When I was at Durham University, many suns ago, I used to write what I thought was a terribly witty column in Palatinate, the student newspaper. I called it “A Life in the Day”. It was about the life in the day of a boat club hearty, a science student, a theology don, and so on, all in the first person and all made up, with bad grammar, lots of spewing up. Well, it amused me.
Then I became the editor and got to see all the other student papers, as we did a round-up of student news. When Varsity arrived, I could hardly bear to read it – it was so thick, full of adverts and so professional. I consoled myself by saying that Cambridge had about 10,000 students while Durham, at that time, had only 1,500, so obviously they sold more and could attract more ads. I started reading a humorous column in Varsity by someone called Michael Frayn. It was just so brilliant, so inventive, so clever, so funny. I thought: why do I bother, I can never compete, I might as well give up now.
Watching el Clásico, between Real Madrid and Barcelona, I imagined what footballers in Britain and all round the world were thinking: why do we bother? They are just so brilliant, so talented.
Messi and Ronaldo are the best at what they do in the world but there was also Iniesta, Bale, Modric, Neymar – two teams full of the best players on the planet. They all controlled the ball instantly, passed perfectly and were constantly creative, but they also worked hard, tracked and pressed. There was no lumping the ball, hardly a square pass, no pointless head tennis. Oh, it was all such a joy to watch.
If our Prem players and their managers despaired, think how people must feel lower down the leagues. At Carlisle United, do they watch Barça and think, oh, well, might as well just top ourselves now? As for the fans, Barça can make you depressed by your pathetic team or decide it’s loyalty that matters, not fashion.
Our Premier League has its moments but they’re mostly fleeting. The players muck it up, give the ball away. They reveal themselves as crude and clumsy. A bit like my student column. The handful of players in the Prem who currently do make our little hearts leap are all foreign – such as Suárez, Silva, Agüero. The best, most exciting players in the world at the moment do seem to come from Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Spain and Portugal: as we shall see in the World Cup this summer.
Bale is Welsh, while Rooney and Gerrard, our two quality home-grown players, are English, but that’s about it – three half-decent players out of a population of 60 million. Yes, OK, the Germans are currently very successful, much more so than England, but not all that exciting. They are just better at playing the English game.
At the moment, Arsenal have a giant German defender, Per Mertesacker, who has become a favourite with Gooner fans. I didn’t think so when I first heard them chant his name. “Big fucking German,” goes the first line. I thought some abuse was coming, but then they sang: “We’ve got a big fucking German.” So it’s an affectionate chant, pre-empting any criticism by rival fans.
Is it the Latin temperament that makes so many countries better than us at football? In South America and the Med, they are brought up to respect and encourage flair and style while we are taught to value work rate and not showing off. We have produced flair players in the past, like George Best, but I always thought he was a Latin lover in disguise. African players are also pretty good, such as Drogba, and we currently have two good ’uns still with us, Eto’o and Yaya Touré, reaching the end of their careers. So, is heat the common denominator, rather than Latin blood? Warm countries do seem to produce better players than cold countries. Spending all your early life in shorts on the beach must help ball control.
Just admire them, the way I admired Michael Frayn. Then wait for global warming . . .