Football is not coming home

THE celebratory song has suddenly turned into a funeral dirge: it’s not coming home, it’s not coming home, football’s not coming home…

Forty-four years of hurt on the pitch have been overtaken by, at least, 56 years of hurt in Zurich’s corridors of power.

The consequences of England’s failure to land World Cup 2018 will be like those of their multiple failures to win the World Cup itself since they last hosted and claimed the Jules Rimet in 1966 — recriminations, finger-pointing, political in-fighting and every other grisly manifestation of the blame game, from knee-jerk xenophobia to abject self-loathing.

And, in a classic case of shooting the messenger, expect the dreaded meeja to get it with both barrels too, for suggesting there might be the odd skeleton lurking in FIFA’s cupboard.

The tradition in these parts to see every English difficulty as an Irish opportunity can be hard to abandon when you turn on your telly to find an ashen-faced Alan Shearer responding to the bad news by stating, “I’m at a loss as to what to say”. Hasn’t stopped you appearing regularly on Match Of The Day, Al!

But, even as we extend a sincere hand of congratulation to Russia, I would suggest that this time we should be prepared to feel England’s pain and not only because we Irish know a little about what it feels like to be lectured by a sickly, smiling Sepp Blatter on the subject of learning how to lose with dignity.

From a selfish and entirely pragmatic point of view, a World Cup just an hour’s flight away would likely have had a welcome knock-on effect for Ireland in terms of increased tourism and other economic benefits.

We might even have convinced one of the participating nations to follow in the footsteps of Real Madrid and establish a training base or play a warm-up game or two here.

And, in an ideal scenario, were Ireland to qualify for a World Cup in England, the ease of accessibility for the Green Army would surely result in one of the great temporary mass migrations in human history.

But the real reason to join the mourning across the Irish Sea is because England’s crushing failure in Zurich yesterday will only have reinforced the growing consensus there that international football is not just a poor substitute for, but virtually an enemy of, the club game and, in particular, the Premier League.

A World Cup in England — and the attendant reality that home advantage should boost the English team’s chances of enjoying a memorable tournament — would have done much to restore what some of us still feel is football’s natural order, one in which the national football team sits at the top of the pyramid.

Call me an old-fashioned sentimentalist, but I refuse to accept that any one club is bigger than a country. Richer maybe, like Man City, but not bigger. And there’s nothing like the joyous reality of a World Cup finals tournament as experienced on the ground to remind you of that fact.

In truth, it doesn’t have to be an either/or choice, as Spain’s recent successes in the Champions League, the European Championship and the World Cup confirm. Germany have shown the way too, their wonderful hosting of the finals in 2006 and the emergence of the thrilling young national team which illuminated the summer in South Africa, both the direct result of a deliberate, well-structured and far-seeing strategy designed to ensure that German club football would not thrive at the expense of the national team but, rather, feed into its potential for success. Before yesterday, it was hard to discern a similar appetite for change in a country where the elite clubs and the satellite broadcasters have long been locked into a mutually lucrative appreciation society.

But now, after the debacle of Zurich, the three lions will seem even more cowed and dispensable than they did when they sloped out of South Africa last summer with their tails between their legs. Actually, come to think of it, this is even worse – at least Fab’s flops got past the first round.

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