Two staple narratives of World Cups past and present have been crammed into just one week: the enduringly dire state of the England national football team, and a convenient (for FIFA) morality tale about one of the world’s great footballers.
Add to this the fact that the bitemaster that is Luis Suarez actually plays his club football in England these days (though with suspensions he misses almost as much as he plays) and it all adds a certain piquant symmetry to a couple of major stories on Planet Football.
In England, complaints about “too much too young” for cossetted players, the obstructing impact of foreigners in the global Premier League, and the lack of top quality coaching, have dominated debates about why England fail. All of these may be implicated, of course, but perhaps a simpler explanation works better: class-bound England spreads its sporting talent too thinly.
Crudely speaking, the great national football triumphs still tend to be built around one of two central narratives or myths: outstanding players (like Suarez) who emerge with native talent and great hunger out of grinding poverty (typically from Latin America or Africa); and those countries which successfully combine talents drawn from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds in the affluent north, sometimes spiced by creative outliers from older colonies (in Western Europe).
These days, stuttering England fits neither model well. There is little absolute poverty left to feed the old creative street football of the past – though English rugby league historically steals some northern working class talent. And English players are not known for their diversity of socio-economic backgrounds.
There is just too little mixing of the social classes in English football to combine the best of the rest for its collective classed qualities. This is because, in England, another winter team sport with a national base in elite private schools – rugby union – creams off the best of the well-fed, physically combative and intelligent male middle classes.
In Germany, Holland and Spain, for example, England’s Johnny Wilkinson would surely have been a midfield football general, not a studious and brilliant rugby fly-half. Significantly, perhaps, England is the only country in the world to have won World Cups in both the major football codes: soccer and rugby union.
As for Liverpool’s Luis Suarez, the world’s psychiatrists will be earning their corn, and biting is really not acceptable, even if it is a playful nip designed mainly to provoke a wild penalty area response from a shocked opponent. The Uruguayans have been rightly critical of the way the balance of power typically works in the world game against the minnows – though this is a bad case on which to fight that particular battle - and Suarez’s crime is as much about his defining desperation to win as it is about abusing or injuring an opponent.
And maybe, ironically, this is what really irks FIFA. In an age when the World Cup has become a sort of TV theme park event – tens of thousands of global fans in fancy dress, gorging on official sponsors’ products and merrily Mexican-waving 15 minutes into every contest – wanting to win so badly can produce such an unacceptable outcome.
And arguably this is Luis Suarez’s (and even England’s) essential problem: at a moment when not really caring is so central to the marketing of the World Cup finals as a product, here is a guy who pathologically and destructively cares rather too much.