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The Good, the Bad, und die Rache

With the group stages over, the sextodecimal matches played, and the quarterfinals about to begin, what kind of a World Cup has it been so far? It has been good for South Africa, with large, happy crowds and none of the violence that pessimists predicted, altogether nothing worse than the horrible vuvuzela. The home nation were eliminated, but not before a glorious victory over France, who scuttled home in disgrace, as did the Italians, and then the English.

No, it hasn’t been a good year for Europe, even with Germany, Spain and Holland in the last eight. When the World Cup began in 1930, it had a specific purpose, to bring together what then the two great centres of the game, Europe and Latin America. Today there’s no question which of those two is dominant. For all that most of the best Latin American footballers play in European clubs (like Willie Sutton’s banks, that’s where the money is), the superiority of their national sides is startling.

Quite why those European teams, and some Africans, have done so badly this year is a question which can be discussed at high level—very high, in the case of Nigeria and France. Following a sorry performance by the Nigerian team, the admirably named President Goodluck Jonathan has ordered the Nigerian Football Federation to be dissolved and the national team to be suspended for two years, to “enable Nigeria to reorganise its football.” Meantime in Paris, the frankly contemptible showing by les bleus (who lost two of three games and drew one, one goal for, four against)has been denounced by several government ministers, queried by President Sarkozy himself, and debated in secret session by the National Assembly.

Although David Cameron hasn’t yet announced a parliamentary debate on the dismal England team, that bunch don’t need to be told what their compatriots think of them. Online readers of the Guardian have collectively compiled their Best and Worst XIs of the tournament so far. The Best includes two Argentines (Messi and Tevez, of course), and three Germans (Lahm, Ozil and Schweinsteiger), but more remarkably—though not absurdly—three New Zealanders (Paston, Reid and Nelsen). Still less surprisingly, four of the eleven Worst were Englishmen (Terry, Wright-Phillips, Lampard and Heskey).

And the country that beat us aren’t going to let us forget it. Germans still speak of das Wembley-Tor, or even ein Wembley-Tor, to denote a particular kind of sporting injustice. In 1966, one of Geoff Hurst’s three goals in the 4-2 defeat of West Germany that gave England her one and only World Cup never quite looked as if it had crossed the line. This time, in the course of the 4-1 defeat by Germany, Frank Lampard did manage to score a goal, which every camera showed clearing the line by more than a foot before bouncing back, but the referee and his assistants failed to see this, and it was disallowed.

In its excitement, the German popular press lapsed into Deutschlish, or whatever one calls a macaronic mangling of the two languages. A hundred years ago, Karl Kraus had a witty column called “Desperanto” in his magazine the Fackel, making fun of shlocky journalists who wrote about Edward VII as “Der King.” I don’t know what Kraus would have made of the headline in the Bild, “Jungs, we love you,” or the Berliner Kurier’s “Yes! Das war die Rache fur Wembley.”

No doubt it was just that, the revenge for Wembley. And whose revenge will it be when Germany play Argentina on Saturday?