Saturday, July 08, 2006

Football fans and pundits are very keen on omens. These range from ‘Team X are never beaten by team Y when player Z is in the side’ – which, although usually partly coincidence-based, at least make some sort of sense – to the utterly meaningless likes of ‘Wolves have never beaten Port Vale on a Thursday fixture in February’ and the mythical ‘unlucky’ dressing-room at the Millennium Stadium. This trend sinks lower whenever England are involved in the World Cup, as we desperately search for correlations between now and 1966: the personal histories of the England squad, friendly results in the run-up to the tournament, world events, what was in the charts then and now – to the extent that a scrappy performance in the opening match against South American opponents is seen as a sure sign of ultimate victory.

At the start of this World Cup, Italian fans were pointing towards the pattern of their previous post-war final appearances: 1970, 1982, 1994. The twelve-year cycle pointed to another place in the final. Nothing else did, frankly: a squad considered less-than-vintage, turmoil in the domestic game and a group that was arguably just as tough as the more commented-on ‘group of death’. I predicted that at least one of the big teams would go out in the first round and picked Italy. But their omen has come good, and this seems to me to be terribly unfair. Our omens always seem to mean fuck all in the end. Why do theirs work out?

The answer, we must grudgingly admit, is that they’ve worked for their omen. A number of the hotly-tipped teams, particularly England and Brazil, turned out to be collections of talented individuals who failed to convince as a team. Italy have played as a unit, balancing their traditionally strong defence with fluidity and variety in attack (ten different players have scored) and just a little more adventure than we’ve seen from them in the past, enough to kill off Ghana, the Czechs and Ukraine in matches that, in the past, would have ambled to 1-0 and left neutrals wishing for Ahn Jung-Hwan to pop up and teach them another lesson. They even got a second against the Germans, despite only having got the first in the 119th minute.

As a result, my longstanding irritation with Italy has abated. This has already happened to me once this World Cup, with the no-longer-cynical Argentina, and they promptly went out – so Italy will probably now lose. I actually don’t mind much who wins the final, I’d just like to see a competitive match. My first World Cup Final was 1990: it was widely believed to be the worst ever, and the first one in which the losing team failed to score (that was what turned me against Argentina in the first place). Since then, every final has been a bit one-sided: Italy stifled the 1994 final against an unusually defensive Brazil, and never looked like winning it; Brazil managed to get worse on the way to the 1998 final, and meekly got beat by France; and the draw fell apart nicely for Germany in 2002, and they lost to the first really good side they met.

So I’m hoping tomorrow will be a good, see-saw game. Every World Cup final played in a year ending in six has seen the losing team score twice, so the omens are good.

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