Monday 27 May 2019

A bluffer's guide to the World Cup

It's nearly upon us and you haven't a clue, have you? Well, there'll be no avoiding it. Frank Coughlan offers a primer on what you need to know

Vlad to see you: An activist dresses up as Putin ahead of the World Cup. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Vlad to see you: An activist dresses up as Putin ahead of the World Cup. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Frank Coughlan

Frank Coughlan

The unloved, cranky but respected Irish football manager Giovanni Trapattoni once sagely remarked that the difference between being a coach and a fan is that the supporter gets to pick the team after the match.

To these pub stool and Twitter know-alls I have no wisdom to impart.

This space is for those who are candid enough to admit that they know about as much about the beautiful game as Donald Trump does about the concept of consent. As you see, I'm setting the bar very low. So…

What's the big deal?

Over one billion watched the last final in 2014, 10 times the audience of the last Superbowl or the Rugby World Cup final in 2015. And Prince Harry and Meghan Markle? Not even in the ball park. As global events go, only the Olympics can compete. It's a must-watch.

When does it all kick-off?

It will be in your face for a full month from June 14 to July 15, scattered throughout Russia in 11 cities with a daunting 64 games in total. Pre-tournament qualifiers distilled it down to 32 nations from a starting 210. Impressive when you consider that there are only 190 states in the UN.

Have the Boys in Green any chance?

You've got to get on the plane first and the Republic didn't qualify for two primary reasons: they don't score goals and the players don't pass to each other. These are generally regarded as disadvantages.

What will Irish fans be missing?

An expensive and daunting pilgrimage, possibly into inhospitable Eurasia (Yekaterinburg is lovely this time of year) to be greeted by ultras with a penchant for racism, homophobia and wanton violence. England, for instance, will play in Volgograd which, when known as Stalingrad, earned a hard-won reputation for not putting up with unwelcome visitors.

Should Russia have been awarded the World Cup?

It's a country run by a corrupt tsar who, some would have you believe, rigs elections, arrests and stitches up opposition leaders, props up mass killers like Syria's Assad and randomly poisons recalcitrant operatives and murders journalists. So perhaps not.

But this is football. Hold your nose and enjoy the spectacle.

So who will win?

The Germans, the current champions, aren't shy about their chances while France and Spain both play dinky, cultured football with a ruthless streak.

Ronaldo with partner Georgina Rodriguez and his son Cristiano Ronaldo Jr. Photo: Getty Images
Ronaldo with partner Georgina Rodriguez and his son Cristiano Ronaldo Jr. Photo: Getty Images

Brazil, after being humiliated by the Germans four years ago, have their swagger back too. But if you want to impress, casually throw in Croatia as possible semi-finalists. Instant kudos.

Who thinks they can win?

Most of the above - and England. Our noisy neighbours are serial under-achievers. Though the inventors and codifiers of the game, they somehow forgot how to play it way back in the 1970s and have been angsty about it ever since.

The night England are sent prematurely packing (the money is on Poland this time) is one of the tournament's more enduring traditions. Don't miss it.

Are there penalty shoot-outs?

Yes. Despised by the purists because they're not fair (in fact, they're cruel) but loved by the rest for us for the nail-biting melodramatics. There is no better drinking game than 'Hero or Villain?' where you bet on whether a player will 'bury or hurry' based on his body language on the long walk to the spot.

Husband’s gig: Gerard Pique and Shakira. Photo: Getty Images
Husband’s gig: Gerard Pique and Shakira. Photo: Getty Images

Do you know your buzzwords?

In football a 'diamond' isn't a girl's best friend but a tactical formation; 'playing in the hole' is no such thing - it means operating in the space between defence and midfield; 'dropping the shoulder' is not at all painful but is just a way Messi might deceive an opponent. Nor is 'opening his body' a surgical procedure but rather a player's stance when he receives or delivers the ball, while 'it moved in the air' might sound obvious but it just means the football swerved in flight.

Who are the game changers?

Brazil's pouty spoilt brat Neymar has a point to prove, while Croatia's Luka Modric, red carded by the taxman only recently, is a great string-puller. Then there's Belgium's redhead Kevin de Bruyne who looks like a lost child but can play like a man possessed.

But if it's goals that keep you from dozing off, stick with French assassin Antoine Griezmann and Egypt's irrepressible Mo Salah.

Not forgetting England captain Harry Kane. The lethal goal-poacher has strong connections to Letterfrack and was keen at one stage to wear the green. Err, his loss.

And the lookers?

German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer is a bit of a catch, while Griezmann has the advantage of being effortlessly cool and, well, French. Spain's Gerard Pique, who retires from international football after this tournament, has long been a Barca pin-up and France's Olivier Giroud, with or without his hipster beard, is a bit of knee trembler.

The fact that neither the Italians nor the Netherlands made it to Russia means the normal quotient of objectifiable male flesh is considerably diluted. Take it up with Fifa.

Are wags still a thing?

Wags were in their trashy prime at the 2006 World Cup but soon became a subject of ridicule. All a bit passé now.

The English players will only have a chance to mingle with their significant (and insignificant) others after each game. Dele Ali's model girlfriend Ruby Mae will be among them, along with Jamie Vardy's I'm A Celebrity wife Rebakah.

Ronaldo's girlfriend Georgina Rodriguez, and mother to his children, will make an appearance, but she won't be trying to upstage the man in her life.

Gerard Piques's wife Shakira likes to show her support for her husband in the posh seats. But don't expect her to sing. This is her husband's gig.

Who's on the gobblebox?

Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane will transfer from the dugout to the ITV studios although a lot of Irish fans will have had their fill of the two of them. But both do a nice line in self-deprecation and are more than capable of starting a row with a live microphone.

Kevin Kilbane will be in the BBC squad which includes consummate divers Didier Drogba and Jurgen Klinsmann, while Richie Sadlier, Damian Duff and Didi Hamann will be among those who will have to remain stoic as The Dunph does his trademark analytical contortions and scores spectacular own goals.

But while some things never change, others do. The late, great Bill O'Herlihy bowed out of broadcasting at the World Cup four years ago and John Giles is no longer part of the panel.

It won't be the same without them.

And the referee?

He'll be a w**ker, of course. That's his job.

Irish Independent

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