Paraguay, Trinidad and Tobago, Sweden. I am not a pessimist by nature: for example, I still believe Villa will finish in the top half this season. (We are, after all, officially better than Arsenal at the moment – we’ve played away matches against the same two teams as them on the last two Saturdays and come away with draws whilst Arsenal have lost. This doesn’t count for anything, but it should.) But somehow, supporting England brings out the pessimist in me.
It was with a heavy heart that I scanned the covers of the tabloids on Saturday morning and witnessed the headlines braying ‘NATIONAL JUBILATION AS ENGLAND HANDED PISS-EASY DRAW’ et cetera. (Interestingly, the Sun. Mirror and Star used images of England’s footballers to illustrate this point, whilst the Times and Telegraph went for a less immediately relevant shot of Heidi Klum in that oddly shapeless blue dress, holding the FIFA trophy.) I tend to follow the lead of managers and players on such matters: you’ll never hear Sven saying ‘Thank Christ we’ve drawn a right bunch of no-marks instead of Holland or somebody decent’ and you won’t hear me say it either.
Yes, I’m pleased we didn’t get Holland, or the Czechs, or Portugal, or the USA, and I’m delighted we didn’t get Australia because if they’d beaten England we’d never have heard the end of it. We’ve also done well to avoid all five African teams, as I think one of them will have a decent run but I have no idea which one (random guess: Ghana). But when I see supposedly ‘lesser’ teams lined up I tend to see potential humiliation, not an easy passage – especially given England’s remarkable consistency in starting World Cups awkwardly (1-1 vs Ireland, 1990; 1-0 vs Tunisia, 1998; 1-1 vs Sweden, 2002).
And if we’re not careful we could be up against the hosts in the second round, which NOBODY wants, and if we get through we’ll definitely play a Group C team in the quarter-final, which means Argentina or Holland or a team which has overcome massive odds to beat Argentina or Holland. Personally I think either Argentina or Holland will win the trophy. But then, if England meet Argentina, it’s a team we’ve beaten at our last two meetings, and contrary to everything I’ve just said, I do think that England are capable of winning seven matches at the World Cup. If everybody’s fit, and not too tired, and we get the formation working.
I always look forward to the World Cup anyway, I love the World Cup, it’s one of the highlights of my existence. I get slightly frustrated that the final round of group matches take place simultaneously, even though there are excellent reasons why this happens, because it makes it impossible to watch every single match of the tournament live. But I’m particularly looking forward to this one because any one of up to ten teams has a realistic chance of winning it. France and Brazil are still very good but arguably in decline. Argentina are probably better than they’ve been since 1986, but as demonstrated against England, they don’t always kill off games. Germany are rebuilding and will get a boost from being hosts – then there’s Holland, Portugal, Spain, Italy, the Czechs…
It’s a relatively level playing field, with a lot of unknown elements mixed in (such as, er, Trinidad and Tobago). In fact, I wish I had my wallchart already.