WE ALL, if we’re lucky, have one big romance that lasts a lifetime – and lots and lots of affairs.
Your team is your team and they’re for ever but you can be free with your favours as regards second teams, other teams, international teams, those with the nicest strip, those with a good chance of beating the team you can’t stand. You’re a complete tart but, hey-ho, it’s only football and nobody dies.
In 1970, like every other 13-year-old boy, I fell in love with Brazil. I answered an ad in Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly, sending off a 19s 6d postal order, for which I got back a canary yellow top, green collar, blue CBF badge. I studied Brazil’s position in the atlas – high point of my participation in geography class – and re-ordered my stamp collection to give prominence to their brightly-plumed birds and bearded philosophers, while yearning for an aerial shot of the Maracana. I sought a Brazilian penpal (preferably female, must like football, stamps and Aztec Bars, not Brazilian but close). I wanted to be Brazilian and, in idle moments, probably thought I was.
But then, 40 years ago next Sunday, Brazil came to Hampden, were unrecognisable, performed horribly, were the most to blame (because of their greater skill) for the ball being in play for only 43 minutes of the 90 and happily accepted a Derek Johnstone own goal for a winner. The Scotsman’s late, great football correspondent John Rafferty wrote in despair: “They seem to think the physical important and skill, adventure, inventiveness and dignity secondary.” In three short years, the masters of the beautiful game were “conforming to the violent materialism which has gripped the football world”. This was ’73. Poor John didn’t know that a year later, while failing to retain their World Cup and again against Scotland, they’d be even more ugly and thuggish.
Unsurprisingly, I fell out of love with Brazil. I’ve liked them again since, and a whole host of others, but, until recently, I thought there wouldn’t be another quite like the team of Pele, Jarzinho, Rivelino, Tostao and Gerson. Maybe I was too old for love, perhaps it would be admiration from here on in. Then along came this Spain team and I was smitten. This Spain and a Brazil which many of us want to do the impossible and replicate the ’70 side are bidding for the Confederations Cup and, like the clot on a date who’s thrown by the appearance at the bar of an old flame, I don’t know where to turn.
As they say in romcoms: “It’s complicated.” I thought I was through with Brazil but then Neymar applied that delicious backspin for his wonderful goal against Japan. I thought Spain were my team for the foreseeable but then Fernando Torres flourished three fingers to confirm a hat-trick, only it was against hopeless Tahiti. He went on to score four (and still the opposition were Tahiti).
Spain can be magic but even I was getting bored with their invisible striker trick. Then, against Tahiti they surprisingly played with two, with Torres and David Villa looking like they’d cheerfully saw each other in half. Torres, in his desperate pursuit of goals and credibility, has turned into a charmless individual – as charmless, indeed, as Paul Daniels. But Spain do still have Andres Iniesta with his incredible sleight of foot.
Iniesta might be my favourite midfielder since Brazil’s Socrates who was my favourite since his countryman Gerson (both being brilliant passers and truly exceptional smokers). The current Brazil don’t seem to have a midfield, or at least one that can get itself noticed over the constant “Me, me, me!” clamour happening just behind. If there’s a footballer who loves himself more than David Luiz then his name must be Dani Alves. These guys are world-class – never more so than in their own heads. I liked Mark Lawrenson’s comment about Alves: “Yeah, he’s pretty tough. At least until you confront him.” And, by the way, it’s perhaps controversial, but I love Lawro. He’s my favourite pundit and I even love his ridiculously high-collared shirts.
There’s a lot of love going around. I love that Gene Hackman is back in the Brazil dugout. One thing, though. The fans whose preferred match-wear is the itsy-bitsy canary yellow bikini haven’t been seen. If their absence is part of a return to the dour pragmatism of Hampden ’73 then it’s Spain for me.