The alternative England squad
WE are lounging around in the muggy, late afternoon heat on the edge of a jungle, fiddling with our boot laces, gulping bottles of water and nursing hangovers while a cacophony of squawks, warbles, caws and hoots are discharged from the dense, adjoining foliage.
And we are wondering ‘where are they?’ The opposition, that is. Nearby are some tasty looking lads in their late teens and early twenties playing keepy-uppy, nonchalantly kicking footballs around and practising their bicycle kicks. But that can’t be them. Maybe they are here to watch us their play their dads.
Um, no, the horrifying truth eventually dawns, that’s them. We are a bunch of, how shall we put it, veteran exponents in the fine art of the beautiful game. We are mostly in our 40s and 50s and we don’t want to be playing thin, wiry, fit looking kids with a neat line in step-overs, back-heels and flicks.
Around 20 minutes later we are doing just that. I wouldn’t exactly say we are competing with them but we are certainly on the same football pitch.
The next 90 minutes are like one of those hideous nightmares from which, any second, you expect to awake in a cold sweat, have a bit of chuckle and then doze off. Within a minute of the kick-off, and this is the absolute truth, an opponent – their number 10 – who must be about 18 or 19 years old, is hurtling towards me with the ball seemingly glued to his feet. With Bobby Moore–like cool and finesse, I majestically scoop it off his toe.
That was the plan, anyway. Unfortunately he’s rolling around clutching his leg. Must have got him about two inches above the ankle. Anyone know the Portuguese for “Sorry, mate – that was a bit late.” I get a well-earned finger wagging from the ref and some nods of disapproval from team mates.
We are out-classed, out-run, out-played, out-everything. But at least we make a fist of it. Show some spirit. Never stop chasing their shadows. When required we take lusty swipes at their goal-bound figures. We haven’t come nearly 6,000 miles, traversing four time zones, without at least attempting to demonstrate our admittedly fading artistry on the field of play.
Watching TV footage of England jetting into Rio for the World Cup reminded me of a sojourn manfully undertaken ten years ago to the land of carnivals, coffee and the Copacabana by the Swindon’s globe-girdling football team, the Wild Westerners.
You could, perhaps, have considered us an expeditionary force, checking out the lay of the land a decade before the arrival of Uncle Roy’s young pros. Our aim was also – it must be said – to show the Brazilians a thing or two about the game that we (the English) actually invented.
At some stage since organised soccer began with the formation of the Football Association in 1863, they (the Brazilians) have – without the slightest hint of gratitude or humility – overtaken us (the English) by some distance They have won the World Cup five times to our once; they’ve stuffed us at Wembley and generally lorded it over us with that fancy samba soccer of theirs. They don’t have the decency to call it football, either. To them it is “futebol.” You can be fairly sure that Ebenezer Morley – the English gent who presided over the drawing up of the rules of football more than 150 years ago – is turning in his grave, gritting what’s left of his teeth.
If you are so inclined you can also blame that interfering Scot Charles Miller for this sorry state of affairs. What was he playing at sauntering down a gangplank clutching a couple of spherical, leathery objects in each hand?
“What are they,” you can almost hear the intrigued people of Sao Paulo ask young Miller upon his arrival from the UK in 1894. “They are footballs,” he beamed. “And here’s what you do with them,” he added, producing from his suitcase a Hampshire FA rulebook.
That, as far as the Brazilians are concerned, was Year Zero, when futebol – initially considered a “violent British sport” – arrived on their shores. Over the decades it has, as author Alex Bellos astutely put it, become “the strongest symbol of Brazilian identity.”
So it was about time, we figured in 2004, to have a crack at the Brazilians, wipe the smug grins off their faces. It had been eight years since we dumped our boots in the attic after a 4-4 draw in Holland. But this splendid plan would, we were convinced, constitute an historic footballing Rennaisance.
Arriving in the City if God on a sultry Friday evening – no paparazzi, surprisingly, to sneeringly shove out of the way – we sought immediate refuge in Copacabana’s Balcony Bar to prepare for our first match the very next day.
Discussing tactics, formations, defensive strategies and possible substitutions (that’s right, we’ll bring on the tour guide, Billy from Chile, in the second half, and maybe rope in the bus driver for the last 20 minutes, as is the norm,) we even managed to squeeze in a few beers.
In some far-flung corner of this sprawling, hazy city we were up against the Rio Rebels, a mixture of 30 something ex-pats and home-grown talent who compete in a local league. They have a compact little ground surrounded by exotic trees, satellite dishes and TV aerials that protrude cinematically from the gardens of adjoining apartments. It is a tough call, though, heading a football after a night on the chop (local draught beer.) But we played some decent stuff; a few of our unrehearsed one-twos seemed to simultaneously bamboozle both sides. A couple of times, we almost scored. Five nil, though, definitely flattered them.
Our 12-man squad (competition for places is fierce) headed for the quaintly named coastal town of Buzios, three hours from Rio. An intense, Fergie-like training session was required the day before taking on the Boys from Buzios.
We hired a boat, downed some cocktails (caipirinha, made with lime, sugar and a sprit distilled from sugar cane juice called cachucha is particularly recommended) and set sail.
Eventually we settled on a secluded cove with a bar and – keen to swell the coffers of local tradespeople – stayed for about 12 hours.
Our internet request to test a team roughly of our own rapidly advancing years cruelly brushed aside, the Wild Westerners set about their task with characteristic resolve. “Do your worst,” was our invitation to these eager young whippersnappers. They did.
It took them 20 minutes to penetrate our highly disciplined and well-oiled (sorry, drilled) defence… but when they finally did they tended to do it with mundane regularity.
Five nil down, we pulled one back from the spot before half-time but I’m pretty sure the penalty was awarded in sympathy.
All 22 players spent virtually the entire match camped in our half: they were like Amazonian ants swarming over a cornered, palpitating prey. It was nothing short of a sporting miracle born out of strength in adversity that kept them out of double figures. As it happens, we were quite chuffed with 8-2.
So, any advice for Roy and the boys as they strive to do the nation proud? Yes – stay off the chop and give the caipirinha a wide berth.