Thursday 31 August 2023

The World Cup is Not Enough (But it's such a good place to start)

When Lucy Bronze drove with the ball into the centre of Spain’s midfield (Women’s World Cup Final, Sunday 20th August), the repercussions, once she’d been hounded out of possession, might have seemed limited. For all Spain’s technical excellence, a good goal scoring opportunity had already been spurned by Salina Parraleullo and the all-knowing heads would have expected such profligacy to continue until the ice-cold veins of Hemp and Russo at the other end would make them pay.

The brilliant Aitana Bonmarti may have seen a bigger picture. May have seen it all, even beyond her wonderful pass into the Bronze-vacated area, where Mariona Caldentay took receipt of her crossfield pass and played it outside her to the onrushing captain Olga Carmona, who checked her stride and blazed her shot across Mary Earps into the bottom right corner. Bonmarti, who would be crowned Golden Ball winner for Player of the Tournament, would not have wished to cause her team mate Jenni Hermoso the experience she has had to suffer in the wake of victory thanks to this goal, but hers is a pass that has started a revolution. If we thought Chloe Kelly’s penalty shoot-out strike to knock out Nigeria, faster than any Premier League goal in 2022-23, had caused a mini shockwave, we couldn’t have expected this. 

My animated reaction to Carmona’s shot resting in the net unseated me from my own all-knowing constituency. The on-pitch skipper and left back had just scored her second goal for the country, the first having been in the previous match, the late winner against Sweden in the semi-final. Notwithstanding Bronze’s concession, here was another example of the full backs' growing influence as an attacking threat. As goalkeepers become crucial to the passing process, full backs are finishing the moves.

But while the game evolves quickly, people within it remain unmoved. All Luis Rubalies had to do, in his role as president of the Spanish Football Federation, was understand his mistake, own up to it and offer his resignation for kissing the No.11, Jennifer Hermoso on the lips after greeting her on the ceremonial podium. Ron Atkinson apologised and resigned from his co-commentary job in 2005 for the unforgiveable content of his tirade at Marcel Desailly that he believed was off-air on the night of a Champions League semi final between Monaco and Chelsea. Maybe he was advised to resign, but regardless that's what he did. He didn't, as Rubiales has done, accuse the victim of lying and threaten a law-suit. Not all of us heard Big Ron, but we all saw Rubiales clutch Hermoso's head two-handed and plant his mouth on hers. He did say sorry for grabbing his crotch (within yards of the Queen of Spain and her daughter) when the full-time whistle blew, but with the "if anyone was offended" caveat, immediately downgrading the apology to words of self-protection.  

The machismo of a crotch-grab is enough to show that the person executing it shouldn't be in a position of authority, that he is a Trump disciple. Trump's penchant for grabbing is well-known, and not necessarily his own genitalia. The theatre of Rubiales' defiance at the general assembly of the Spanish Federation the following Thursday was pure Trumpball; more manipulated women at the front, male allies applauding everywhere else. Rubiales referenced his three daughters (like Gianni Infantino had referenced his four while addressing the potential of the women's game and telling the women that FIFA's "doors are open" to knock down, if only they'd persuade him of their worth. Andy Gray had talked about his daughter too while Sky investigated his own 'off-air' indiscretions). Hermoso had already extracted her pressured statement to support Rubiales when she'd been leapt on like her team mates had on Bronze, initially heard saying "I didn't like it" moments after the ceremony. For a while, this looked dark, as if the Spanish Federation were going to go all in on Hermoso while standing by their man, who was waiting to become the actual victim in this. It wouldn't have been surprising; in the last 10 years, Spanish crowds have booed visiting black and mixed-race England players, and abused Lewis Hamilton for the same reason. The mindset of this country has sometimes been characterised by former men's manager, the late Luis Aragones, who'd infamously encouraged the also late Jose Antonio Reyes to shrug off the spectre of his then club teammate Thierry Henry with a word similar to that which saw Big Ron leave ITV for good. 

Thankfully, mercifully, the reaction on the Spanish streets and in the their stadiums is akin to an uprising. #Se Acabo~. 81 women and men players are refusing to play for their country until Rubiales, now suspended by FIFA while the investigation continues, has gone. Hermoso received a standing ovation on the opening day of the men's season, and men's players wore t shirts honouring her. Strong allies in Jorge Vilda, women's football team manager and the men's team manager turned on Rubiales too - even if this was only when they had ben made aware of the prevailing wind. It may be too late for Vilda, who had already orchestrated his own revolt, 13 players making themselves unavailable for the World Cup citing their mental well-being and below-par preparation. Eight years in the job with this fine squad, featuring Barcelona's Champions league winners of last season, yet for the first time this summer his team went beyond a quarter final. The Spanish FA are reportedly exploring ways to sack him. During the puffed-up protest at the general assembly, Rubiales had shown his intention to extend Vilda's contract, offering 500,000 euros a year to the son of Angel Vilda, a prominent figure in Spanish football circles. Perhaps, in his now impotent position, Rubiales is rallying his remaining loyalists to storm the senate, or perhaps in his terms, run the bulls.

Vilda embraced Infantino on the podium, the Head of FIFA gracing everyone with his presence. Infantino probably hadn't noticed that the last England player to greet him, Bronze, didn't put herself in a position to shake his hand and, instead, hands on hips, ducked into the medal he put round her neck. If only more people did that. Her misguided run into the pack of Spaniards is a trifling matter compared to the snubbing of Infantino. She deserves, well, a medal for it. She also, without knowing it at the time, played a part in the downfall of a narcissist at the heart of women's football, the scalp of Rubiales. Lucy, no doubt, would not have given the ball away if given the chance again, and hope instead that Rubiales would be brought down in a different way somewhere along the line. But if she is looking to forgive herself, then the hastening of Rubiales' exposure must contain some kind of medicinal properties.          

Human beings make mistakes; it's what makes us interesting. Gianluca Vialli said "you never lose, you either win or you learn". I wouldn't have wanted to hear that just after, say, the 2001 FA Cup Final, but looking at the following season, you see his point. It's how we respond to our mistakes, or even how we feel about them after a period of sometimes painful reflection that means something. Arsenal were without doubt hard done by in that Final, let down by insufficient officialdom but still good enough to have won the game with the chances they gave themselves. Oh well, you just have to suck up the glory-boy baiting in the pub and the one-eyed analysis of Alan Hansen. Your time will come, just a bit later. Though not for everyone. Even if Rubiales had conducted himself with dignity after the indignity, there should have been no Double to win for him, rather the kind of anonymity to look forward to that Big Ron has faced, but sometimes you have to put the world first.    


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