When titans collide

25 Jul

Brazil 2014 was barely a week old when it witnessed what will likely be remembered as the battle of the tournament. It wasn’t the Dutch demolition of the reigning Spanish champions. Nor was it Fabio Cannavaro’s struggle to work out who Martin O’Neill was. No sir, it was the goalless draw between Brazil and Mexico that had me gripped. Billed as the five-time world champions grappling with the undisputed CONCACAF kings, the fixture also served up the equally enticing prospect of Mark Lawrenson locking horns with the Brazilian striker Jô.

Comparing talents across different disciplines is always difficult. How can assessments be drawn between the asymmetric battlegrounds of Lawrenson’s gantry and Jô’s final third? It was as difficult to call as Jedward versus the Crazy Frog. Or a Keep Calm poster pitted against June Sarpong. Nevertheless, this was knockout football and a victor had to be found on a humid night in Forteleza.

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A baby is born with only three fears – loud noises, falling, and the prospect of Garth Crooks being asked an open-ended question. All others we develop over time. I was into my teens before I learned to fear Mark Lawrenson. Lawrenson the Player was a footballer of considerable distinction. During the late ’70s and ’80s, all manner of European Cups and League titles were hoisted above the Lancastrian’s bewhiskered top lip. Had the Sky money filtered into the game a decade earlier, we may have been spared Lawrenson the Pundit. Sadly, the purse from a glittering playing career still needed to be supplemented into his dotage.

Like the canopy of a Brazilian rainforest, Lawrenson the Pundit sits atop a game of football and smothers all that lies below. Disinterested quips and lazy jibes are his mots justes – he’ll moan for ninety minutes plus stoppages. If Lawrenson had been at the Sermon on the Mount, he would have railed against the altitude. He hates himself. He hates you. But, most of all, Lawrenson really hates football.

Football’s anti-hero was in the form of his life in leading up to the Brazil v Mexico clash. Years of pestling Premier League games into the mortar had prepared Lawrenson for the big one in Brazil. Only the night before, he had dryly asked his fellow pundits on MotD Extra if they thought Askhan Dejagger’s nickname was Mick. He was ready.

Jonathan Pearce had the honour of being Lawrenson’s wet nurse for the game. Bracing himself for a long evening, Pearce was already wincing ten minutes in when Lawro opined that Raphael Marquez bursting out of defence “… just goes to show that you don’t need tattoos to be a great footballer”. By the time he had also taken umbrage with the referee not using his 10-yard spray for a free-kick (“Where’s his spray? Has it run out?”), Lawrenson was in his element, gleefully urinating all over the fixture, safe in the knowledge that no-one, nobody, was stealing a living more than he…..

Enter Jô to the fray.

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Manchester City fans have been here before. Few could forget the night Jô put Omonia Nicosia to the sword while wearing the light blue of Manchester. Ultimately, two tap-ins against a Cypriot outfit did not prove enough to warrant the £19 million outlay. Though the league goal that Jô added to his tally was appreciated, the consensus was that the club’s record spend had been unwisely invested. By the time City had won their first title in living memory, Jô was back in the Brazilian leagues, not doing what he doesn’t do best.

But somehow, like a freak storm, Jô had returned. Not just to top level football either, but the World Cup no less. The grandest stage of them all. All of a sudden, the hopes of 200 million Brazilians lay upon Jô’s unconvincing shoulders. As promotions above competency levels go, this was positively Moyes-esque.

The Daily Mirror’s Pride of Britain awards would be my first port of call for inspiration that no obstacle is too big to overcome. Watching Jô turn out for the Seleção at a World Cup comes a close second. Jô had stared into the football abyss and decided he wasn’t going to take no for an answer. He had lived to see 3-D printing, Netflix and Joey Barton appear on Question Time. Nike were right, nothing was impossible.

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As a 68th minute replacement for the beyond lethargic Fred, Jô had the world’s easiest narrative to live up to. Fred’s heat map for the game could have fitted onto a bar mat (“Warm up, you’re coming off!” – that man Lawrenson had his own views on Fred’s contribution to the game). All Jô had to do was run around a bit, not do anything terrible, and the commentators would fall over themselves to claim that the substitution had “energised” Brazil. Alas, Jô had previous for clattering into low bars of expectation and showed no signs of being troubled by this one.

With a sense of showmanship, Jô’s first touch was a textbook false dawn. He laid off a forward pass and darted into the penalty with searing intent. Lawrenson and Pearce were practically salivating at how easy he was making their job for them (“Brazil just look so much more mobile, Jonathan”). Naturally, it was a trap. Jô’s second contribution was to bring a ball under control in a dangerous position 12 yards from goal and inexplicably shepherd it to the safety of the corner flag. While Big Phil tugged uncomfortably on his branded polo shirt, a third opportunity quickly followed. Clean through on goal, Jô shanked the ball so hard into the ground that it somehow managed to start a ground level and bounce upwards.

From there on out the delivery was consistent. With a glint in his eye and a radar like a SatNav strapped to a Daddy Long Legs, Jô proceeded to show the world that Marouane Fellaini has a long way to go if he wants to be known as the benchmark for owning an afro and being utterly fucking useless. It was hard to believe stuff, but then Jô always was. Disappointment comes in all shapes and sizes. This one used to wear a snood in mid-September.

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Part of Jô’s beauty is that he is terrible in such an ordinary way. There is no harbinger of hope to attach to his gangly frame. Jozy Altodire has a physical presence that might just about convince you into believing he could manhandle a back four into submission. Watching Andy Carroll tear through the night skies in search of a high ball conjures at least the faint promise of reward. With Jô, nothing even looks likely to happen. He carries the wide-eyed futility of a boy King being asked to lead a troubled state.

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In the battle of ineptitude, it was as though Jô had grabbed the referee’s Snow in a Can and marched Lawrenson back the full ten yards. Ultimately, it was Jô’s effortlessness that proved to be the difference. Deep down, Lawrenson does actually know what he’s doing. There’s a rather sinister awareness that accompanies Lawrenson’s inanities. He knows that he’s serving you up a shit sandwich and he’s doing it deliberately. Out of spite, really. With Jô, it’s an altogether more natural phenomenon. He’s not doing it to hurt anyone. If he could do any better, he undoubtedly would. He just can’t. He’s naturally terrible.

It won’t last forever, though. It never does. History is a wheel and, somewhere on the dusty streets of Rio, Jô’s replacement is already honing his skills; primed and ready to showcase his talents to the world in four years’ time. So, too, does Lawrenson’s heir apparent wait in the wings. Groomed, media-trained and patiently biding his time, the “sixth Beetle” of the Class of ’92 will be called to the main-stage for Russia 2018. Few successors will have viewers pining for the Lawrenson “glory days”, but it’s just about possible that Robert William Savage might.

 

You can follow Sonny (@_SonnyPike) on Twitter or subscribe to Too Good for the English Game by clicking the “Follow” button on the right-hand side of this page (this button is mysteriously unavailable on the mobile version of the website).

Jo

Jô during a pre-season tour of the Middle East.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2 Responses to “When titans collide”

  1. Anonymous July 25, 2014 at 7:34 pm #

    Sadly, in 10 or so years, people will be speculating on how the BBC are going to replace Savage as a pundit icon!

    • Sonny Pike August 21, 2014 at 11:03 am #

      Hopefully, in 10 or so years, we’ll have been forced to offer up Robbie Savage for sacrifice to invading alien life form.

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