PATRICK COLLINS: Spain have their magicians, we have the man with a whistle

In the city of Johannesburg, close by the township of Soweto, the game the world plays will reach a turning point on Sunday night.

If the Dutch should prevail, it will represent the triumph of a philosophy which values sober caution above swaggering risk. They are admirable players, technically gifted and impeccably prepared but
they do not ignite the senses or stir the imagination.

If Holland are champions, little will change. But if Spain should take the prize, then things could turn out quite differently.

Cup of joy: Spain can become world champions for the first time

Cup of joy: Spain can become world champions for the first time

In a World Cup of wondrous enthusiasm and indifferent quality, the Spaniards have provided the shining light. After a fallible, faltering start, they have come on to their game with the exhilarating surge of the thoroughbred.

Iniesta, Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Villa; their names are warmly familiar and their deeds are indelible.

Over the past few weeks, they have lifted our eyes to the possibilities of this entrancing game. There is no great secret about their mission to pass, pass and pass again until avenues are open and traps are sprung.

Equally, there is no secret about the qualities required to bring off this trick: a random check-list
might include touch, control, technique, initiative, vision and wit.

As we know, such virtues proved light years beyond the reach of England’s hugely rewarded yet absurdly inadequate representatives in this competition.

While Spain might relish the memory of any number of multiple-pass World Cup goals, England may recall the occasion when a mundane goal-kick left Matthew Upson clueless, John Terry puffingly perplexed and David James ditheringly impotent as Miroslav Klose scored for Germany.

In that moment, England’s delusions of competence were stunningly revealed, their limitations laid bare. Their consolation is that things don’t have to be like that. The check-list may be daunting but it is within the grasp of players who possess the humility to pursue it.

Touch, control, technique and the rest need not be alien qualities, however distant they may currently appear. Deep down, we know the direction we should take, but we lack the ambition to make the journey.

Just not good enough: Miroslav Klose battles off Matthew Upson to score for Germany as England are humbled

Just not good enough: Miroslav Klose battles off Matthew Upson to score for Germany as England are humbled

We pay lip service to the notion that skill will find a way but we don’t really believe it. For instance, we tell ourselves that if only Joe Cole had been entrusted with the creative role in South Africa, then all might have been well.

The severely limited Cole was allowed just two substitute appearances to work his magic in the
English cause. If he hadn’t played at all, he might easily have been voted man of the tournament by his zealous supporters.

After all these years, we ought to know better but we don’t. The Neanderthal Tendency suits us fine. Sam Allardyce, of Blackburn, may produce teams who biff and batter, bash free-kicks and block the keeper.

Sam Allardyce
Tony Pulis

Ugly football: Blackburn boss Sam Allardyce and Stoke manager Tony Pulis hardly inspire

He may strike populist poses and bawl at the referee to conceal his own ineptitude. But, hey, he’s Big Sam. They love him on Sky. Why, if he had a foreign name, he’d be the England manager. Wouldn’t he?

And Tony Pulis, another star. Works wonders with plucky little Stoke. Loves that long throw and why not? It isn’t illegal, is it? Indeed it isn’t. But it’s crude and witless; not so much an intelligent tactic as a failure of the imagination.

They have marvellous fans at the Britannia Stadium but that dim-witted screech when Rory Delap winds up yet another primitive heave is one of the most depressing sounds in the modern game.

In fairness, the very best in our game are a great deal better. Sir Alex Ferguson has kept faith down
the years with a bright, adventurous vision of how football should be played. At their very best and
mercifully freed from the cynical constraints of Jose Mourinho, Chelsea can be both attractive and

And Arsenal, through the enlightened teachings of Arsene Wenger, understand precisely how the game ought to work. Wenger, quite shamefully, has been required to combat the doubts of his own
pathetic dullards, who ignore the stadium he has built and the beguiling team he has created, and point out that he hasn’t won a trophy in a handful of years.

Sir Alex Ferguson
Arsene Wenger

The beautiful game: Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger have produced some wonderful teams

That is our way; we cherish our minor, domestic squabbles and ignore the big picture. Why, we can even find consolation from the World Cup shambles.

Consider this effort from Richard Scudamore, chief executive of the Premier League: ‘We see the hard work and professionalism of Howard Webb, Darren Cann and Mike Mullarkey week in week out when they are officiating in the Premier League. So, it is great to see their fantastic season, where they have already represented English refereeing in the Champions League final, topped off with the ultimate appointment - the World Cup Final.’

But, of course; the team are inadequate, the players are overrated and the league in which they perform is a crass confection of vested interests and corporate debt. But we have Webb, Cann and the mighty Mullarkey, so it can’t be all bad, can it?

The ploy is offensively transparent. The Spanish may not be perfect but they can offer something more than a good man with a whistle.

Their civilised endeavours deserve a period of sustained success. For the sake of the game, we must hope that it begins in Johannesburg on Sunday night.

Woeful: James Corden

Woeful: James Corden

As the tournament passes into history, English victims litter the battlefield. And perhaps the most wretched is a tubby young man with the desperate smile of the failing comic.

Reports reaching South Africa had suggested that James Corden’s World Cup show on ITV was woeful beyond words. In fact, it was much worse than that.

Something strange happens to celebrity entertainers when they become involved with sport. They feel they don’t have to try too hard, that being a celeb and shooting the breeze with fellow celebs will somehow enthral a grateful nation. Corden’s laddish contortions disproved that arrogant assumption.

At a time when the BBC pundits were rising beyond the usual groin-strain cliches - with Mark Lawrenson providing a poignant account of the Battle of Spion Kop and the impressive Clarence Seedorf delivering a moving dispatch from the cells of Robben Island - ITV responded with witless dross.

An opportunity has been squandered and a real chance has been missed. Corden’s new chums - ‘Lamps’, ‘JT’, ‘Jamo’ and the rest - will know the feeling all too well.



Mike Ingham, the BBC’s chief football
correspondent, is a modest man. He is also a respected professional, with brilliant descriptive skills and deep

At the start of this World Cup, he was awarded an MBE. As his sane, measured and polished work over the past month has shown, it was an inspired gesture.

At a time when trite celebrity has become a pathway to broadcasting fame, Ingham’s gong is a welcome acknowledgement of the enduring
journalistic virtues.

One item which almost slipped under the radar last week was the success of the British Athletes
Commission in finding its first-ever official sponsor.

The sponsor in question will help the BAC ‘educate and raise awareness among elite athletes in all Olympic, Paralympic and world-class disciplines about betting-related issues and the role they can play in preventing corruption in their sports’.

And who is this generous benefactor? None other than Betfair, which styles itself as ‘the world’s biggest online betting company’.

The chief executive of Betfair, one David Yu, says he is ‘delighted to be working with the BAC’. It is, he adds, ‘a vital step in our on-going efforts to safeguard the integrity of sport’.

It seems not to have crossed his mind that if there were no sports gambling industry, there would be no question of corruption, nor any need to ‘safeguard the integrity of sport’. Still, we must hope that those athletes will keep a straight face when their awareness is raised.

Meanwhile, we’re off to the pub for our weekly lesson in alcohol awareness.

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