These Euros are giving me chest pains, to borrow a catchphrase from RET Twitter. Everywhere you look in the coverage of this year’s European football championships, you risk getting a hell of a skrik.
If you’re not seeing Christian Eriksen momentarily popping his clogs before your very eyes, then you’re assailed by a barrage of seizure-inducing own goals, each one mortifying enough to make Helen Zille feel inadequate.
Even SuperSport’s half-time studio analysis, traditionally such a dependable sedative, is now X-rated material, thanks to the shocking fashion crimes that the broadcaster’s unfortunate pundits are forced to commit by their wardrobe team. I had no idea what Stanton Fredericks was talking about on the second quarterfinal night, because I was transfixed by the crocheted coronavirus particle masquerading as a lapel pin on his suit jacket. And when a fluffy white polo-neck jersey fit for a giraffe threatened to swallow up Rhulani Mokoena’s entire head, SuperSport nearly lost its only insightful analyst.
And then there are the crowds. Heaving hordes of Hungarians, divisions of demented Danes, bellowing battalions of Brits. All up in each other’s grills like so many polyamorous sardines in gigantic tins — shouting and gobbing and smooching like the rona never happened.
But once you get past the shock of all this flagrant superspreading, you realise that these people are all card-carrying vaxxerati, freshly dunked by their ankles in the river Pfizer. They are good to go. This is the post-pandemic dream, writ large in single-spaced human letters.
We too can live that dream. From where we’re sitting, stuck in yet another trench of trauma, all this Euro crowd porn serves to remind us of where the vaccines will take us — and to keep urging our government to pull its finger out of our national arse. When our summer comes, we must be good to go.
The other plus of the Euros crowds is that they’ve improved the football. The crowdless season on TV was a consolation during the pandemic because it was still football, and thus offered a ragged lifeline to the certainties of the good old days.
It was also depressing. English Premier League broadcasts featured fake crowd noise, courtesy of a sound engineer who may have had a mixing desk with sliders marked “excitement”, “disappointment” and “anger”. Sometimes he seemed to doze off with his cheek on the “anger” slider, and his fictional crowd got absolutely livid for no visible reason. It felt appropriate: the angry ghost of football past was speaking up.
With the crowds back, the players are feeling sexy again — more beloved, more three-dimensional — and it shows in their work. They bellow their national anthems with atonal zeal, unable to hear their own voices in the stadium din, just like poor Lauryn Hill that one time at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival when her monitor amp failed.
Many defenders are suddenly clownish for some reason, but for us neutrals, that’s all good. (One of the worst habits of studio pundits is their taste for pointless postmortems of defensive errors that lead to goals. As though a goalless draw were the ideal result. We WANT goals, you nitwits!)
It’s no shock that the Italian players are leading in the feeling-sexy stakes. You can’t really blame them. This Azzurri generation are arguably better looking than any Italian side in living memory — no mean feat for a nation that once gave the world Paolo Maldini.
Italy have also revived the art of the deranged goal celebration, pioneered by Marco Tardelli at the 1982 World Cup. The gold standard to date is the team’s collective nervous breakdown after the winner against Belgium by Lorenzo Insigne, a winger so tiny you want to phone a child labour NGO every time he’s in possession.
But Gareth Southgate’s excellent England campaign presents an awkward psychological challenge for many long-standing fans of English football-suffering, like myself. It’s not that I don’t like England as a place or a people — in cultural terms, I’m as Anglophile as the next postcolonial subject, raised on Python and Bond and Bowie. But footballistically, I just can’t, not least because a wasted Inger-lunder once urinated all over my leg in a bar in Nuremberg during the 2006 World Cup, after a famous victory over Trinidad & Tobago.
But maybe, just maybe, this England side are a different kettle of fish and chips. Southgate’s black-and-white boys play with elegance and self-belief. And if they win this thing, they might provide some kind of cathartic remedy for the recent wave of reactionary spasms in English identity. In short, they might teach their elders how to win without pissing on other people’s pants