Sunday 16 June 2019

France 2019 World Cup Day 8: Patriotism's Coming Home

I'm having just as much trouble catching up with the women's World Cup as I did the men's last summer.

Wonderfully, this summer's tournament in France is getting comparable viewing exposure, but I've managed just one game and a half in the 12 days it's been on. 4.3 million watched England beat Scotland 2-1 on Sunday at 5pm, and maybe double the number wanted to but, like Thailand playing USA, found the odds stacked against them.

To some, an early evening weekend kick off is perfect (me pre-kids, for instance), but when one's missus is lovingly preparing a roast dinner for five, my priority is keeping the other three members of the family alive. Take your eyes off them for a second and they'll be tumbling around the washing machine on a 90 degree 1400 spin, thumping noiselessly against the tub like General Zod and cohorts in Superman II.

What I did squeeze in, between the narrow margins of the ever expanding bedtime routine and my own rapid surrender to sleep, was the early stadium-side exchanges between BBC's chosen punditry team on opening night. While 2015 World Cup winning USA goalkeeper, Hope Solo, and fomer Arsenal and England's Alex Scott made some welcome points to Gabby Logan about FIFA's resistance to "grow the game" in certain countries, Dion Dublin, currently on the books of Homes Under the Hammer, revealed that he'd done “loads of research and watched loads of videos".

I for one was reassured by Dublin's aptitude, recalling a time on radio when he said he'd "never heard of “ Mathiueu Debuchy when Newcastle signed him from France in the summer of 2012, mere weeks after the right back had played in every one of France's four games in Euro 2012. For a man paid to actually inform the public on football matters (and not make elbow-nudging in-jokes about his colleagues' lackluste performances on the putting green), this smacked of Alan Shearer's own revelation of ignorance in 2010 regarding Ben Arfur, who'd also just signed for Newcastle (ha, so good to get one in on Shearer, early doors. He's not even anywhere near this tournament!).

Finally, on Friday night, Day 8, I watched the whole of England v Argentina. It's very possible that  I wouldn't watch an equivalent meeting of this fixture, but I sat through this one without the babyish tendancies that that wretched male game brings out in me. Does this mean I want England to win? I'm liberated when I admit, yes, I do want England to win!

Even with Phil Neville as manager...

Angered though I normally am by the lesser known Nev, I saw 20 years ago and more that he was the man for a job dominated by women. One night in the mid-late nineties, I found myself in the unenviable position of being in the Hotshots bar of the now defunct Leisureworld in Hemel Hempstead.  With an England under 21 gathering that same week, Nev and team-mates Nicky Butt, Michael Duberry and Emile Heskey strolled in. While the wild young men of Chelsea and Leicester City approached the fruit machine and pool tables, Manchester United's Nev and Butt, mere yards from us just outside the bar perimeter, were quickly spotted by two attactive women who engaged them in lively conversation. From the off, Nev was animated and engaging, despite his looks, and using his personality to inject consistent hilarity in the female dialogue instigators. Such was his ease in this situation - in stark contrast to Butt, who  kept his hands in his tracksuit pockets throughout the scene in a flawed conceit to look cool while no doubt being ready to pounce if the opportunity struck - that it was clear Nev was one to watch.

Both my eyes, however, were fully focused on Logan before kick off of, what I will now term, the Argentina game. With her hair in a ponytail and dressed in a full-length white coat, she gave off the look of a lab assistant, occasionally delving in to her laptop for the latest data. While the experimental line up of Scott, injured Arsenal and England regular Jordan Nobbs and Dublin tried to analyse the findings in real terms, Logan applied her own research on Shearer, asking for Dublin's comments while Scott was midway through a sentence.

With the action underway - after the same countdown to kick off that blight's the men's tournaments - we could finally get to hear Jonathan Pearce patronise Sue Smith in the commentary box. "You went the colour of beetroot" he told her kindly, in reference to Nev singling out her "legend" in the press conference as a pioneering England player. You did, Sue, you really did. Beetroot. You did, young lady. I'm telling everyone now. Stay there, Sue!

Pearce proved he could mix it too, though, grumbling "Feel free to comment at any time, Sue" during the first half. "You wouldn't stop talking during the day!"

Bloody women, eh Jon, non-stop wittering on when you don't need it!  

Against the amateur players of Argentina (one of whom Pearce criticised for getting cramp, even though it turned out not to be cramp), England found doughty resistance but, unlike in 2002 in Japan and Korea, earned a correctly awarded penalty against the South Americans. Sadly however, No.7 Nikita Parris was unable to convert like England's No.7 17 years ago. At half time, Dublin explained that this was down to Parris "hitting it with her heel".

0-0 at half time, the interviewed Nev spoke about the importance of not getting sucked in to Argentina's "going downs and timewasting". As a man who has long championed the "good foul" on MOTD, he must have been quietly impressed by his opponents' approach. Nev's adoption of the Gareth Southgate of Russia 2018 waistcoat seemed quite apt. Both men were ultimately responsible for England's elimination from successive European Championship tournaments, and while Southgate's rosy path to the last four in the home of Putin has seemed to redeem him in the bitter eyes of many, Neville must hope that the item of clothing will work at least an equal charm to exorcize his own penalty-related ghost.

Happily, England will now progress to the knockout stages, (unlike in Euro 2000) having found a way past the Argentines’ robust defence and inspired goalkeeper just after the hour. A rare Argentine attack was brought quickly out of defence by Jill Scott/Jessica Knappett, who played in the menacing Fran Kirby (certainly menacing to Arsenal in defeat to Chelsea in the 2018 Cup Final), in turn feeding Arsenal's Beth Mead on the left. Mead's piercing ball between defence and goalie meant that even out of sorts Jodie Taylor couldn't miss if she flicked her right boot out.

The one goal proved enough, though a tougher fight awaits England on Wednesday when they play Japan for the right to top the group.

Not that it always matters...    

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