Up your vuvuzela

In the inglorious pantheon of football goalkeeping mistakes, Rob Green’s mistake ranks pretty highly. His elementary butter-fingered clanger against the USA in England’s first game of the World Cup sits at the top table of cock-ups, alongside David James’ blunder in Euro 2004, an event I saw in Valencia with Spanish commentary. The commentator babbled on in his incomprehensible foreign language, before shouting “Calamity James!” leaving a gaggle of British tourists passing out on the floor through laughter.

We are now one week into the World Cup and everything that usually happens to destroy our confidence has occurred. Our first game against the USA, which should have been a comfortable victory, ended in a 1-1 draw after Green’s howler. Cue delighted scenes across the pond as all four soccer fans cheered their side to a draw. The New York Post’s front-page headline, “America wins 1-1”, summed up the match better than two hours of stifled discussion with Adrian Chiles ever could.

The most frustrating feature of this World Cup has been the presenting. ITV HD viewers completely missed England’s sole goal, as an advert played instead of the match. ITV bosses blamed the incident on French technicians, which is as good a reason as any.

ITV’s coverage has been poor. The standard of punditry could be improved by asking all four members of the Scissor Sisters what they think about Dunga’s new 4-3-3 formation. At least the BBC sticks with familiarity, choosing Alan Shearer, Alan Hansen and Gary Lineker to front their coverage. New Zealand against Slovakia was without doubt the lowlight so far, but at least the pundits didn’t make out like it was the greatest sporting moment in history like Sky does in the Premier League.

Sky solely own the rights to the Premier League, so they have a vested interest in bigging up the competition, leading their commentators to say what a “brilliant” game it has been, no matter what the reality. But the BBC know they will always have the World Cup, so Gary Lineker could say without fear of alienating the audience, “that low buzzing sound you heard during the game was not our panellists snoring”.

While the programming has been awful, the other annoying thing about this World Cup has been the vuvuzela, a metre-long trombone which constantly plays through every match. It’s not the vuvuzelas that annoy me however; it’s the reaction to them. Broadcasters, players and viewers have complained in their hundreds that the sound is unbearable, with many turning down their television sets to avoid the instruments. Well, well, well, how about that? The cure for an unbearable noise is to turn it down! It’s what I always do when James Corden pops up on the box.

The World Cup is being held in AFRICA. This is how they watch football. To ban the vuvuzela would show a deep insensitivity to how football is enjoyed in South Africa. If England wins the right to host the World Cup in 2018, how would we like it if South Africans came over and complained about the middle class toffs who sit in the stands and brag to the people around them about their business empire?

Broadcasters have struggled to drown out the noise as the vuvuzelas are set to roughly the same pitch as human speech, although it does at least cancel out Martin Keown’s commentary, so it has its advantages. There have been a few shocks as well. North Korea only went down 2-1 against Brazil. And the old cliché about “playing for your life” has probably never been more relevant than under the despot Kim Jong Il.

I did admire the forgetfulness of everyone at the pub, as they were all supporting the Koreans. As one bloke sarcastically muttered, “we can forgive fascism when a team could stop one of England’s rivals”. Every time the Koreans won a throw-in we cheered. When it remained 0-0 at half-time we were ecstatic. If Kim Jong Il, Pol Pot, Genghis Khan, Oswald Mosley, Nick Griffin, Robert Mugabe and Joseph Fritzl were in the same squad, they’d get three cheers as long as they beat Spain.

Perhaps worse than the cultural misunderstandings of the vuvuzela is the column inches in newspapers dedicated to people moaning about the World Cup. Every four years we have to suffer a bout of letters complaining that there are too many games taking up airtime, usually mentioning at least half of the following phrases: “we are all license players”, “not all of us like football”, “can’t believe people get so worked up”, “it is just kicking a ball”, “move it to pay-per-view” etc.

Come on England. Forget the haters, sort it out and bring home the Jules Rimet.

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Lidl is grim

I’ve seen some grim things in my time. I’ve been a patient at a London hospital in a ward for children about to go under the knife for brain surgery and seen the inherent sadness of such a place. I’ve seen 80s-metal throwbacks Saxon play live, looking like characters from Lord of the Rings auditioning to be Iron Maiden’s roadies. But absolutely nothing prepares you for a trip to Lidl on a Friday afternoon.

The supermarket is a dead-end, a cul-de-sac into which you step at your own mortal peril. As Lidl is popular with elderly customers, calling the supermarket a dead-end could be too literal a metaphor. As I entered, a woman pushing a tartan trolley was holding up the gangway, moving slowly enough to register as an Endangered Species due to her uncanny resemblance to a sloth.

Most supermarkets have aisles and shelving to display their produce. Lidl just chucks as many foreign-brand chocolate bars it can fit in the back of a Ford transit van into the store and hopes they all find a home.

Poor people wearing Reebok jumpers run amok like they’re on Supermarket Sweep. Women who could pass for Estonian shot-putters can be seen in the ice cream aisle telling their children that a packet of Soleros will count as one of their five a day. For the hard-up customer there are plenty of bargains. Undoubtedly the best was a bottle of ‘champagne’ for £1.99, which made me wonder if ‘champagne’ was Slovenian for ‘piss-water’. Even if I was going to scrimp on champagne, I’d spend at least a tenner so I wouldn’t feel like a cheat.

The preponderance of foreign goods also makes choosing items extremely difficult. The only thing you can discern from the packaging is a cartoon image of the product and if you’re lucky, one or two recognisable E-numbers.

The car park reveals even more about the average Lidl shopper. During this pre-World Cup phase, if you spot an England flag hanging from a Vauxhall Astra in a Marks & Spencer car park, the inhabitants have probably been given vouchers for the posh shop from relatives uncertain whether the family would spend the hard cash on presents or drugs. Yet in Lidl’s car park, every car has St.George’s flag hanging limply from the window. If you spot a Ford Escort unadorned with an England flag, the owners are probably researchers gathering data about the speech patterns of the underclass.

At the front of the supermarket, they sell a small selection of three national newspapers, the Daily Express, Daily Mail and Daily Star. The people who run Lidl’s newspaper and magazine division clearly made an executive decision that The Sun was too left-wing for their customers. “That Kelvin Mackenzie, eh? What a bleedin’ socialist poof”.

The University of Sussex still sells The Daily Telegraph, despite going against everything the institution stands for. I’ve never seen a supermarket hone in on their customers so decisively. Even at the Marxist convention 2010, I bet some vendors secretly sell copies of The Daily Mail under the desk to anyone using the secret password: “Melanie Phillips, what a hottie!”

Woolworth’s demise led hundreds of employees into the arms of other shops. The half-decent operatives were snapped up by Sainsbury’s and Tesco, the mildly incompetent were taken on by Asda and Morrison’s, while the dregs were naturally drawn to the likes of Lidl and its twin brother Aldi. A staff room at Lidl must be like a roomful of rejected Big Brother contestants. Two till-workers at the counter were so slow they had to tell the old lady with a tartan trolley to stop packing her items so quickly.

I wanted some Marmite but needed some assistance. After all, I could pick up a vaguely Marmite-looking substance from the shelf with a name like ‘Uberwenden’, spread it on my toast later that evening and find out its tarmac.

The only member of staff on duty was a girl in her early twenties with her face caked in make-up. She had used so much, an EasyJet stewardess could have walked past and said “I think you’ve gone a bit overboard there, love”. She told me Marmite could be found on aisle 5, although it would have been less puzzling if she had given me a treasure map and told me “Arrr… Marmite be found where the X lie, m’hearty”. Finding aisle 5 in Lidl is like finding WMD in Iraq. You’ve been told it’s there. You’ve got questionable proof from an unreliable source. And Lidl is like a warzone at the best of times.

Israel on naughty step

This week, Israel boarded a flotilla of peace ships looking to break the blockade of the Gaza strip. The blockade has been in effect since June 2007 when Hamas took control of the region.

Israel only lets basic humanitarian supplies through the blockade, which the UN estimates is “1/4” of what Gazans need. Israel removes any dual-purpose items from the already limited supplies, with pipes and fertiliser at the top of the list, meaning the Gaza Flower Arranging team have had to disband.

Even cars and fridges are not let past the strict regime, which at least limits the amount of fly tipping in the region. Seemingly innocuous items are refused entry. According to the BBC: “The UN relief agency for Palestinian refugees Unrwa’s list of household items that have been refused entry at various times includes light bulbs, candles, matches, books, musical instruments, crayons, clothing, shoes, mattresses, blankets and pasta”. This seems entirely reasonable, as who can forget the great pasta bomb of 1967? Or the trombone massacre of 1991?

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation says 61% of people living in the Gaza strip are “food insecure”, which is a nice way of saying “starving”. The only exports allowed out of the territory are small truckloads of strawberries and flowers, much to the relief of forgetful men come Valentine’s Day.

To truly underline how divorced from reality Israel’s military command are, the movement to capture the ships was called ‘Operation Sea Breeze’, which makes it sound like the commandos are getting the ferry to Calais to stock up on cheap cigarettes and booze. Deathly operations should have sinister names. An American retaliation attack against Iran for mining frigate was called ‘Operation Praying Mantis’. A simulated US, UK and Australian nuclear test in a rainforest was called ‘Blowdown’. ‘Operation Sea Breeze’ fails dismally to catch the mood.

Danny Gillerman, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, charts new waters of denial. “‘Foreign nationals’ or ‘human rights activists’ are broadly and wrongly used terms” he says. “They were using clubs, trying to lynch and mob our soldiers”. Wait a minute. They were using clubs? That doesn’t exactly indicate a crack force of terrorists, does it? To me it sounds like the activists under attack grabbed anything they could find and attempted to do as much damage as possible to defend themselves.

Never mind that nine civilians were killed and many others remain in a critical condition, including an injured Briton. If the attack really was two-sided, with both sides fighting a pitched battle, you’d expect casualties from both sides, but this wasn’t the case. Only the activists were killed. That the West isn’t intervening gives the phrase “getting away with murder” a whole new meaning.

Turkey isn’t happy. Traditionally, Turkey is Israel’s closest Muslim ally in the region, but with eight Turks dead, relations are under unprecedented strain. Both sides have withdrawn diplomatic avenues, calling back their ambassadors, which is the social equivalent of leaving a party early because you can feel a cold coming on.

You have to admire the Pro-Palestinian movement in Britain, if only for their extraordinary organisation. Barely had the news of the Israeli attack broke, when well over a thousand protesters stormed to Downing Street, marching on the Israeli embassy to express “outrage”. Pressure was applied to governments to condemn the killings although the US were particularly cautious, saying they “deplore the loss of life”.

Such weak language puts the US in the arresting position of being “against death”, which must come as a massive relief to the world. I bet the activists aboard the ship, when being attacked by armed troops, were secretly praying the US deplores the loss of life. “Otherwise, what’s the point?”

David Cameron, a self-declared “Friend of Israel” (it’s amazing that the issue is so explosive that he feels he must have a pronounced social opinion on the nation. You can’t see him saying the same about any other country: “I am an acquaintance of Croatia, although I haven’t found them on Facebook yet”), was quick to condemn the killings in the same mealy-mouthed language everyone else seems to have deployed.

William Hague, Foreign Secretary, condemned the killings. David Milliband, former Foreign Secretary, condemned the killings. Tony Blair, former Prime Minister, condemned the killings. Let’s thank our lucky stars that these people condemn the killings, or it really would be a tragedy. If all else fails, Israel should be given the Supernanny treatment and put on the “naughty step” by the United Nations. It’s the only way they can learn.

My first all-night rave

You could turn up at a rave in the middle of a boggy field, music pounding, travellers performing a ritual in the corner, and express more bemusement at finding me there than if you bumped into John Major rolling up a joint, asking if you want to get jiggy. Raving just isn’t my sort of thing. So it was with a moderate degree of surprise that I found myself attending such an all-night ‘event’.

After a night out at the dogs with a few mates, I walked through the backwaters of Hollingdean, the sound of dubstep greeting my ears and the smell of weed clinging to my nostrils. A patch of woods had been decked out in leftover Christmas lights, all hooked to the trees. I saw a wire connected to a lamppost and wondered how long it would be before a blackout occurred, plunging the revellers into darkness.

It was unlike anything I’d ever seen. The party was to honour the 40th birthday of an Indian gentleman, who was in the middle of the clearing, throwing some outrageous shapes – the kind usually seen in gymnastics contests featuring 16-year-old Russians. One minute he was channelling Jackie Chan, the next he was in a trance. I had no idea what he was on, but I wanted some.

A bar was set up in a little enclave by the side of the stage, dispensing an astonishing range of drinks. Someone offered me a “Peppermint woohoo”, an offer I couldn’t refuse due to my principle of always accepting a product with the word ‘woohoo’ in it. I was expecting the barman, a camp early twenty-something, to make a proper cocktail, with metal tumblers and ice, like they do in the movies.

But he simply placed some peppermint in a glass, added thrice the daily recommended limit of alcohol and handed it over with a cheeky grin. I felt cheated. I could have created the same effect by placing a packet of Polos in a bottle of Vodka.

Barrels of hay were scattered around the woods, a bit risky when everyone was skinning up and you couldn’t walk more than three steps without someone asking to borrow a lighter. One false move and it would have been the quickest annihilation of a rave ever witnessed. The only way the organisers could have made things worse was by launching canisters of petrol at the dance floor.

Back in the makeshift bar, approaching 3am, it was ‘help yourself hour’. Danny concocted, and I quote verbatim, “an orange thingy”. I looked at my glass and saw the various elements of alcohol separating like oil from water. The first few sips of the drink were pure orange juice, the next gulp a shot of whisky. Every sip was a mystery. Naturally, I was sick shortly after, although I was heartily cheered up when I saw three others barfing in the woods, looking much worse off than me. Then a middle-aged woman came and sat next to me, sensing a kindred spirit.

“I’ve never been to one of these things before either” she said, and we engaged in a conversation that was abruptly ended when the DJ changed the song. As ‘A Message To You Rudy’ blasted from the makeshift speakers, she rose to her feet and started dancing as if hypnotised, slowly rotating on the spot, leaving me to look left and right with a panicked expression. “Bloodyhell” I thought, “I didn’t realise I was that boring”.

Even worse was the fact that everyone else acted like this was normal behaviour. I could have raised a flute and started Morris-dancing, but I feared that the two blokes sitting opposite would do the same, telling me how delighted they are that I got the Morris-dancing ball rolling. Then she raised her arm and asked me to dance as well, but I pretended to have spotted an old friend on the other side of the clearing. I spent the next forty-five minutes holding an informed conversation with a tree.

I even took a puff – my first ever – of marijuana. I was expecting some kind of reaction and the surrounding people kept their eyes on me for a while (everyone reacts differently the first time they smoke dope). I was thoroughly underwhelmed. I didn’t feel any different at all. I was told I would experience a “spacing out” and that I should just “stay cool”. As opposed to what? Running around naked asking for a tug?

With dawn approaching, I visited the bar one more time and was joined by a bunch of hippies, all declaring their love for one another with varying degrees of sincerity. And so I listened to a group of fifteen people whom I’d never met sing campfire songs, stumbling over every other word due to being high or drunk or a combination of both, watching the embers of the bonfire flicker and shimmer in the trees above. Earlier in the evening I had asked a couple of people what they did for a living.

“This” came the reply. Oh. For a minute I thought you were all as mad as a box of frogs. The fact you’re a semi-employed rave organiser clears things up nicely.

Three Lions raise hope

It’s the hope, so often misplaced, that drags us back to watch the England football team. Every time a major tournament looms closer, the players, managers and pundits all start calling it “our year”. Every time we jump on a plane to lands foreign, talk of England’s “golden generation” must weigh on all the player’s minds.

During the qualifying campaign, John Terry gave an interview in which he called this the “strongest” side he can remember. But don’t they all say that when they get within a few yards of a microphone? It becomes as predictable as Michael Eavis calling each Glastonbury the “best yet”.

It would be a bit demoralising if Steven Gerrard swaggered up to a press conference and said: “We’re pretty crap at the moment. Rio Ferdinand is slower than my Nan on Prozac, Jermaine Defoe keeps seeing ghosts in the changing rooms and David Beckham’s crosses have been so rubbish, we’ve had to hire a ball-boy at training to fetch the ones that are launched into the car park”.

There is a certain art to the England team preparing for a major tournament. We go through the motions in meaningless friendlies against teams we couldn’t point to on a map, while everyone back home tries to read something into every performance. As the first group game swings around, we limp over the finishing line, as everyone shakes their head, often saying things like “maybe 2052 will be our year”.

We always make it through the group stage, just, before winning the first knockout round reasonably convincingly. Then we crash out on penalties, creating a hat-trick of villains in the process, who will forever be taunted for not putting the ball in the net from twelve yards.

South Africa 2010 looks likely to be the same as any other tournament, but perhaps with a few added reasons for not progressing further than the quarter-finals, principally that Fabio Capello will try ordering some drinks for the dehydrated players in the middle of a match but fails to understand the till worker’s accent.

What would happen if we actually did something this time? We’ve seen the news footage following a triumphant victory – it’s full of drunks smashing up the location in celebration. We’ve also seen the news footage after a resounding defeat – it’s full of drunks smashing up the location in anger. I don’t know about you, but if I were a policeman in South Africa, I’d choose my holidays to coincide with England games.

There is one inescapable fact, however. We have actually looked quite good. Despite what could have been a tough qualifying group, we have negotiated it with surprising ease, becoming one of the first teams to qualify for the finals, beating Croatia 4-1 having lost out to them in the group stages for Euro 2008 under the tenure of the Wally With A Brolley.

Compare us with powerhouses like France and Portugal, who both struggled in their respective groups, and there is a feeling that such form may finally be replicated when it really matters. That’s the problem with supporting a side like England. Even I am being infested with this optimistic tone, which could be misconstrued as narcissism, as our record at major tournaments speaks for itself.

My adopted second team is Serbia, only because I like to go against all the boring tipsters who pick Spain, Brazil, England or Italy every time. So little effort seems to go into some of the predictions, I reckon they just put the best four teams in the world on a Twister dial and spin for victory.

Furthermore, for those who enjoy supporting an underdog, a number of no-hopers have progressed to the final, usually due to fortunate geography rather than any kind of skill.

For instance, New Zealand, who negotiate qualifying in the Oceania group stage and last qualified for the finals when shoulder pads were considered cool, traditionally have their biggest test against Australia. But the Aussies left to play in the Asian qualifiers, leaving the islanders to play the mighty Fiji and Samoa, with all sides requesting to switch the round ball for an oval one as none of the locals know what the offside law means.

But for another good sign that England may fare well this summer, no solicitous rumours about our manager’s sexual dalliances have yet come to light – Capello doesn’t quite seem that kind of guy. He would sooner be drawing up a new formation to allow Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard to play in the same team than screw his secretary, leaving him to get on with the job in hand. Here’s to many a drunken celebratory night!