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Wednesday, June 18, 2014
I can pinpoint the precise moment I caught World Cup fever, and I know who gave it to me. Robin Van Persie. It took the Dutchman’s breathtaking diving header against Spain for me to catch all the symptoms expected of the certified football addict during a major tournament.
Until then the whole thing had left me a little cold. I couldn’t hear the samba beat of Brazil 2014 on the opening night although, out of a sense of duty, I did sit and watch it. A dodgy penalty and some eyebrow raising refereeing which all favoured the host nation left me wondering not only what the Croatian for “I don’t believe it” might be, but also whether I had the stomach for a whole month of the sort of nonsense typified by the Brazilian striker Fred’s sudden loss of balance in the penalty area at the merest hint of the minty fresh breath of a defender.
Perhaps Norwich City’s dismal Premier League season was to blame. Sitting through 10 months worth of that was like getting a flu jab before a cold snap. It had left me immune to World Cup fever and the break from football was a welcome one.
Then it happened. Holland were 1-0 down to the holders Spain when a long diagonal ball was hit towards the Spanish penalty area. I had been slow to respond to the bat signal of World Cup football and I needed my Robin to remind me of how a true football supporter is supposed to behave at a time like this. Van Persie flew through the air superhero style and executed one of the game’s great dying arts, a proper diving header, to set Holland on the way to an extraordinary 5-1 win.
Within seconds I was reaching for the blu-tac. It was time to snap out of my City sulk, get the wall chart up and start joining in with the extravaganza that makes it socially acceptable to watch three football matches in a single day. Nigeria v Iran, Australia v Chile and Switzerland v Ecuador, three fixtures that might not draw much of a crowd if they were being staged at Sloughbottom Park on a Sunday morning, but wrap them up in World Cup branding and you have some must-see viewing as we try to work out which of the faces on the pitch we still need to complete our sticker album.
Van Persie’s goal lit the blue touch paper and had me wondering when strikers stopped scoring goals like that. Those with long enough memories to picture Keith Houchen’s famous goal for Coventry against Spurs in the 1987 FA Cup final will understand the appeal of a striker stretching every muscle in his neck and throwing himself headlong to get on the end of a speculative cross into the box. Perhaps in this increasingly image conscious game players are less willing to put their head in an area where the boots may be flying. You want to look good if you’re going to appear in those aforementioned sticker albums after all.
Diving headers are becoming a rare sight, but I have noticed one worrying trend that seems to be developing during this tournament. Commentator bashing. Phil Neville’s uninspiring summary of England’s defeat by Italy, Jonathan Pearce’s apparent bafflement at goal line technology during France’s 3-0 win over Honduras and almost everything that Andy Townsend has said on ITV’s coverage have quickly attracted substantial social media scorn. Are commentators becoming the new referees? For obvious reasons, I hope not. There is no point me leaping to the defence of more senior microphone wielding colleagues. Commentators’ union or not, me standing up for Neville, Pearce or Townsend would be like Michael Theoklitos sympathising with Iker Casillas for conceding five against Van Persie and Co.