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The ‘shock and awe’ of a lanky footballer

Why every World Cup team wants its very own beanpole like Peter Crouch.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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Why was Peter Crouch relegated to the bench for England’s second-round game against Ecuador?

The most popular explanation is that Crouch’s very presence invites too many long balls. But, while I’m the first to shout ‘you useless freak’ when he fluffs his lines, I think it’s a bit harsh to blame the beanpole for England’s long ball tendency. Are we really to believe that as soon as England players catch a glimpse of Crouchy a little voice in their head whispers ‘hoof it, hoof it’? I don’t think so. Crouch didn’t feature at all in the game against Ecuador but that didn’t stop England launching long balls for Wayne Rooney to chase. Like it or not, the long ball is the default mode in English football. When English players receive the ball their immediate instinct is to get it forward early. They simply don’t have the patience or confidence to play keep-ball.

In a recent column I put forward the theory that Sven was counting on Crouch’s freakish stature to confuse and distract opponents (1). And I’m not alone in holding this view. On the Crouch question, comedian Russell Brand wrote in his Guardian column: ‘Roman battalions kept an elephant among their ranks, not because they contributed much from a military perspective, but because of the gawping delirium this berserk addition to the artillery would evoke in opponents.’ (2)

So why is the deployment of an outsize beast failing to disorient England’s World Cup opponents? To develop Brand’s metaphor, the problem is that England aren’t the only team in the tournament to field an elephantine player in their ranks. For example, when England played Trinidad and Tobago, Crouch found himself up against another giant, 6 ft 7 inch Wrexham defender Dennis Lawrence.

I first witnessed this ‘shock and awe’ strategy in operation at a First Division play-off final between Crystal Palace and Leicester City. With the game heading for penalties, the introduction of Leicester’s giant reserve goalkeeper Zeljko Kalac distracted the bewildered Palace players sufficiently for Steve Claridge to shin a last minute winner. A Leicester fan once told me that Kalac was pretty hopeless, so imagine my surprise when I saw him keeping goal for Australia in the World Cup. Even more incredible was the discovery that he is actually an AC Milan player – further proof that the English aren’t the only ones to have adapted the Roman war elephant tactic.

But the problem with war elephants, as military historians will tell you, is that they have a tendency to run amok through their own ranks. And this is precisely what happened to Australia in their game against Croatia. Kalac’s comically inept goalkeeping spread panic through the Socceroo defence and very nearly gifted Croatia the match.

Struck by the number of giants on display, I consulted the official FIFA website, which has helpfully produced a list of the 10 tallest players at the tournament. If you thought Peter Crouch was freakishly tall then think again. He’s not the top of the freak hit parade; that accolade belongs to Kalac who is four centimetres taller than Crouch. But, unbelievably, the gangly England striker doesn’t even get a podium finish. The Liverpool striker is only the sixth tallest player at the tournament. As the old saying goes, in the land of the midgets the 6ft 7in man is king – but Germany 2006 has shown that Crouchy is not particularly exceptional either as a giant or as a footballer.

* * *

We haven’t even reached the quarter-finals, yet Germany 2006 is already the most punitive World Cup on record. At the end of the second round 290 yellow cards and 25 red cards had been handed out, comfortably surpassing the 272 yellows at Japan/Korea 2002 and the 22 reds shown during France ’98. Graham Poll achieved the dubious distinction of being the first World Cup ref to show three yellow cards to the same player – Josep Simunic of Croatia. Poll’s howler should finally extinguish that enduring British broadcasting myth that ‘our referees’ are the best in the business.

The hilarious spectacle of Poll’s refereeing career in meltdown was bettered only by the shambolic, bad-tempered Holland v Portugal cardfest in which Russian referee Valentin Ivanov dished out a staggering 16 yellow cards and four reds. The hapless Ivanov has been slated for failing to apply common sense, with FIFA President Sepp Blatter leading the ref-bashing. ‘I think there could have been a yellow card for the referee’, said Blatter. ‘I consider that the referee was not at the same level as the participants, the players.’

Ivanov didn’t exactly cover himself in glory, but Blatter’s comments are a bit rich considering that the Russian official was only obeying FIFA orders. On the eve of the tournament FIFA instructed referees to ‘apply the letter of the law’ when dealing with violent or unsporting conduct. Blatter himself, in a speech to tournament officials, urged them to deal strenuously with elbowing, fouls from behind, dangerous tackles, shirt-pulling, time-wasting and simulation.

The problem is that you either follow the letter of the law or you allow referees the latitude to use common sense – but you cannot have it both ways. FIFA’s ludicrous directives have effectively kicked refereeing common sense into touch. Ironically, FIFA’s get-tough policy has arguably led to more simulation as players realise it’s easier to hoodwink card-happy officials into dismissing opponents (and yes, that includes you Thierry). Valentin Ivanov and Graham Poll have now been sent home but it’s about time that Sepp Blatter, whose edicts are turning football into a non-contact sport, was also given his marching orders.

(1) Offside, 9 June 2006

(2) In bed or watching the World Cup in the pub – it pays to keep your mouth shut, Guardian, 17 June 2006

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