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’.

12 June. I was slightly surprised to learn that Australia is richer than Japan, in terms of GDP per capita. The reason I was looking it up was because something’s been on my mind. As of this morning, eight games had been played. That means the World Cup was one-eighth over (boo! waah!). Guess how often a poorer country had beaten a richer one. Answer: once. Poland 0 Ecuador 2. And after the ninth game the trend has continued, since, as I say, Australia is richer than Japan.

Why would a country’s being rich confer an advantage for the national football team? Perhaps because the richest countries will tend to attract the best players to its leagues, and that will in turn raise the standards for indigenous players in the leagues, and therefore the national side. Or something. Do I look like Steven Levitt?

Now, it’s obvious that the richest country doesn’t always win. Brazil, for instance, is 22nd out of the 32 competitors in terms of GDP. But Brazil is the most populous country in the World Cup. (I’m leaving out the USA from these calculations, on the grounds that it is too big and rich and indifferent to football to count.) So we could propose the following hypothesis: the richest team will win, except when the most populous country wins. It’ll be interesting to see how many exceptions there are to this: how many times a poorer, smaller country will win. Not too many is my guess.

13 June. I sat down to watch South Korea v. Togo wanting Togo to win – and that rather selflessly, too, since it would have disproved yesterday’s Footynomics hypothesis. As I was watching the less-than-gripping first half, with Togo a goal ahead, I picked up The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup (I have a copy because I have an essay in it), began reading Binyavanga Wainaina’s piece about Togo, and found myself changing my mind.[*] I have to admit I knew absolutely fuck-all about Togo and didn’t know that the former dictator’s son Faure Gnassingbé ran the country and his brother Rock ran the football association. There were democracy protests in Togo last year. But Faure ‘had good fortune on his side: amid all the unrest his younger brother delivered the best gift his family has ever received: qualification for the World Cup’.

Musing on this, I found that I wasn’t wanting Togo to win any more. Just as well, too, since Jean-Paul Abalo gave away a free kick from which the Koreans scored, and was sent off in the process. Togo went on to lose 2-1. So if it’s bad news for the Gnassingbé family that’s a good thing, right? Leaving 5.4 million Togolese, citizens of one of the poorest countries in the World Cup, the only one of the 32 currently getting poorer every year, even more depressed than they were when they woke up this morning. Football has questionable links with nationalisms and governments everywhere on earth, so surely it’s a type of cant to think that the Togolese aren’t quite miserable enough to deserve a cheering World Cup run. And yet anything that’s good news for the Gnassingbés …

Hmmph. Better to keep it simple. I think I’ll stick to a clear-cut view of who I want to win for the rest of the tournament.

14 June. By and large, fans feel a certain affection for fat players. There’s something humanising about the extra poundage; it makes a player look more like one of us, perhaps because it hints at what we would look like if we were out there on the pitch, our team’s shirt proudly stretched over our stomachs. Steve McMahon and Jan Molby were two noticeably porky players whose podginess helped win a place in fans’ hearts. I remember Molby used to be greeted by affectionate chants of ‘Sumo’ – at least, until he was done for drunk driving, when the chant was replaced by the song ‘He’s fat, he’s round, his car is in the pound, Jan Molby, Jan Molby.’

The drink/fatness link was no coincidence. Back when I used to write match reports, if a player looked – to use a favourite euphemism of the milieu – ‘chunky’, your working hypothesis was that they were hitting the bottle. That was on the Occam’s razor principle that booze was the likeliest place for them to be getting the extra calories. The point being that for a professional athlete in training for an aerobically intensive sport, it takes a phenomenal calorie intake to put on weight. Either they’re eating cake after training all day every day, or they’re on the sauce.

Nobody says that Ronaldo is on the sauce. In fact, he cheekily said that the president of Brazil was on the sauce, when Lula had the temerity to ask the national team’s coach: ‘Is Ronaldo fat?’ (‘It’s as much a lie that I am fat as it must be that he drinks a lot,’ was Ronaldo’s not totally unambiguous response.) Ronaldo says that his own chunkiness is down to the fact that he has been off training with an injury for a couple of months. This may be so; but the truth is he if anything looks a bit thinner than he has done playing for Real Madrid in the last couple of seasons. I think he’s a bit porky for no other reason than that he likes his pies. I also think there is something noble about a professional athlete’s managing to put on weight like that, and that we should celebrate Ronaldo’s heroic, principled, against-all-odds fatness.

The trouble is that he looks so glum. His head appears to be elsewhere. It’s that, I think, which Brazilians mind, much more than the weight issue. We fans love a fattie. A distracted, depressed, half-hearted fattie, not so much.

15 June. So the Germans are the first team to go through. I’m glad, for several reasons involving general Germanophilia and the fact that some of the interest leaches out of the World Cup if the host team are knocked out too early.

Also, I’m pleased for Jürgen Klinsmann. At least I think I am. He is a likeable man but there is something odd about his affect; hard to put your finger on but it’s there. I remember a couple of things. He was something of a hate figure to England fans when he arrived at Tottenham in 1994, owing to his egregious diving in the 1990 World Cup, so when he scored his first goal he celebrated by doing an elaborate swan-dive. Lots of people thought that showed he was a good sport. It made me think, though, of that category of person who is so eager to show they get the joke that it makes you wonder if, deep down, they ever actually get any jokes at all. And then when he gave a press conference to announce he was leaving Tottenham, he held it at the Comedy Club. Geddit? Because Germans don’t have a sense of humour, so he holds a press conference at the Comedy Club, yok yok … Even hacks, keener than anyone to show they’ve got the joke too, felt that was a bit odd.

Still, you have to give him credit for living in California. How about that for working from home? When national stereotypes are contradicted, nobody knows what to say. If he were French or from a Latin country the papers would be full of stuff about his being detached, laid-back, shruggy. As it is, they reach for the received-opinion file – which doesn’t have anything in it about the not at all rare phenomenon of the New Age German – and draw a blank.

But the long-distance thing is a hoot. I think this trend should be encouraged. After the World Cup, when Steve McClaren takes over the England manager’s job, it is essential that he moves to Antarctica. Deal with that, paparazzi scum!

20 June. For Europeans, the last World Cup was a little weird from the time-zone point of view. We’re used to watching games from the Americas in our evening, but it felt peculiar to be watching games from Korea and Japan before, during, or instead of breakfast. The more demanding nail-biters could end up utterly drained and knackered for the rest of the day – and for most of us, it feels odd to have had your most intense experience of the 24 hours over by nine in the morning. By contrast I thought this World Cup, with games at 3, 5 and 8 p.m., was going to be perfect. Especially the 8 p.m. game. What’s not to like?

But there is a worm in the bud, and it’s to do with supper. The issue is when to eat. Last night I tried eating before the game. That worked OK (thanks to the microwave). Except as I dragged myself to bed at about 11.30 I suddenly realised that, because I’d had dinner an hour and a half before I usually do, I had a bad case of the munchies. Fridge inspection. Yoghurt? No. Pizza? Don’t be stupid. Keen’s cheddar? Perfect. Then I went upstairs and read Emmanuel Carrère’s biography of Philip K. Dick for half an hour or so.[†] Then I tried to sleep.

There are quite a large number of books about how to get a good night’s sleep, and good ‘sleep hygiene’ in general, and not a single one of them recommends a combination of late-night cheese-eating and reading about Philip K. Dick. Carrère’s book is emphatic about Dick’s belief, which throughout his life was intermittent but overpowering, that the world as we see it is an illusion. He had visions of ultimate evil lurking just behind the surface of things, and most of his books play with the idea of being trapped in an illusion or simulation.

So anyway, as I was lying there sweating out cheese and half-awake, I suddenly thought: Dick would have said that the England team have been replaced by robots. That’s why they’re playing so badly. They’re not in fact the England team at all, but physically identical cyborg replicas, who’ve been programmed to adopt a style of play based on the long-ball game prevalent in the English leagues about ten years ago. That’s why great players like Lampard and Gerrard suddenly look like they’ve been drafted in from Howard Wilkinson’s Sheffield Wednesday. And the accompanying thought: where are the real England team? Who’s keeping them hostage? Will they escape? Will they turn up in time?

That’s definitely the last time I eat cheese at bedtime.

27 June. They did brilliantly well. The last African team had got to the 85th minute of their last game before it happened. Ghana were 2-0 down against Brazil. They’d fought hard against temptation … and then suddenly it was all too much. I felt for them, I really did. To have come so very, very close. But perhaps it was too much to expect. In any case, it was not to be. The irony was that it wasn’t Brazil’s third goal that caused it to happen, but the replay. The Ghana defenders pushed up, the Brazilian midfield advanced towards them, the pass was slipped through to Ze Roberto. As he prepared to slip the ball past the goalie, Richard Kingson, the excitement became too much to handle, and the commentator, cracking under the strain, came right out with the n-word. He just said it. With just five lousy minutes to go … It’s so easy to dream of what might have been. But there’s no point. He just had to use the bad word. The Ghanaians were – I can hardly bear to write it – ‘naive’. Specifically, they were guilty of ‘naive defending’.

I can’t have been the only person listening who let out a low moan of Noooooooo. When Eurosport (I think it was) broadcast the African Cup of Nations they had, instead of a swear box, a ‘naive’ box, in which everybody who used the n-word had to drop a fiver. If memory serves they had a naive-free tournament. The message seemed to have caught on, and Tunisia, Côte d’Ivoire, Togo and Ghana had played all their matches thus far without the n-word being flourished once. I caught one use of ‘silky’ – another word which, in a football context, means ‘black’ – but no ‘naive’, until last night. We came so close.

30 June. There was something particularly disappointing about the brawl at the end of the Germany v. Argentina game. I’m not talking about the girly flailing that passed for a fight – a classic example of the ‘handbags at ten paces’ style of on-pitch confrontation. No, the problem was the way the TV played it down so unforgivably. Where were the slow-motion replays, the we-name-the-guilty-men close-ups and freeze-frames? When a fight breaks out in a rugby match they show it about a dozen times; it’s tacitly accepted that though these things are regrettable, they do happen, and if they’re going to happen, we might as well enjoy them when they do. (Basically, it’s the argument advanced by Thomas DeQuincey in ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’.) Football used to take a similar approach. When Frank Rijkaard spat at Rudi Völler in 1990, we were showed the flying lump of gob in slow motion from about ten different angles. But this time, we get a lot of shouting and pushing and at least one man down, and the whole thing is briskly glossed over and wrapped up as if it were the murder of Lavrenti Beria.

I smell Fifa at work. The idiots think this kind of thing is bad for the brand. They think what people want to see is every single player coming on the pitch hand in hand with a five-year-old. We fans can just about stomach that, but we’re much happier with a mass brawl that we can all cluck and shake our heads over.

1 July. I can’t remember exactly where it is but there’s a great moment somewhere in Beckett where someone launches their boot ‘among’ someone else’s testicles. Christopher Ricks used to cite this as an example of Beckett’s brilliant use of dead-seeming language. Wayne Rooney probably isn’t much of a Beckettian (or a Ricksian, come to that) but he certainly knows how to put his boot among an opponent’s goolies.

Footynomics: Portugal v. England was only the second example of a smaller, poorer country beating a richer, more populous one. But it was on penalties, so I’m arguing that it doesn’t count.

Note that in one sense England’s penalties were better than Portugal’s. Two out of four of theirs missed the goal altogether; all four of England’s were on target. Normally that would be enough to win you a shoot-out. But Ricardo guessed the right way to move every time, even on the penalty Hargreaves scored and (if memory serves) on the one Carragher put in and then had to retake. So perhaps ‘guessed’ is the wrong verb. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a keeper move the right way on five consecutive penalties.

3 July. If you spend some time out of the country, or reading other countries’ sports pages, what you notice when you come back to reading ours is that English sports writing is compulsively moralistic. Everything is seen as a moral issue. Victory is a triumph of character and will; defeat is a failing of character and will. This theme is always present in the way people talk about sport, but no one stresses it as remorselessly as we do. Look at the New York Times or L’Equipe and you will occasionally encounter the idea that one team beat another because they were, you know, better. The main reason one football team beats another is because they are better at football.

At least, that’s what I usually think. But the England team’s performance in this World Cup has been a severe test of my view. It’s hard not to see their failure as in some sense a failure of character. Richard Williams is very firm-spoken on this point in today’s Guardian. He says that the reason Hargreaves – who was born in Canada and moved to Germany at 16 – was England’s best player is because he’s never lived in England.

I find the idea that they’re a bit spoilt hard to dismiss. They look and act spoilt. But they don’t look as if they’re not trying, and there was nothing fake about how upset they seemed to be on going out.

I know – let’s blame the Swede!

5 July. The function of a World Cup is to produce a masterpiece. Without it, a tournament can have drama and excitement and passion and all those other good things, but it lacks the ingredient which keeps it in the memory for years afterwards. It needs a Brazil v. Italy in 1982, a Brazil v. France in 1986, a West Germany v. Netherlands in 1988 (actually that was European Championship; same point, though).

Last night we got our masterpiece and … I missed it. I’d gone out for dinner and taped the game. I still haven’t watched it yet.

On the other hand, I did once stand beside Alessandro del Piero, who scored Italy’s second goal last night, at a hotel check-in. This was ten years ago. I’d gone to Turin, invited by the Slow Food foundation. The flight got in at night and we went straight to the hotel. It seemed oddly lively – there was a crowd outside, the lobby was full of men in suits hanging about, it took an age to get registered at the front desk, the bloke getting the attention of both receptionists looked oddly familiar, a bit like Alessandro del … the penny dropped. Juventus were staying at the same hotel, on the night before a home game.

There were a remarkable number of hangers-on attached to Juventus – agents, journalists, advisers, middle-men of one sort or another. They all seemed to spend all their time in the lobby, waiting for whoever or whatever it was they were waiting for. The area where they did this was directly opposite the lifts, so every time you went down in the lift, as the doors opened, you would see a little surge of expectation as the doors opened, followed by brutal disappointment, mirrored on every face, as they realised it was only some civilian. It was a lesson in just how much disappointment it’s possible to cause simply by not being someone else.

6 July. So it’s to be France v. Italy. They say that the most important components of drama are conflict and subtext. This should have plenty of both.

Caught up with both sets of semi-finals. They helped me to crystallise my feeling about this World Cup, which is that it’s been great from most points of view; except in relation to everything to do with England, all of which has been big pants. So it’s been a roaring success and a massive downer at the same time. Take the way Italy played in extra time, for example. I’ve never seen an Italian team so committed to attack. Why? Because they obviously didn’t fancy a penalty shoot-out. Fabulissimo. But why couldn’t England do something similar against Portugal?

Oh well. I’ve been saying for some time that football was taking on too much importance in England and that something needed to happen to get the game back in perspective. Perhaps this will be it. I had thought the likeliest thing would be Chelsea winning so many titles so easily that it would put everyone off. I remember making these arguments to a friend and saying that I was a Chelsea supporter now, on Maoist grounds. He said: ‘I think that’s more Pol Pot-ist.’

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

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