LONDON --A weekend of World Cup qualifiers, with most of the world's top teams taking aim at the greatest global sporting event. High excitement then, great soccer? Please, get your feet back on the ground.
We got the message, before a ball had been kicked, from the England captain John Terry. "The important thing is to get the three points," he said. Quite. And why would there be even the slightest doubt that England would take three points off their opponents? How could there be any doubt, when England was playing Andorra, a country most people didn't even know existed, a country ranked 186th on the FIFA list, with a total population that wouldn't even fill Wembley stadium?
Playing a team that poor surely ought to be an opportunity for England to flourish, to pour on the style, to score goals, to simply look damn good.
But no. England was worried, you could sense that it was almost scared. Of Andorra! Just the three points, that's all that concerned the English. So they played a boring, stultifying game, got two goals -- just two -- and got the coveted three points. Bravo England.
Bravo too, to the United States, which managed what was actually identified in one report as "a triumph." Some triumph -- a 1-0 win over Cuba. Even Carlos Bocanegra -- not a player who will ever be remembered as an adornment of the beautiful game -- admitted that "not much soccer" had been played.
But at least that's a sturdily honest comment, something to set alongside the vapid coachtalk about possession and "creating chances" and "getting into good positions" and "knocking the ball around" that followed another two snore-fests -- Macedonia 1 Scotland 0 and Wales 1 Azerbaijan 0. Plenty of pseudo-analysis; the winning coaches satisfied, the losing coaches finding positives in the one goal margins. But no one dared mention the deplorable level of the soccer played.
Coaches prefer not to talk about attractive soccer, because they are not very good at producing it. Entertainment is a dirty word to them. So we arrive at an awkward reality. The experts, the guys who are supposed to be supremely knowledgeable about soccer, are simply not interested in producing a game that is worth watching. The three points are all that matter.
Unless ... well, take a look at this. Over the weekend, saturated as it was with drabness, one scoreline stood out in the English League One (actually, the third division): Peterborough United 5 Bristol Rovers 4. Nine goals! Enjoyment and excitement all around, no? Don't you believe it. This time there was definitely criticism of the game. It was condemned as "farcical" and "absurd" - and that was the winning coach speaking, Daren Ferguson, son of the famous Sir Alex!
And it was precisely the nine goals that upset Ferguson Jr. He added a devastating remark that the game "was great for the people watching, but not for us coaches. We scored five goals and ended up hanging on ..."
If we suppose that his team had been leading 1-0 rather than 5-4, do you think he would have ranted on about it being absurd that his team was having to "hang on"? Of course not. It was the glut of goals that he found worrying - the very thing that he admits the fans would have found entertaining.
So who can we turn to for a taste of the real game, then? Who is now interested in fielding a team that wins by playing good soccer - as opposed to a team that relies on defense or that simply grinds its opponents down, or that is "difficult to beat"?
Relief, it appears, is available from the very source that many believe has caused the problem: money. From rich owners, that is. Not merely rich - but ultra-rich. Men like Roman Abramovich who has showered money all over Chelsea, but is not satisfied because his team does not entertain him. And now even Abramovich must take second place to the men from Abu Dhabi who bought Manchester City and paid $70 million for Robinho. Leading that group is Dr. Sulaiman Al Fahim, and he has had some wonderfully refreshing things to say about our sport. When asked to pick his dream team, he replied "The 1982 Brazilian World Cup team." An inspired choice, a superb team coached by the great Tele Santana, one of the few modern coaches who coached with a smile on his face. As for assembling a super-team at ManCity, the good Dr. led off his wish list with Kaka, Lionel Messi, Ronaldo, Cesc Fabregas, Didier Drogba and Fernando Torres. Attacking players all, entertaining players.
Of course, the coaches, those experts, will scoff. The 1982 Brazilians did not win the World Cup, and as for trying to build a winning team by simply lavishing money on stars -- well, that would not work, we all know that.
Possibly we do. Then again, it might work. Soccer is like that, unpredictable, full of surprises. At least, it is until the coaches get hold of it and reduce it to boredom -- and then subject us to even more boring analyses to prove that their boring teams are not really boring at all.
But Darren Ferguson, unintentionally no doubt, let the cat out of the bag. "The people watching" -- his phrase, he means the fans -- like being entertained, they revel in goal-scoring. But "us coaches" clearly do not.