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Friday, 12 October 2007


Sunday 22nd June, 1986: Argentina 2 (Maradona 2), England 1 (Lineker)

Of course, the long-awaited sexual encounter is anything but warm and romantic. As Georgette fellates him, Vinnie remains standing and is fully clothed, with his pants down around his knees. At one point, he snarls, “Watch the balls, fer chrissake.” Meanwhile, his goombas stand around making lewd remarks. The icing on the cake is when Georgette tries to convince herself that she did not taste excrement on Vinnie’s penis as that would mean he had done it with one of her fellow transsexuals. And that would be more than Georgette could bear.

Internet synopsis of 'The Queen is Dead' section from Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr. [direct quotation to follow, once I track down the book...]

As I write, this game bisects my life. I was 21 years old when it was played and that was 21 years ago.

I watch it with Ziggy Woodblume. We've sat through all the other England games at this World Cup and seen the team progress this far, so why stop now? Upon payment of a small fee, I'm ushered through the hall and into the living room. Mrs. Woodblume (no relation) has laid on a lavish kosher spread from which I am encouraged to borrow as much as I like. Ziggy has really entered into the spirit of things, having daubed three lions in eminently delible ink onto the breast of his homemade Israeli national team replica shirt. Ever fearful of wasting good ink, his attempts to embellish the design prove unsuccessful as he is unable to persuade either a hastily scrawled lamb or calf to lie down with their leonine cousins. Ethnic and religious groupings are so easy to poke fun at, aren't they? You wouldn't think that belonging to them could prove to be so hard.

I took England's exit from the Mexico World Cup in 1986 surprisingly badly considering I'd enjoyed watching the national team squirm for much of the tournament leading up to their quarter final defeat. I can't imagine how awful any true patriot must have felt to see the team eliminated as controversially as they were. That said, you'd have to be a fan of the lunatic, zany Union Jack top hat and tails wearing sort not to have enjoyed a good laugh watching the team's woeful group stage games.

Perhaps it was just me. After all, my footballing life had been forged in that crucible of mediocrity the 1970s. The first World Cup to have been hosted by the Mexicans at the outset of that decade was, to me, little more than a solitary colour holiday snap from some brief sojourn in a warm and sunny clime in the otherwise dank and monochrome photo album that was domestic football. The highlights shows would occasionally be illuminated by footage of a Revelino free kick or Pele dummying both keeper and ball in order to vindicate the progressive views of pundits like Brian Clough and Malcolm Alison.

That was the extent of the colour and happiness, apart from Charlie George, another gold-clad, sun-drenched pied piper stretched out, Christ-like on the Wembley turf. After Charlie though, there was nothing but ignominy; West Germany and Leeds United in 1972, Poland in 1973. Then Scotland, their three group stage games at the 1974 World Cup a 270 minute-long tartan rebuke for English failure to qualify in 1974. I'd been well hardened in what it meant to be English, you see, by 1978, let alone 1986.

You might forgive me such at this second Mexican-hosted World Cup. I'm patriotic in my own way, but I don't need a zany Union Jack top hat and tails outfit or replica shirt to demonstrate my allegience. Being English is a bizarre enough affliction without the need to draw attention to it. You bore it then, just as you bear it now; with the minimum of fuss. Being English means that you hate bands as soon as any reasonable number of other people start to like them. It means that you'll go on to love all of the things that you used to hate when the Conservative Party stood for them (old maids cycling through the mist to play cricket on the village green etc.) - when it wasn't trying to discard or destroy the very same things, that is - once the Labour Party finally gets in.

Back then being English meant that the Queen was Dead and it was lonely on a limb; in Liverpool, Leeds or Birmingham; Dublin, Dundee, Humberside, it made no odds. Whatever it was they said that you were, that was what you were not; as it would go on to be twenty years hence for the Arctic Monkeys, just as it had been twenty years earlier for Albert Finney and Arthur Seaton.

Them was rotten days when things were rotten...

And being English meant being Ray Wilkins; throwing the ball away, getting a second yellow card in the first game of the 1986 World Cup and getting yourself sent off only for the ten men left on the field to hang on grimly for a draw. Shame and bravery, as is so often the case with England, were inextricably intertwined.

I think Englishness is very different from most other national identities. Maybe that's because we're surrounded by those other distinct nationalisms, ones that we English have spent so much of our history trying to mould or subdue, rule or form some mutually disadvantageous union with. We've expended so much effort on imposing our will on this extended British family of ours that the very notion of an English nation has withered precisely as Wales, Ireland and Scotland have regained their autonomy and strength of purpose. A formerly overbearing parent-in-law, we're now invalided and at the whim of our delicately usurping carers and their scheming partners.

To a far greater extent than our neighbours in the British Isles, we English can take or leave our being English in a way they cannot relinquish their being Scottish, Welsh or Irish. Even our English flag, shorn of the rich triangulations of the British union, seems perfunctory and an act of making do. Anyone can stick it out of the window of any car or any dwelling and become a subject of its drab sovereignty, made bland by its stark indifference. Those white quarters, childishly apportioned by some bloodied finger are as much a curse as ever they are a comfort. Be honest; you'd burn it yourself as willingly as its enemies would, at times.

Perhaps that's because we've been made aware so often of the fundamental contradictions at the heart of our patriotism; the feeling that those for whom being English means the most are, by and large, those the rest of England most despises. You'll see it tomorrow, when the two teams stand in line at Wembley and in the Stade de France. You'll want to sing along with the French anthem, envy the global call to arms and the spirit of their 'Marseilleise'. Then you'll realise that all our anthem gives us is the chance to boo the other; the opportunity to jeer the French and barrack the Estonians. I can just as easily revel in England's misery as I can rail at the infamy of those who would dare abuse or scorn her. I hate her; but that is my perogative and woe betide those who take her name in vain. I am Georgette and England my undeserving Vinny. It's hardly the most satisfactory of arrangements...

And now, four days after I buy The Queen is Dead, comes this game. Perhaps more than any other I have watched, it helps define me - or rather, it helps confuse me. Or it defines the nature of my confusion. We often talk about days that shake or transform the world. I think life and history are less dramatic than that. No matter how extravagant the upheaval, things don't really change that much; the fear of nuclear extinction becomes the threat of AIDS which, with time, shifts shape to become BSE or CJD. What was the Communist Call is now jihad, and so on. My generation was instilled, as others have been before, with a belief in the notion of progress; we will arrive at something that is better than what went before. Like all myths, it's seductive and so nearly true. Things will be better; of course they will. But they will also, in many ways, be worse and many alleged improvements in our lives will be hard, if not impossible, to call as such. So when you're looking at your own life, making your unique, personal ready reckoning, conjunctions like this can seem significant; the nation itself seems to be sketched out, its contours mapped, in those four days; 'hemmed in, like a boar between arches'.

Is there such a thing as fair play? The English do (or, perhaps more honestly, used to) pride themselves upon preserving the essence of that ideal without necessarily feeling the need to be constrained by its strictures. It becomes the moot point, the kernel of this June Sunday when Maradona punches the ball beyond Shilton in the England goal. After the event, when we're all returned to the tyranny of the replay, acts of war will be task forced over by either side to justify or denounce what is either an opportunist's or a scoundrel's goal. But somewhere in the vast and sweltering crowd that day there is fairness, if not fair play. A fellow Londoner is looking down from the gods. Like me, he's not wearing a replica shirt, he is no saint, no St. George; just appraises with an honest pair of eyes.

He's seen the 'hand of God'; spotted it a mile off for the weasly scam it was. He too feels revulsed and cheated. But then the passions cool. The game resumes and something mystical and borderless occurs. One man - a sinner and a saint combined - blesses this game with his skill and with his will. "You have to say that's magnificent", cries Barry Davies from the commentary box at the end of Diego Maradona's Roadrunner run. He's just meep-meeped his way around, beyond and through a statue park of Englishmen and is now leaping up and fisting the air with that hand of his - or God's. You have to say that is magnificent. And it was, and is. And so is that voice; The voice you wish could speak for all of England. Because a part of you is glad that you've been beaten, but you still feel cut in two.

L.U.V. on y'all,


Hear Bob read extracts from his diary of the 2007-08 season, "The Road to Moscow"!!

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  1. Well that's all well and good, but you still owe me a fiver for the nibbles

  2. ....a fiver for an artist's impression of two stale bagels and a sticky bun with half the icing licked off??

    Well, that's inflation for you...

    Mind you, it was a very good impression.