Forget Mexico, forget Japan, clearly the best preparation England can get going into the World Cup is to test themselves vigorously against the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, Henrik Larsson, Ryan Giggs and that guy who played a periphery character in Heroes….You know, one of the ones who wasn’t actually a hero, but was a mate of one of the heroes. Little guy. Him… and Austin Powers.
This was of course Soccer Aid, Robbie Williams’ noble attempt to elevate a kick around with his mates from an embarrassing wheeze fest of male competitiveness to a meaningful grudge match for UNICEF. And once the dust had settled from the latest installment of charity celebrity football, England vs the Rest of the World had proved to be far more entertaining than either of England’s latest efforts to convince us they’re on the cusp of world domination.
The coverage began with the sad and disturbing footage of the desperate, mournful unfortunate faces we’ve become all to accustomed to on these types of occasion. And once Kenny Dalglish and Harry Redknapp had left the studio to give their team talks, we were reminded of the harsh realities of life in Africa as well.
Orlando Bloom had been banished to the BT Tower to keep an eye on the telephones and valiantly attempt to read the autocue convincingly, so host Dermot O’Leary had to make do with Big Sam Allardyce and Al Murray, who seemed to be trying out a new incarnation of his Pub Landlord character, namely one who wasn’t funny.
As the teams prepared to take the field, the real fun of spotting whom they’d managed to convince to do it this time began. The Rest of the World Team is always the more interesting in these things. England’s team usually consists of soap actors (Bradley Walsh – tick) Simon Cowell competition winners (Olly Murs – tick) TV Presenters (Jamie Theakston – tick) Respected all be it B-List thespians (Damien Lewis – tick) and recognizable, but “not for the life of me why” mates of Robbie Williams (Jonathan Wilkes – tick). The opposition however are usually far more eclectic and this year had managed the genuine coup of getting not just Woody Harrelson and Mike Myers, but former World Players of the year Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo. Clearly aware that they were supposed to be the bad guys here however, they’d sensibly negated any support they’d likely get form this by including not just one, but two members of Westlife, presumably hoping to prove there is some talent in there somewhere, but a bit baffled at how to prove it without standing up and sitting down again from a stool.
As Russell Watson belted out Nessun Dorma for reasons that aren’t immediately clear, Clive Tyldsley optimistically noted that Piereluigi Collina was singing along, when in fact it looked for all the world to me like he was yawning. He may well still have been by the end of the first half, which was almost as dour as Kenny Dalglish’s pre match team talk despite the occasional glorious site of Zidane embarrassing everyone when he could be bothered.
After the opening few minutes of nervy misplaced passes, testosterone fueled over exuberation and terrible crosses, it started to become clear which celebs could actually play and which were there merely as a good will gesture. Damien Lewis chipped an audacious 25 yard effort off the bar and Olly Murs tormented Gordon Ramsey on the right wing, both out shining Alan Shearer and Teddy Sheringham in the center, who both seemed to be taking it all incredibly seriously to little effect.
For a brief period the game threatened to burst into life and the entertainment came two fold as Robbie Williams gave away a penalty and one of the mannequins from Westlife missed it.
It was at about this point that Zidane decided he was going to step it up a bit and after dribbling past 4 players to play in Sami Hyypia, nutmegging Lewis on the touchline and combining sexily with Giggs he almost broke into a smile. But didn’t.
After a massive spider had crawled across the lens, sparking momentary fears that the age of our new insect overlords was finally upon us, Jamie Redknapp literally scored a lovely goal, combining with a version of Teddy Sheringham made from boiled ham and varnish to put England ahead right on half time.
It was then back to the studio to watch Orlando Bloom struggle with the autocue again and Dermot O’Leary struggle to muster a convincing laugh at anything Al Murray was saying.
Luis Figo came on for Giggs as the second half began and immediately took the game in the right spirit, attempting to dribble past everyone every time he got the ball then hugging anyone who managed to stop him heartily. Jamie Theakston – on for David Seamen – saved well from blonde Westlife man before the SAS of Shearer and Sheringham combined to put England two up after more good work from Olly Murs.
Joe Calzaghe just about managed to not miss from half a yard out to bring the ROW back into it as the game really started to get interesting with the celebs starting to tire.
Ricky Hatton wobbled on, Patrick Kielty saved a one on one from Alan Shearer, Brian Lara hit a chance for six, Bradley Walsh somehow hit a shot backwards and Woody Harrelson completely missed the ball with his first (non) touch as the game opened up.
Hyypia grabbed an equalizer to take it to penalties, and the real fun began as a celeb only policy was enforced to ensure maximum comedy value.
After Robbie’s mate had scored and Brian Lara squeezed it past the boundary, Jamie Theakston stepped forward as a viable choice for back up keeper in South Africa with a string of saves to deny a slew of relatively recognizable people and Gordon Ramsey. England continued to show that taking very bad penalties runs in our blood as Paddy McGuiness skied over and Robbie did a John Terry before the ever-impressive duo of Lewis and Murs slotted in their pens like they’d actually kicked a ball before. Calzaghe and Brian Clough both netted for the opposition whilst Ben Shepard and Ricky “Waller” Hatton found the top corner and after each side had cancelled each other out in both hits and misses, Mike Myers slotted one calmly down the middle to force Jamie Theakston to step out of goal to keep England in the lead.
Undoing all his good work between the sticks however, Theakston awkwardly punted it over creating the surreal sight of Woody Harrelson making the long walk to the spot to win the damn thing.
Looking fittingly spaced out, the A-List Hollywood actor who’d spent the previous week joining in other peoples kick abouts in Battersea park to gain match fitness, struck it to the left of the despairing dive of England’s number one to clinch the trophy for the Rest of the World, sparking jubilantly surreal scenes as Woody from Cheers was mobbed by Ryan Giggs, Tony Blair, Luis Figo, Austin Powers, the Mentalist and that little bloke from Heroes who had earlier attempted to throw a ball in from a corner. Utter madness, and all the better for it.
A riotous evening’s enjoyment, and with over £2 million made for UNICEF by the end of the game alone, a triumph all round. Even Zidane was smiling by the end of it, but whether he attended Patrick Keilty’s pre-game team bonding barbeque is the question I really want an answer to.