As a rule, I quite like international football. I’m not as much of a fan of it as I used to be, but I still quite like it, and find myself more than happy to watch two international teams play each other, whatever the circumstances may be. There comes a point, however, where you have to draw a line in the sand, and it is Austria vs England. This match, without a shadow of doubt, is the single most pointless match ever played in the entire history of the game? How did this match manage to get scheduled? Are the FA so monstrously egotistical that they thought that England would already be home and dry by tonight? Did they think that just what the whole England squad needs is a trip to Mittel Europa to play one of Europe’s most hapless teams?
Anybody with the slightest interest in football has to look at this weekend and simply know that the big match of the weekend doesn’t even involve England. Everybody’s minds (including, I’d wager, those of most of the players out there tonight in white shirts) are on the Israel vs Russia match tomorrow night – and, you know what? I wouldn’t mind in the slightest if Israel roll over and let the Russians knock seven bells of out of them. This team, these players and this manager don’t deserve our support, whether its that grinning buffoon McClaren, smirking his way through a qualifying campaign that has lurched through crisis and into sheer comedy, or Steven Gerrard mistakenly believing that anybody actually gives a toss about what he thinks about FIFA’s hopes of reintroducing a quota system back into club football. Sorry, Stevie G, but the last time I checked you weren’t a barrister specialising in EU employment law, so I’ll pass on listening to what you have to say on that subject, thank you very much. The same goes for you, Blatter.
I can see why Austria have gone for this fixture, in some respects. Whether rightly or wrongly, England are still probably the biggest draw in European international football (actually, it’s wrongly, isn’t it? One look at that gangly fool Peter Crouch knocking the Austrian goalkeeper Jurgen Macho out and I was reminded of that). Also, it’s a no-lose fixture for them, especially given their recent form. Austria have been terrible for a very long time, so losing to anyone isn’t a s surprise for them any more, but this is a really clueless England team, and a win (or, indeed, any sort of result against them) might just kick-start some life into their cadaverous team. Austria are, of course, so bad that their own supporters started a petition for them to withdraw from the tournament before it even starts, so great is the risk of national humiliation. The last time I checked, it had received 20,000 signatures. What price that happening in England? The only way you’d get that many votes on a petition for England would be if The Sun started a campaign for England to qualify for every tournament automatically because we won two world wars and one World Cup.
The thing is, no matter how much I enjoy England in the finals of major tournaments (and I do nowadays more than I did when I was young, callow and cared about the results – especially since I stopped going to watch them play in pubs, which has been a wretched experience since June 1996), I can’t summon up any enthusiasm for this team. If everyone is going to hate them regardless, they might as well play terrible football against the likes of Ecuador and Paraguay and win 1-0. Occasionally, though, they get involved in absolutely thrilling matches which carry an intensity that makes them play out like drama. The Argentina matches of 1998 or 2005 spring to mind, or the Portugal match at Euro 2004. When they lose, they often make a compelling drama out it.
This lot, though, don’t deserve to be there. Not McClaren, whose idea of rebuilding the England team for the future is to try to publicly humiliate the 43 year-old David Beckham by forcing him into retirement and then bring him back into the team. Not Gerrard, who has been absolutely appalling this evening – seriously, when I was a player, I was a fairly limited sort of player, but I don’t think that I ever played as many wayward passes in one match as Gerrard has managed in the first forty minutes of this match alone. Certainly not the England band, who have the ability to make me cringe when they’re 900-odd miles away with their droning rendition of that dirge, “God Save The Queen”. No matter what I way I try to think about it, I can’t get away from that basic fact. They won’t entertain anyone next summer, and they won’t be capable of scraping those 1-0 wins. It’s us that should be writing a petition.