Friday 18 October 2019

Goodbye to the world out there, the World Cup is here at last

Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

If you live to be a hundred, you will remember some of the events that are about to take place in Russia over the next few weeks. They will stay in your mind when almost everything else about your life at this time has gone.

This is what I find anyway, that when somebody mentions 1982, or 1998, or 2010, my memory zooms in on a few fragments of the World Cup that was happening in those years, giving me some sense of where I was in general at that time, what I was doing.

Music does this too, and indeed it was recently suggested by our friends on the internet that the song which was No 1 in the charts on your 14th birthday is the defining influence on your life - though how this could be, if the song in question is, say, Black Betty by the Ram Jam Band, is unclear.

Yet in a roundabout way they were on to something there, because along with the World Cups, the hits of the day are not just memories that stay with us, they may indeed be the only things that stay with us - the good things anyway.

So Russia 2018 will in all likelihood insert a few images into your brain which can never be erased - and you should savour it, just in case the World Cups of the future will leave you with no memories, because you won't want to watch them in the first place.

As we observed on several occasions, one of the governing principles of modern existence is that anything that is any good is in constant danger. Therefore the next World Cup is in Qatar, for reasons that are entirely disgraceful - then again, the one that starts on Thursday is being held in Russia for reasons that would also be entirely disgraceful, were it not for the fact that Russia has a substantial football heritage.

All that Qatar has is money: which, conveniently for them in their dealings with Fifa, was more or less all they needed.

Ah yes, anything that is any good is in constant danger, though you can sort-of understand it when there are truckloads of petrodollars involved. The absence of John Giles, who has been on the RTE panel since Mexico 1986, doesn't even have that rationale.

The "retiring" of Giles, one of the few major public figures for whom the people still have some respect and affection, was an act of the most egregious executive foolishness, which can't even be explained on crude grounds of age-ism. If Giles was basically getting too old to do the job properly, you might imagine that Newstalk would also have noticed - yet he can still be heard every Thursday evening on Off The Ball, talking for 30 minutes at a stretch, invariably offering some brilliant shard of intelligence which is simply beyond the capabilities of any other football pundit in the game.

That said, perhaps the single most impressive feat of prediction in modern World Cup history was when someone in this paper (ah, the name just escapes me for the moment...) wrote that Italy would win the 2006 tournament - which they duly did.

Yes, we would still be taking the credit for that - if it wasn't for the fact that of the many things that John Giles has taught us, the one that is most immediately relevant is that it is utterly fatuous to pretend that you can predict the winner of the World Cup. That is the province of fortune-tellers and mystics in general.

It is only after some of the football is played that any vaguely serious person would be having a crack at it. Indeed, already in the course of the build-up, which of course is almost as enjoyable in its unspoiled way as the tournament as itself, we have had confirmation that the vast majority of pundits are not really expressing an original opinion in any meaningful sense, they are just making noises which echo the other noises that they have heard, coming out of other pundits like themselves.

Of these my favourites is the one about the winner being most likely to come from Europe, rather than South America. This is perhaps the most perfect form of nonsense, because it seems at first hearing to be based on something of substance, on a reading of history - in this case, on the fact that it usually worked out like this, when most of the players in the South American teams played their club football in South America, and most of the players in the European teams played for clubs in Europe. (Africa and North America and the Antipodes didn't count). But it seems to have gone unnoticed by the cognoscenti, that these days most of the Brazilians and the Argentinians and the Uruguayans play in Europe all the time. Indeed, it is not unusual to see the odd Brazilian playing in Russia itself - which reminds us that Russia is not exactly in "Europe" anyway, at which point the entire theory falls to the ground.

Not that this will in any way deter its advocates in the days to come. You will hear the advice to "draw a line through Brazil", because they are so far away from their happy homes in Rio that they probably haven't seen for years anyway.

In truth though, you can't really be "calling it" at this stage, but what you can do is take a guess, educated or otherwise.

What you can do is look at the team that you get in your particular "sweep", and construct a case for them that you never thought of making until their name came out of the draw along with yours.

I've got Denmark, for example, from the top 16, and Panama from the lower orders, over which we will draw a discreet veil.

Now I would hardly have been aware of Denmark's involvement at all, if they hadn't eliminated Ireland in the play-offs, something which is supposed to diminish our enjoyment of the whole thing - though at this stage, diminished though it may be, I can say that I am still hanging on in there, hoping against hope for a few moments of pleasure out of the roughly 200 solid hours of viewing which lie ahead of me.

Denmark eh? I suppose, when you think about it, they are not entirely without a chance, are they? They've got the lad Christian Eriksson, who is extraordinarily good, and we should probably be supporting them anyway so that if and when they do well, we can pretend that we're better than we are.

Yes, I'm starting to fancy them now, recalling the immortal cry of folklorist Eamonn Mac Thomais on the evening of a brutal slaughter of Ireland by Denmark in 1985, that "Brian Boru was the only fella who could beat them Danes!"

And they've got the lad Eriksson and… eh….

But what is the one vision of Russia 2018 that will be planted in your brain for as long as you live?

Who is really going to win it?

Brazil, of course.

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