Never on the field of human conflict has so much football been played by so few, for so many. Isn’t that what England’s veteran central defender Winston Churchill said 70 years ago? It’s been a curious global conflagration this.
Without wishing to irk the historians, France surrendered early and a new regime will take over the wreckage. Italy changed ends a few times, and then threw up their hands too. Brave England, weary and dispirited, bravely trudged on. And then the high-spirited Americans appeared at the last minute to grab the glory.
I hope there’s no confusion. It’s the absorbing, unpredictable World Cup we’re talking about. Right here in South Africa, where the disenfranchised majority desperately volunteer to back England, the Limeys are under siege, and the Afrikaners may be quietly backing the Germans.
Now we await the big England showdown against the old foe, a long way from Tipperary. And the Japanese are lurking dangerously. The Swiss are in neutral for the time being, the Spanish are recovering from their earlier conflict, and the South Americans appear largely unaffected by it all. Poor old Africa appears to have been utterly let down by years of colonial dominance. European superpowers have drained their resources. Ghana are the first nation to claim freedom—and the last. But I’m going too far. Don’t mention the war, as the striking John Cleese once said.
"Lest we forget, France really did surrender here. They laid down their arms and left with one solitary point from a boring display against the Uruguayans in Cape Town. A massive government inquiry is ongoing, Laurent Blanc now takes over the reins while Raymond Domenech falls on his sword, assisted by the hands-some major figure, Thierry Henry."
Four years ago Les Bleus reached the final. Twelve years ago they ruled the world. But in South Africa the French Resistance was about as laughable as the British comedy ‘Allo ‘Allo.
The Italians fared little better. They conquered the globe four years ago and forgot to conscript youngsters to replace those war-weary veterans. Generally, Marcello Lippi may have to resign his commission. When the big guns of Slovakia were turned on them, the Azzuri submitted 3-2 despite a few late shots. Like France, they finished bottom of their group and retreat in disgrace.
England, after a terrible start—that 0-0 draw against Algeria might have been our Dunkirk, we were all at sea—showed the Blitz spirit to see off mighty Slovenia 1-0 with the shout of “who goes there friend or Defoe?”
And just when it looked like those brave troops had Group C at their mercy, along comes Landon Donovan with that late goal against Algeria, in Pretoria, to put the United States on top. Yankee dandies doodled, but they triumphed in the end with an ex-President urging them on.
Which of course leaves Her Majesty’s finest to take on the Germans. Alone. In Bloemfontein. On Sunday. Now I remember the capital of the Free State being a bit of a no-man’s land on the Sabbath. No drinking, no sport, just church. Perhaps things have changed. I doubt it. If there’s a corner of a foreign field that isn’t forever England, it’s Bloem.
The USA have the easy option, what with all their resources and plentiful rations of good fortune. They play sole African survivors Ghana in Phokeng, just down the road from England’s Royal Bafokeng Sports Campus base. The FA’s World Cup Final Solution—formulated long before the World Cup draw on December 4—has gone awry.
And all the while the South Americans are progressing on several fronts. Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Chile sit proudly atop their groups and look capable of changing the course of global events. They haven’t endured a long, hard winter like the Europeans. They’re fresh, few casualties... and they’re taking no prisoners. All five of the CONMEBOL qualifiers.
Mexico have sneaked in too, but they’re not really in the same category. Portugal should join them, they’re the neutral choice. But only if they drive the Brazilians nuts in Durban.
And the sly Dutch appear to be lurking with intent. Three games, nine points after last night’s meaningless 2-1 victory over doomed Cameroon in Cape Town. Arsenal’s Robin van Persie dropped the bombshell just before halftime, after an explosive interchange with Liverpool’s Dirk Kuyt.
Then Rafael van der Vaart put his hands up—to block Geremi's free-kick. Samuel Eto'o stuck away the penalty to equalise.
Then we had the standing ovation for the arrival of Bayern Munich’s Aarjen Robben, back after a hamstring injury. Almost immediately he hit a post, and Milan’s Klaas-Jan Huntelaar followed up to score the winner. Orange juice all round. But nobody’s really talking about the lowlanders. We are otherwise occupied.
With Japan for instance. They’re supposed to be a distant Asian power. Like South Korea. They play a different game; quick, neat, but ineffective. Yet here they are, on the brink of threatening the traditional European powers. We may have underestimated the Orientals (which is not to suggest an allegiance with Leyton Orient, no way). The Americans may be left to deal with this particular threat.
Their 3-1 triumph at the Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace last night would please any Emperor. Keisuke Honda produced the first genuine free-kick strike with the ballooning Jabulani ball to put Denmark on the back foot from 30 yards after 27 minutes. Yasuhito Endo did much the same 13 minutes later and by halftime it was 2-0.
Denmark hit the bar in the second half as they finally realised they were on their way out, but by then they were bacon. Well done. An 83rd minute penalty—scored on the rebound by former Newcastle veteran Jon Dahl Tomasson, his first goal in 13 games—gave the Danes hope but it was a phoney war; up popped Shinji Okazaki to produce coup de grace in the dying moments.
Australia? New Zealand? They fought so hard, sacrificed so much... but went home without recognition. Like a couple of the unpredictable Balkan states, Greece, Serbia, and Slovenia. Cannon fodder. Slovakia alone have defied the odds, but they should be kept in Czech.
It’s all fitting in to an historical pattern this World Cup. And the good news? History suggests England will rise up after those torrid opening skirmishes to conquer those efficient Germans.
Could we call that VE day? Oh, what a lovely war!
Neal Collins is not a war historian. He is a sports journalist touring South Africa to promote his first novel, A GAME APART, currently No. 67 on Amazon’s African best-sellers list, just ahead of “Truth and Lies: Stories from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa”. For more information, see www.nealcollins.co.uk. Or ask your local book shop to order one.
To see Neal talk at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown on July 4, go to http://www.computicket.com/web/event/neal_collins_a_game_apart/148367625.