This weekend, in at least 32 countries, there will be an avalanche of football previews. Like a royal wedding, a World Cup sends us back into the arms of print: it can turn sensible adults into schoolchildren, poring over pull-outs and wallcharts and souvenir posters. While newspaper sports reporting is becoming more nuanced, some of the time, the writing on your wall remains cheerfully simplistic. One tabloid poster carries a headline that could be a banner in the crowd in Volgograd: COME ON ENGLAND.
It might as well say COME OFF IT ENGLAND. Every World Cup begins with hope, and time after time our finest footballers do their best to extinguish it. England expects, the taglines will say. So, what can England expect, exactly?
At the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, our boys managed to be knocked out even before the group stage was over, losing to Italy and Uruguay before picking up a consolation point in a match with Costa Rica that had it all – it was goalless, cheerless and meaningless. This time, England’s first opponents are Tunisia and Panama, so it’s reasonable to expect a victory. But let’s not go overboard: the best England have done in the last 25 years is to reach the quarter-finals, which is the worst Germany have done in the same period. England managed that in 2002 and 2006, when they had a squad full of stars, the so-called golden generation – Beckham and Rooney, Terry and Ferdinand, Gerrard and Lampard. In 2018, the only Englishman of that wattage is Harry Kane, the hard-working Spurs sharp-shooter who is so eager to eat healthily he employs his own chef.
England do have youth and pace on their side, and in Gareth Southgate they have a manager with a clear plan, for the first time since Glenn Hoddle in 1998, when Southgate was among the players. The plan is: pass out from the back, pass quickly, press hard to regain the ball, and hope you don’t run out of steam. If the plan works, England will land the classic role of the plucky outsider, capable of a shock.
In the European Championship, David can beat Goliath – Denmark, Greece and Portugal have all won the tournament, and Wales made the semi-finals in 2016. The World Cup, alas, is a private club with very few full members. Since 1970, there have been 12 tournaments, and places in the final have been distributed like this: six for Germany, four each for Brazil, Italy and Argentina, three for Holland, two for France and one for Spain. It’s a seven-nation carve-up.
This time, Italy and Holland have failed to qualify, which seems to leave only five realistic winners. The only team to worry those five are perhaps Belgium, who have several superstars from the Premier League, from the visionary midfielder Kevin De Bruyne to the study-in-contrasts strikers Romelu Lukaku (too big to barge off the ball) and Eden Hazard (too tricksy to tackle). Belgium, as it happens, are in England’s group.
The betting, as logged by Oddschecker, reinforces the impression of an oligarchy. The big five are out in front, with Germany the favourites, neck and neck with a resurgent Brazil. (Last time these two met in the World Cup, in the semi-final on Brazil’s own turf in 2014, Germany won 7-1: a score to settle if ever there was one.) Sixth are Belgium, worth a fiver at 11/1. And seventh are England, which may be proof of the unwisdom of crowds.
One of sport’s functions is to be an outlet for feelings we otherwise try to stifle, like the dismal tribalism of the Arsenal fans who chant “Stand up if you hate Tottenham” at the Emirates, even when Spurs are not there (in fact, when Arsenal aren’t there either – it once happened at a friendly between Brazil and Argentina). The England team was an outlet for English entitlement when Brexit was still just a gleam in Jimmy Goldsmith’s eye. England fans are apt to dwell on past glories – or rather, one past glory. Since vanquishing West Germany in 1966 with a hand from a Russian linesman at Wembley, England have yet to reach another final.
But it’s not just England who are overburdened with expectation: it’s the World Cup itself. Like a children’s party, it can be more fun to look forward to than to live through. The structure is bloated, with 32 teams (soon to be a ludicrous 48), making for a lot of mismatches. Russia looks like being the worst of all possible World Cup hosts, with the arguable exception of its successor, Qatar in 2022. Never mind its dubious foreign policy, Russia has failed to stamp out racism in the stands, is so big that some teams will take the field with jet-lag, and doesn’t even like football that much.
And yet, somehow, hope keeps springing up. The World Cup final remains the biggest live broadcast on global television, even though it’s now a cagey affair (ten goals in the last seven finals, as against 31 in the previous seven). The whole tournament is shown on BBC and ITV, so anyone can watch it without going to the pub or paying through the nose.
Millions will follow it online, keeping one eye on the score when they’re meant to be studying spreadsheets at work. Thanks to Twitter, sports lovers get to see inside each other’s heads. It can be an ugly sight, but even in the mud of bigotry, there are glints of good humour.
Since 2016, I’ve been one of the team live-blogging cricket for the Guardian, which pioneered this format. After reading it for years, I could see that writing it would be fun, like sitting an exam in your favourite subject. What I hadn’t bargained for was the quality of the readers’ emails and tweets – never abusive, seldom dull, often ingenious. Our real-time reactions reflect sport itself, which can be miserable or magnificent. As Leonard Cohen said of America, sport is the cradle of the best and of the worst. Which makes it riveting.
Tim de Lisle is a former editor of Wisden
This article appears in the 06 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Nuclear Family