Tiger Woods could be heading for golfing oblivion, Fabio Capello is in the doghouse and David Beckham has been cruelly put out to pasture. Yes, it’s just another week in the crazy and cut-throat world of top-class sport. Winners are now big-time losers, reporters act as judge, jury and executioner and the real action is never what is happening on the field.
During the six weeks since Germany thrashed England 4-1 in the World Cup, the recriminations have been long and loud. First there was the disappointing news that Capello, our now discredited coach, would be remaining in his £6 million-a-year post. The FA toyed with the Italian for a few days, before making the announcement on 2 July that dashed the hopes of all blood sports fans in the British media. With Fabio refusing to do the decent thing and resign, most believed it would have been just too expensive for the FA to get rid of him.
Capello’s head was safe — for now — so attention switched to those England players who had the temerity to slip into their designer swimming trunks and jet off on expensive foreign holidays, rather than languish in sackcloth and ashes. Still, this did mean that the rest of us got to enjoy regular updates on Frank Lampard’s romance with TV presenter Christine Bleakley and the progress of Wayne Rooney’s suntan. Where was the shame, the penitence or even the sunscreen?
The vacation couldn’t last for ever: the fates decreed that England would play another friendly before the new Premier League season kicks off this weekend. So Hungary, once aristocrats of the European game in the days of Puskas, came to Wembley for one of those matches that no-one really wants but everyone feels obliged to talk about ad nauseam.
On re-reading my last sentence I realise that “talking” doesn’t adequately cover the build-up to this game. Of course there was debate about who was in the squad (Arsenal’s Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere and the fourth choice Blackburn goalkeeper Frankie Fielding); who was out (Joe Cole, Jermain Defoe and Peter Crouch); and who had hastily “retired” from international soccer (Wes Brown and Paul Robinson). But the big issue was whether Fabio and his flops would be devoured by packs of rabid Ingerlund fans the moment they set foot on Wembley’s hallowed and (we learned) artificially enhanced turf.
Stand-in captain Steven Gerrard, ever the diplomat, lobbed all the right clichés in the direction of the media with phrases like “moving forward”, taking things “on board”, or perhaps even taking it “on the chin”. But clearly everyone — the players, the coach and the press — really wanted lots of booing from the crowd. The headlines more or less demanded a chorus of disapproval that would drown out even the most enthusiastic vuvuzelas.
I foolishly listened to the build-up on BBC radio, which seemed to consist largely of reporters excitedly monitoring the level of booing directed at each England player as the team emerged for a warm-up. The story from the fans themselves was a bit different: those interviewed sounded way too reasonable, optimistic and forgiving to bolster what the BBC clearly hoped would be a gladiatorial atmosphere at Wembley. What was wrong with these supporters — weren’t they just boiling over with frustration?
So I’m afraid I can’t tell you too much about England’s unconvincing 2-1 win over modest opposition, achieved with two excellent second-half goals from Captain Fantastic Gerrard. I don’t want to dwell on the irony of England, who were denied that Frank Lampard equalising goal in Bloemfontein, now conceding a Phil Jagielka own goal to a ball that had actually been cleared off the line. All I heard was a lot of obsessing about disgruntled spectators and needless analysis of Capello’s body language when he failed to show crack a smile at Gerrard’s goals.
The real own goal of the night wasn’t Jagielka’s effort, but Capello’s suggestion that 35-year-old David Beckham was now “a little bit old” to continue his international career. This bombshell came during a brief interview screened at half-time. The damning verdict from pundits was that the Italian was “incoherent”, since his English was, as ever, rather halting. (I wonder how fluent their Italian is.) Now Fabio’s off-the-cuff comment has turned into a full-scale international incident, because he appears not to have informed Becks his England career is over.
Tiger Woods won’t be calling time on his career just yet, but he could certainly do with something or someone taking the heat off him during this week’s US PGA Championship at the quaintly named Whistling Straits course. He has recently embraced that awkward transition from mediocrity to also ran, by finishing on an eye-watering score of 18-over-par at the Bridgestone Invitational. Tiger is a superstar: he knows being merely average is no more appealing than a lifetime of monogamy.
In the week that Manchester United signed Portuguese striker, Tiago Manuel Dias Correia (aka Bébé), I realised that some of the biggest babies in the sport were ensconced in press boxes wailing about Capello. The truth is that the much-maligned Italian’s apparent gaffe over Beckham’s future is a stroke of public relations genius. Now instead of chewing over England’s on-field shortcomings, the press can return to its favourite game of bashing the coach and obsessing over Becks, our new patron saint of lost causes. As a diversionary tactic it is worthy of applause.
(Article first published as Three Lions, One Tiger, No Becks on Blogcritics.)