Tuesday 19 March 2019

The bluffer, the hipster and the football widow: charting the World Cup tribes

Set-piece of cake: Gareth Southgate has made England a threat from dead balls. Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire
Set-piece of cake: Gareth Southgate has made England a threat from dead balls. Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire

Ed Power

To boo or not to boo? Such is the question facing the Irish sporting public as England's boring yet efficient stride towards Sunday's World Cup decider continues with a semi-final tonight against Croatia.

Obviously, it's a mother of a dilemma as nobody appreciates an underdog like Irish people and the latest Three Lions crop are surely the scruffiest and most flea-bitten in the history of England World Cup teams.

To be completely accurate, they're not so much underdogs as a bit rubbish. Attacking flair, mercurial talent, an insouciant disregard for the odds - these are qualities England 2018 lacks in abundance. Instead, they've borrowed the old Irish blueprint of playing honestly and bravely, and trusting in the sporting gods that these positive qualities pay off.

So far it's all gone exactly to plan for their manager, the not-so-starrily-named Gareth Southgate. With his waistcoat and sensible trousers, Southgate looks more like an unlucky Apprentice contestant than a side-line miracle worker. So it's no surprise that England's march to destiny is built not on guts and glory, but spreadsheets and algorithms.

Going into the World Cup, Southgate did the maths and concluded that approximately 40pc of goals in the 2014 competition arrived via 'set-pieces' - corners, penalties, free-kicks etc. Guess what? The majority of England's goals have come from those very scenarios, meaning Southgate isn't so much rolling the dice, Brazil-fashion, as crunching the numbers. Russia may be the first World Cup that represents a victory for top-drawer accountancy.

Curiously, this has made England more likeable than usual. As the World Cup hurtles towards a shock ending whereby England might actually lay their hands on a trophy, it's worth stepping back and considering how we've all been dividing ourselves (subconsciously) into very distinctive tribes over the course of this love-in with Russia. See if you can spot yourself…

The bluffer

First up is the "only interested when the World Cup comes along" club. These are the people for whom the beautiful game blinks on to the radar once every four years. They enjoy the carnival atmosphere of the World Cup and will sit through a 0-0 between South Korea and Panama convinced they're watching some of the greatest players on the planet going at it.

Bless them - their enjoyment is so sweet and virginal, you can't bring yourself to point out that 75pc of World Cup games are sub-par hoof-fests, with the competition only truly kicking off with the quarter-finals (by which point they're off watching Wimbledon anyway).

The armchair army

These are fans of (English) Premier League teams (in England) whose dearest wish, when a World Cup rolls around, is to see England (where all their favourite players ply their trade) come unstuck. One moment they're down the pub pledging undying devotion to Wayne Rooney - then suddenly, they're willing him to fall over and shatter his fibula in five places. It's love-hate with big shiny golden balls on.

The soccer hipster

As with the armchair fan, they are far too busy to ever actually go to a real-life match. The difference is that where their more mainstream peers are partial to the Heineken and Carlsberg of the sport - Man United, Liverpool etc - the hipster's taste runs in a more craft-brew direction.

They'll bang on about inverted wing-backs and false-nines, their favourite sides will include FC St Pauli of Hamburg (an ironically terrible team), and they will own at least one replica jersey belonging to a Japanese J-league club.

Footie podcaster James Richardson is a deity to this tribe, while their World Cup favourites were Iceland - obscure strivers with a quirky following and a stylish kit, perfect for wearing to an LCD Soundsystem concert.

The outsider

And what of those who haven't watched a single second of the World Cup? Should men resisting the footie jamboree fear their masculinity has been called into question? Whither the football widow/ers, partners of all the soccer heads feasting on three games a day? They will have been left to their own devices for the past month (and that, reader, is why boxsets were created).

Which leaves just one question. Is 'it' - i.e. an English World Cup - really coming home in 2018? And if so, how should a mature and self-confident Ireland react to this surprise turn of events?

Forget Brexit or the heatwave. Assuming England overwhelm Croatia with their machine-tooled tediousness, here is the $6 million imponderable with which the entire nation will be wrestling over the next several days. Maybe we should all just jam our fingers in our ears and yell "olé, olé, olé" at the top of voices until the storm has passed.

Irish Independent

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