There was a time when the novelty of a televised match was such that an enjoyment of the football ‘in itself’ was enough to sustain the neutral viewer’s interest. Now, televised football’s erstwhile scarcity has been replaced by the broadcast ethic of the soap opera, with each game marking a plot point along one or more of the sport’s intersecting narratives.
Gorging on the World Cup’s gluttonous bounty of up to three televised matches a day, it cannot be long before the disinterested viewer begins to, as it were, lose the plot. Liberating ourselves from the high-stakes drama and indulging in the spectacular ridiculousness of a game’s gaudy display, we can find ourselves cheering on a team or player for no other reason than that we like the colour of their kit, the unseemliness of their gait, the audacity of their haircut or – in arrogant Anglo-centric fashion – the purported silliness of their name. The Slavic and Germanic languages have traditionally provided such excuses for imbecilic mirth – all those “itches” and “offs” begging to be stitched on to body parts – and this year Russia has not disappointed. Arshavin may have won his last cap, but in Oleg Shatov, with a name like an exclamatory toilet mishap, there is cause enough for the raising of smirks around the lips of the more infantile and/or semi-inebriated among us.
Snapping out of this scatological reverie and back into the grander narratives provided by the competition between these proxy national armies, one is forced to consider the grim politics of the regime Russia is ostensibly representing. Far be it for a humble football blog to cast judgement on the geopolitical machinations of former superpowers, but when those actions are enough to prompt US senators to request that Russia’s football team be booted out of the tournament, it is all one can do to suppress a desire to see the Yanks get their hypocritical butts kicked in a potential Round Two grudge match. (For the more imaginative enthusiasts of this sort of thing, it is even conceivable that Russia’s group match with Belgium – home to the EU – provides a kind of ersatz battle between militaristic “hard” power and the “soft” power of the European Union’s economic hegemony.)
Given Fabio Capello’s propensity for building well-drilled defences and grinding out wins, such idle diversions might be the most reliable way of gleaning any enjoyment out of Russia’s matches this year. Dick Advocaat took a talented team to the 2012 European Championships, but, with the arguable exception of CSKA Moscow midfielder Alan Dzagoev, they failed to impress and crashed out after a defeat to unfancied Greece and a draw with their Polish hosts marred by some of the most foreseeable off-pitch violence in recent history. Ever the disciplinarian, Capello apparently does not particularly favour the occasionally hot-headed Dzagoev, and will pin many of his hopes for goals on Dynamo Moscow’s Alexander Kokorin. Make no mistake, though, Russia’s emphasis is on not conceding, and the imaginative, Arshavin-starring side of 2008 that had many reminiscing over the great Soviet teams is very much a thing of the past.
One question it would seem pertinent to ask is how personal this World Cup is for Capello. While it seems to be the case that he’s happy for England’s truly abysmal showing in South Africa in 2010 to be blamed on a mixture of a lack of commitment and sheer footballing naivety on the part of his charges, even the worst of Eriksson and McLaren’s sides did not display the ennervated, lumbering imaginative poverty that succeeded in finally reducing the tournament expectations of the London media. Will he be determined to prove that he can conjure a different kind of football, or will he insist on demonstrating that his methods were only inappropriate for a pampered, unmotivated squad? All the pointers seem to be towards the latter. Given Russia will meet Algeria in Curitiba in their final group game, there’s ample scope for a farcical rehash of Capello’s mistakes from 2010.
Posted by Steven Carver