Saturday, 24 November 2007

This Crimson Blot

This crimson blot will take three years to fade
By Russell Brand

I first became anxious when I realised that beneath the twirling, hypnotic umbrella seeking shelter from the lightly drizzling rain permitted by the broken roof at Wembley stood the manager of our national team, Steve McClaren. I was at the match in incredible seats with my mate Nik and David Baddiel and his brother Ivor.

We were right behind the dugout in posh leather-look seats having enjoyed the delightful hospitality of one of the lounges which was a bit embarrassing for us all in the sense that it's quite far removed from the authentic trudge and bilge that's synonymous with the football of our youth. Actually though I do like a bit of luxurious nosh and privilege in this the final flush of capitalism before the revolution levels us all, a revolution that seems all the more attractive now the beautiful distraction of Euro 2008 has been smashed to bits.

It seems daft to harp on about the subsidiary consequences of England's failiure to qualilify because the immediate effects are so upsetting; after a knife wound to the heart one is unlikely to lament the blood stains on your T-shirt and this crimson blot will take at least three years to rinse away. I wonder if Brian Barwick'll feel embarrassed in South Africa at the World Cup qualifiers draw? If he'll avoid the pitying glare and condemnation from his counterparts?

I bumped into a Croat in the lavvy straight after the match and was still unready for good-natured prittle-prattle so I neglected to ablute to avoid handshakes. I bore them ill-will even before the final whistle because of what I perceived to be a needlessly fascistic form of chanting throughout the match. Perhaps this says more about my prejudices than the philosophy of those fans but it did seem terribly well organised - two huge, adjacent sections of the stadium spent the entirety of the match indulging in a terrifyingly simplistic call-and-response mantra that unnerved me as much as the sharp, acerbic presence of Slaven Bilic on the touchline first in a woolly hat and an awful off-white coat that the whole Croatian operation had been forced to wear, then when he re-emerged for the second half, assured of victory, in a shoddy suit.

Why I've reserved my vituperation for this obviously talented manager and former West Ham centre-half is a mystery when a more fitting candidate for wrath stood like Gene Kelly or more latterly Rhiaana meekly concealed beneath his brolly awaiting a holiday in the Bahamas that it turns out he'd already booked. I was distracted in that fabulous stadium. David was agitated by the fact that the roof hadn't been closed and queried whether it was a misjudged tactical flooding under the assumption that the Croatians would never have encountered a "greasy surface" before.

When we later discovered that the bloody thing simply doesn't work it was merely added to the list of heartbreaking metaphors that cluttered up the abominable evening. I was transfixed by Bilic - he has menace in his eyes, and in my nervous mind I likened him to an Eastern bloc pimp masquerading as a mini cab operator in Soho. I berated myself for being so racist, whilst my head still hung; ashamed by the comical escapades occurring on the pitch and my own misuse of stereotypes the Croatian fans again brimmed over into their regimented yawp.

Poor Scott Carson looked all daft in his yellow costume. After his intitial error, so ludicrous that all present paused to establish that it had actually happened and was not just a big stupid David Copperfield-style illusion before letting the nausea kick in, he became from then on merely some matter filling an outfit standing in a goalmouth. Every time the Croatians surged forwards, mostly on the break, a goal appeared likely and Ivor's remark that England seemed not to have prepared in any way for the specificity of playing Croatia and their ability to inflict punishing counter attacks but simply assumed that a side, already qualified would be happy for an evening out, was judged to be the most perspicacious of the evening.

Though it received little in the way of competition from me I confined myself to attacking the Croatian team's coats which I judged to be rubbish, particularly in comparison with the rather dapper England attire - in my mind a sartorial competition became the only kind of encounter in which we could triumph.

In the second half David Beckham, dear derided, adored David Beckham offered hope, he knew it was him alone who could offer it. Eighty thousand people scanned the pitch searching for something to be optimistic about and it wasn't til his arrival that that need found a destination. It was for him alone that I remained to applaud as he left the field, dignified still, saluting the crowd, teased to the precipice of a century. Who knows what will occupy this wasteland when, if he ever surpasses his 99th cap?

McClaren had already sought sanctuary in the dressing room knowing his holiday was already assured along with his severance. Better to be abroad - his umbrella can offer little protection from the current storm.

Guardian column

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