For the laffs: Gazza back in 1989. Photo: Getty
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Gianluca Vialli’s wisdom, Swiss cheese hats and desperately missing Gazza

Hunter Davies’s The Fan column. 

So how did I feel after that Italy game? Disappointed? Nah, not at all. Can’t be disappointed when our expectations were so low that even white van drivers had given up flying tatty flags. In the days of the Golden Generation – what a laugh that was – we were all endlessly disappointed, conned by our own naive hopes, which, despite ourselves, were beginning to creep back upon us. Until that Italy game.

Angry? Nope. I gave up being angry about England ages ago during those endless games where they did something really stupid – gave the ball away, fell over, back-passed to the opposition, threw the ball into their own net, sent vital penalties over the grandstand. Against Italy, in fact, they didn’t make too many crass mistakes. And a lot of good it did them.

Sad, that’s all I feel, really. Sad. I look at my little pit, where I had hoped to be buried deep for the next four weeks, cheering on the lads into the semis, well, the quarters, OK surely out of the group stage, and I think oh no, there we’ve gone again.

So why did Italy win? The great Gianluca Vialli, awfully well-brought-up chap, once Chelsea manager, wrote in his 2006 book The Italian Job that Italians play with their head and the English with their heart. Which is pretty true, or used to be. More recently he went all philosophical and said the difference was down to history. The Italians have been invaded endlessly over the centuries and so developed a defensive mentality. The English for centuries have been great conquerors, used to going out and attacking, becoming gung-ho warriors. Pretty smart, but really not correct any longer. England’s strength today is in counterattacking, rather than up and at ’em.

They didn’t get stuffed by Italy, and could easily have drawn. Sterling was a delight. Sturridge did well. Rooney was poor, and it is becoming clearer all the time that no one rates him in Europe, while Wilshere is totally overrated. But apart from those two, our lads did their best.

So, what was the difference? The Italians are cleverer, both individually and as a team. We took dumb free-kicks and half-witted corners. That’s it, really. They thought about it, winning in their heads. Vialli was right.

Which leads to the question: what happened to Dr Peters, that ace psychiatrist Roy hired to sort them out? Fallen on his water bottle like Gary Lewin, the poor physio who ended up injured and has had to come home?

****

And where was Dave? Angela turned up to see Germany hammer Portugal but no sign of Cameron so far. I sense Angela really is a football fan, unlike Dave, though I will have nothing said against him. He has just sent me a signed photograph – after three requests. I now have an autograph or letter of every PM back to Walpole.

Angela Merkel looked neat in her red jacket and bobbed hair – and I realised where Joachim Löw, the German manager, got his inspiration. For years I have assumed he bought his black wig from a Beatles souvenir shop on the Reeperbahn in Hamburg – but studying Angela up close, I could see she is his model. Of course it’s a wig. No one of his age has hair that black.

The players’ hair has been a disappointment. Nothing truly stupid so far, except Raul Meireles with his monster bushy beard and Mohican. The crowd, though, has shown imagination with its silly clothes. During Switzerland-Ecuador we got a close-up of three fans wearing what looked like mortar boards with holes in. I rushed to the telly, frightening all the sheep outside the window, hoping for another close-up. When it came I realised their hats were in the shape of yellow cheese with holes in. Now is that called Emmental, or Gruyère? I missed the Swiss winning goal, trying to work it out – and also wondering why the Swiss see cheese as their national symbol when we usually think of cuckoo clocks. I suppose they are harder to make into hats.

****

“QUICK!” I shouted to my wife. “THEY’RE LINING UP.”

It’s the only bit she watches, loves to see their little faces as they sing or mouth the national anthems.

She waited a bit longer than usual, as it was England, and asked what the referee was carrying in the little canister around his waist. “Is it a gun?” No, I said, try again. “Tear gas?” No, pet, you just have one more guess. “Water?” Good try, but no goldfish.

I explained it was shaving soap, or some sort of spray-on white paint, which disappears in 30 seconds, to mark the grass where the defenders must stand at free-kicks and not move forward behind the ref’s back, which players all over the world have always done.

It must be hellish awkward carrying it, and dangerous. Presumably it is some sort of aerosol, which could easily explode in the heat. I’m waiting for the first ref to drop it – then we’ll see what happens. Probably clear the ground.

In 1995, when Gazza was playing for Glasgow Rangers, the ref dropped his cards during a match at Ibrox. Gazza picked up the yellow card and, instead of handing it back, struck a ref-like pose, holding it up in the air and booking the referee. The crowd loved it. The ref didn’t think it was funny. Gave Gazza a yellow card.

I wish Gazza was there now. Not just for his skills. With this new canister, when it gets dropped, I can just see Gazza picking it up and going round spraying lines all over the shop.

Oh, how we could do with Gazza at this sad time. We need some football brains. And some laffs . . .

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage