, was traditional, but effective. I do not want to review the musical aspect, since I am not qualified to do so, but I could not wish it done better. Conductor Paul Wynne Jones paced the drama finely; and the supporting cast, including Stephen Costello as Alfredo and Simon Keenlyside as his father, was splendid. But this is really a soprano’s opera: it all stands or falls on the her performance. As Violetta, Ailyn Pérez was stunning. She looks the part, which always helps I suppose: she has movie star looks and a fine stage presence; and her singing and acting on the night left nothing to be desired. No doubt those who know this work more intimately than I do, and have seen and heard it in different performances, may find certain things to carp at: I can only say I didn’t. And neither did my wife, which, I suppose, is just as well: the tickets were a birthday treat, after all – even though I enjoyed her present every bit as much as she did. Just as well we both love Verdi!