This time, maybe this time

2006 - world cup : Hunter Davies was there in '66. Now, eagerly if warily, he's plumping up the sofa

I've filled my diary, inserted all the England games and every other one, put special marks on the kitchen calendar, told the wife and other domestic and family persons that that will be it, during those four weeks from 9 June to 9 July, I won't be accepting calls from human beings or taking part in any sort of family life, is that clear? Right, think on.

By an amazing bit of good luck the annual general meeting of the Cumbria Wildlife Trust, of which I am president, is on 8 June, the day before it all starts. During the past three World Cups there's been a clash with the AGM and I've had to miss one game, something absolutely vital like Ecuador v Croatia (1-0 in 2002, as I'm sure you remember). This time I've made sure that my diary, and my life, have been totally cleared. I'm so excited. Can't wait for the special pull-outs, World Cup souvenirs, posters, stickers, badges. I do hope Sainsbury's is doing World Cup medals with the phizogs of the England squad. I'll be collecting them, don't you worry, son.

I like the fact that, in World Cups, money can't buy success the way it can in league football. Clubs such as Chelsea or Real Madrid can open their chequebooks and buy anyone, from anywhere, regardless of where they were born. The players might kiss the club badge when they score, but we know it's a nonsense. They're all mercenaries, ready to kiss any old badge if the money's good enough.

In the World Cup you get minnows who in theory have no right to be there. This time we'll have countries like Costa Rica (population four million) and Trinidad and Tobago (just over a million). They start out on level pegging with giants like Brazil (180 million) and the US (295 million). Every four years there are one or two titchy countries that by chance have been blessed with three or four half-decent native-born players and have somehow managed to get through all the qualifying hoops.

I'll be keeping a particular eye on Trinidad and Tobago, not just because they are the smallest country, but because their captain is Dwight Yorke. I did his biography six years ago, when he was winning the treble with Man Utd. He messed me around, was always late, not really interested, which really pissed me off and I've moaned about him ever since. But now I've found myself saying, oh yes, my friend Dwight, wonderful person, inspirational captain. You haven't got a spare ticket, have you, Dwighty?

I like to think World Cups encourage the sort of sportsmanship you don't normally see in league football. The players know they are on a world stage, all eyes on them, representing the honour of their country, so they tend to desist from cheating, conning, diving, fighting, trying to maim each other. Well, most of the time.

For about four World Cups I got my children to do little charts listing the populations of all 32 countries, then at the end we would work out the real winners, based on points won for every million of their populations. By this reckoning Trinidad and Tobago should be top this year, just as long as they can scramble one point. It was good practice for the children's sums, so I maintained, and their geography, but now they've left home, out in the world, they won't help me. So selfish. But I have hope for my two grandchildren, aged six. They're a bit young to do the maths, but I plan to get them a world map each and we can find all the countries. Awfully educational, World Cups.

And the history, that's jolly interesting as well. Fifa, the world body, was created in 1904, but England, along with Scotland, Ireland and Wales, refused to join. We invented football, so who do these foreign johnnies think they are, coming along trying to organise our game? "Fifa does not appeal to me," said Charles Sutcliffe, a member of our FA, in 1928. "I don't care a brass farthing about the improvement of the game in France, Belgium, Austria or Germany. An organisation where such football associations as those of Uruguay and Paraguay, Brazil and Egypt, Bohemia and Pan Russia, are co-equal with England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland seems to me to be a case of magnifying the midgets . . ."

The first World Cup, held in Uruguay in 1930, went ahead with no British involvement. Only four European countries made the trip - Belgium, France, Romania and Yugoslavia - and they all went on the same ship, which took two weeks to reach Uruguay. The players exercised on the deck to keep fit. On board was Jules Rimet, the French lawyer who was president of Fifa, carrying the World Cup trophy in his luggage. Thirteen countries in all competed. Uruguay beat Argentina 4-2 in the final.

England finally joined Fifa after the Second World War, in time to take part in the 1950 World Cup in Brazil - and suffered the humiliation of being beaten 1-0 by the US in the first round. What a shock. That was when we realised the rest of the world had indeed progressed.

But of course it all came right in 1966 - and I was there, at Wembley, for the final, in seat 37, row 9, entrance 36, K turnstile, price £5, one of the best seats (the ticket, below, is worth a fortune now). I got it through a friend, now dead, called James Bredin, who was boss of Border TV. He even took me there in his chauffeur-driven car. Bliss.

We have been rubbish since, sometimes not even getting to the finals. It might well have been due to that nasty old British habit of superiority. Because we won, we thought it proved we were the best again, that we had nothing to learn from foreigners and had no need to reform our training methods. Now, 40 years later, thanks to all the foreign managers and foreign players and the TV money, the standards of the top Premiership teams are as good as anywhere's.

Our national team doesn't have a British-born manager, which is a bit of an embarrassment, if we are now supposed to be so good. In fact there is not one Briton among the 32 managers. Holland, a much smaller country, has got four in charge - of South Korea, Australia, Trinidad and Tobago as well as Holland. But this time we have by chance managed to throw up half a dozen native-born play- ers who can be considered world-class - Beckham, Lampard, Gerrard, Terry, Rooney, Owen - players who would probably make it into the squad of most countries. Apart from Brazil. Once again Brazil appear to be peaking at the right time. They have ten players, some of whom we'd never heard of till recently, who are all world-class.

However, it does look as if we have our best chance since 1966. I think we will get to the final, but won't win. On the other hand, we could easily get stuffed by somewhere like Trinidad and Tobago.

The 31 other countries have used a total of 137 players who play in England. Chelsea, for example, have 17 foreign players who are likely to play in Germany, plus their seven English players. So, whichever countries are playing each other, it's more than likely we'll be able to cheer on some of "our lads", out there, on the pitch.

They all need our support, oh yes. That's why for four weeks the phone will be off, the door not answered. In fact, if you have anything important to say to me, pet, say it now . . .

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.