Diary

John Lanchester

8 June. Time for predictions. The entrails say that history seems to be the best guide to performance in World Cups. In the last six Cups, going back to 1982, 11 out of 12 slots in the final have been contested by just four teams: Brazil, Argentina, Germany and Italy. In fact, there has never been a final without one of these four teams.

Why? It is interesting and odd that history should be such a powerful predictor. It’s been a better predictor than things like form, which you’d have thought would be much more useful. So, anyway, the entrails say that it will be one of the Big Four that wins – most likely Brazil, the only team to have won outside their own hemisphere, and whose players are much more used to European football than was once the case. Also, Brazilians I know say this is the best team since 1970.

If you leave out the host countries, and make an exception for the great Dutch side of the 1970s, the last surprising team to make the final were the Czechoslovaks in Chile in 1962. According to a simulation run of Fifa’s official game, as played on an Xbox 360, the Czechs will get their revenge this time by winning the tournament. The simulation has Italy and Portugal knocked out in the group stages, and England knocked out by Germany in the round of 16. It has nothing to say about Rooney’s metatarsal, and nor do the entrails.

9 June. On the subject of predictions, one of the safer ones concerns today’s opening game. This traditionally features the winners and, equally traditionally, they struggle. People remember France losing to Senegal last time, and Argentina losing to Cameroon in 1990; but Brazil had a hard time beating Scotland 2-1 in 1998, Germany only squeaked 1-0 past Bolivia in 1994, Italy drew with Bulgaria in 1986 and Argentina (again) lost to Belgium in 1982. So that would have been a safe non-entrail-based prediction for today, that Brazil would have a hard time in the opening game. Except they aren’t playing in the opening game. Instead it’s the host country, Germany.

Why? Well, there’s a widely held view that Fifa are useless tinkering dimwits who can be relied on to cock everything up, including wanting people to refer to this tournament as the Fifa World Cup Germany™. (Even the Olympics, which are about as debased by commercialism as it would be possible to imagine, don’t call themselves the Olympics™.) So that would explain why they were tinkering with this tradition: just because they could. This would also explain why Fifa have brought in a new ball, just in time for the Fifa World Cup Germany™. Paul Robinson shelled out £420 on new balls just before the tournament to get some early practice in, and reports that it swerves more than the familiar ball and will be harder for goalkeepers. That doesn’t mean it’s easier for outfield players, and especially for dead-ball experts. Newer tends to mean lighter, and lighter often means harder to control. (About the only spectacular free kick in the last World Cup, which also featured a new ball, was the one Ronaldinho stuck past Seaman to knock England out in the quarter-final.) So the players spend hundreds of hours practising with the old ball – and then suddenly find themselves playing with a new one, on the biggest occasion of their lives, to the detriment of pretty much anybody who takes any interest.

Why? For money, obviously – so they can sell shitloads of the new ball. They could still sell shitloads if they brought it in a few months before, of course, but that would take away the last minute pointless tinkering aspect. So, again, why? I have looked into the question and it turns out that if Fifa begins a World Cup™ without making these apparently pointless changes it will cause a rupture in the fundamental space-time continuum which will cause Satan to assume control of the universe and preside over a dominion of pure evil for 1,000,000,000 millennia.

10 June. One never likes to join in a chorus, but there’s something truly odd about the effect Eriksson’s half-time talks seem to have on England. Not every time, but more often than not, and especially in crucial games when they have a half-time lead, they go in fired up and come out seeming drained, enervated, and with less of a clue about how they should be playing than they had ten minutes before. It’s as if they go into the changing room whistling ‘The Dambusters March’ and come out humming whale music. I know it’s possible for a coach to pump a team up too much – but this is going too far the other way. You have to wonder what goes on in there. Yoga? Aromatherapy? Tibetan chanting?

Notwithstanding all that, today’s was about the best possible result, especially when combined with Sweden’s draw with Trinidad and Tobago. The points we needed, plus a bit of a kick up the bum and reality check.

11 June. Ever since I heard about it I haven’t been able to get out of my head the fact that the Côte d’Ivoire goalkeeper, Tizié, lost a testicle after an on-pitch collision a year ago. At the time he was playing for his club Espérance; a name that must at moments have had an ironic edge to it. Tizié was in intensive care for two days and they didn’t think he would live, but he was back playing for the national team a few months later. I’m aware that it’s possible to make bad-taste jokes about goalies and goolies, but for me it’s a reminder of how much physical courage the players have, repeatedly going into collisions any one of which could have a determining effect on the rest of their lives.

Let’s take a moment, though, to imagine what it would have been like if, instead of breaking his metatarsal, Rooney had (God forbid) lost a testicle and an anxious nation was waiting to see if he would recover in time for the World Cup. The papers, hard enough to take during the World Cup under normal circumstances, would have gone beyond the darkest reveries of Karl Kraus. Imagine the editorials. Imagine the diagrams. The Sun would have had a daily feature called ‘Nadwatch’.

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[*] Abacus, 416 pp., £9.99, May, 0 349 11986 4.

[†] Bloomsbury, 336 pp., £8.99, May, 0 7475 7971 7.