World Cup fever

So, the election’s over, Blackpool FC are back in their rightful place in the Premiership… there must be something else going on this year, right?

Of course, a little under 48 hours from now it all kicks off in South Africa – and that’s not a reference to the street gangs who’ve dominated so much of the pre-tournament scaremongering.

Having run the predictor about 20 times now, I’ve not come up with a final that doesn’t involve the masterful Spanish facing the magical Brazilians. Sure, they’ll face tough games on the road to Soccer City – but nothing that’s beyond them. In fact, short of a stroke of luck, it’s hard to see them being stopped.

But luck, along with injuries, bad referees and rushes of blood to the head, can all play a part in a World Cup – which is what makes it great.

There’s even a scenario where the two favourites meet far earlier – in the second round. And all it takes is for one of them to fail to win their group. Brazil play home favourites the Ivory Coast and Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal. Spain have, on paper, the easiest group bar England’s – but messing up in the World Cup is as Spanish as paella and Picasso, and complacency or panic can set in all too easily.

So who could come up on the rails to challenge?

Well, let’s think about history for a moment. No European side has ever won the World Cup beyond the boundaries of its own continent. No African side has ever reached the semi-finals (that may change, if a fair wind favours Ghana – one of those predictions suggested a handy path to the last four could yet open up for them) and the best of the Asians, South Korea, might not benefit quite like they did on home soil in 2002. That leaves the North Americans – the USA? Mexico? Don’t think so – and the best of the South. Could Argentina do it?

They’ve certainly got the talent. They’ve got the best player in the world right now. But can Leo Messi do what his coach, Diego Maradona, did in 1986 and overcome a powerful disadvantage to lead his team to glory? In Maradona’s case it was the mediocrity of his workmanlike team-mates (how many of them can you name? Think there was one called Brown). The irony is that Messi’s handicap is Maradona – an inexperienced coach who almost managed to blow qualifying, never mind the finals. Argentina’s performance will be one of the most intriguing aspects of the whole competition. And their path could see them take on Brazil. And England. Yes, what about England?

Well, there’s a sense of realism sweeping across the nation. We’ve got no divine right to win, nor the best players – although we’ve had worse. The group stage isn’t being seen as quite the cakewalk it once looked like. And the second round could see a clash with Australia, Ghan, Serbia or, heaven forbid, even them.
But, despite all that, the quarter-final looks achievable. There France or Argentina and, most likely, defeat will await. But there is a scenario – in fact, more than one scenario – that could see us waking up, three weeks from now, looking forward to a semi-final And then the nation truly will go truly mental.

I can’t fix the World Cup draw (but if I could, it’d look something like this)

I’m a nine-year-old at heart, and like all nine-year-olds I can’t wait for next year’s soccerball World Cup, even down to poring over the different permutations for tomorrow night’s draw.

And, inspired perhaps by a certain book by OJ Simpson, I’ve decided to have a look at what the World Cup draw would look like if there was a way to pull off the crime of the century.

Obviously this is written from an England point of view and, equally obviously, the actual draw will be nothing like this….

First, It’s important to consider who we want England, should they trample the minnows in the first round, would play in the quarter-final, the first time they’d come up against a fellow group-winner.

Clearly the weakest seed is South Africa. The hosts may be able to rely on fanatical home support but they have only a handful of truly international-class players. That puts England in Group C.

Next, to the rest. Brazil and Spain are clearly the favourites, so a quarter-final showdown for them would be handy. They’re into F&H respectively. Next, England’s possible semi-final victims. The four other seeds are much of a muchness, but I’ll take a declining Italy and a Diegoe Maradona ‘inspired’ Argentina for E&G, with the Germans and the Dangerous Dutch in B&D.

The second pot brings in Asia, Oceania and North America, so its North Korea for England (rather than a New Zealand side with a point to prove).

Pot C is more tricky, as it involves African and South American sides who can’t face seeds from their own continent. We’ll give Brazil one of the most dangerous unseeded teams, Ivory Coast, and Spain, Ghana. Continuing a trend of putting the weakest possible choice in with South Africa, they’ll face Paraguay. Algeria look the poorest outfit.

Finally, the unseeded European pot, where France, Portugal and the tough Serbs lurk. But England should fancy their chances against Slovenia, while Slovakia would risk a nosebleed if they got as far as the quarter finals.

The final pools would look something like this;

A) South Africa, New Zealand, Paraguay, Slovakia
B) Germany, United States, Cameroon, Serbia
C) England, Korea DPR, Algeria, Slovenia
D) Netherlands, S Korea, Uruguay, Demark
E) Italy, Honduras, Chile, Switzerland
F) Brazil, Mexico, Ivory Coast, Portugal
G) Argentina, Japan, Nigeria, Greece
H) Spain, Australia, Ghana, France

Based on FIFA rankings, this would be the quarter-final line-up.

Paraguay vs Cameroon
England vs Uruguay
Italy vs Portugal
Argentina vs France
Germany vs Slovenia
Netherlands vs Algeria
Brazil vs Chile
Spain vs Greece

Ok, tricky for England – but by no means impossible, and with some real rewards ahead in the shape of semi-finals (rankings-based) that looked like this

Cameroon vs England
Italy vs France
Germany vs Netherlands
Brazil vs Spain

Ok, so Cameroon would have the whole of Africa behind them – but could you really imagine England losing that game? A semi-final with Cap’s native Italy or a post-Zidane France? Going into a final against a bruised Brazil? I dare to dream

But probably shouldn’t, as England will probably end up with Portugal, Cote D’Ivoire and Australia when the balls finally drop some time after 1am Thai time Saturday morning.