by Simon Carter
IT is surely the ultimate bitter-sweet sweepstake experience for any self-respecting England footie fan.
Unwrapping the piece of scrunched up paper drawn out of The News’ editorial hat, the seven-letter nation in front of me quickly revealed itself.
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. To be honest, I still don’t.
Stakes are high in 2018. Once upon a time you could merrily chuck 50p or a quid into the sweepstake coffers, but times have changed. All of us here at News Towers have stumped up £5 - a fiver!! You could buy a pint for that and still have enough left over for .... well, not much actually these days - for the chance to draw out Iran, Saudi Arabia or some other no hoper. As a result, there’s a cool £65 for whoever picked the eventual winner.
And history suggests that could well be me.
I’ve had a lifetime of the Germans being really good in major competitions, while England have mixed heroic exits and disappointing performances in almost equal measure.
I’m not joking - I really have had a lifetime of it. Since I was born - in January 1969 - Germany (or West Germany) have taken part in 12 World Cups. They’ve won three, were beaten finalists in three others, and have finished third on three occasions.
If you’re bad at maths, that’s nine times out of 12 where they have finished in the top three. England, in the same period, have finished fourth once.
On the three occasions the Germans didn’t finish in the top three, they were beaten quarter-finalists twice and failed to get past the second group stage once. But that latter tournament was in Argentina in 1978, where they didn’t have semi-finals - just two groups of four who had qualified from four four-team groups (only 16 teams in that World Cup, compared to the bloated 32 we have now). So, the Germans reached the last eight there as well.
Without labouring the point, the Germans have therefore never failed to reach the last eight of a World Cup in my lifetime. Across 12 World Cups. Again in contrast, England have reached that stage just five times - in 1970, 1986, 1990, 2002 and 2006. Of those five matches, we won just one - en route to the semi finals of Italia 90 where we were cruelly beaten on penalties. There is no need to say who beat us on that occasion.
Even if I have to accept England aren’t going to end 52 years of hurt in Russia over the coming weeks, do I REALLY want Germany to retain their title just to get my hands on 65 quid? Shouldn’t aesthetics always triumph over capitalism on a sporting stage?
As a footballing purist wouldn’t I rather France, Spain, Belgium or every neutral’s favourite, Brazil, get their hands on the trophy standing 36.8 centimetres high and weighing 6.1 kilograms?
I’d rather England get their hands on it, to be honest, but though I’m forever a football romantic I’m also a realistic romantic. And while the heart pumps out images of Harry Kane doing a Nobby Stiles-type dance come July 15, the head has Gareth Southgate and co boarding the first plane back to Blighty after the quarter final stage. And if we do get to the last eight, well - as I’ve already mentioned - that’s as good as it’s got really, bar one exception, ever since some people were on the pitch in north London in what now seems a very long time ago.
I was born at a time when the England international football team were champions of the world. Will there ever be another generation that can say the same?
Hope, as always, springs eternal. It has to, certainly where English football is concerned. We have to cling on, limpet-like, to our hope - because without that we have nothing. Without that, we might as well hack our brains out with a scalpel and settle down in front of the television watching Love Island on repeat while dribbling a succession of banalities.
However, they say it’s the hope that kills you, and they - whoever ‘they’ are - are usually 100 per cent accurate. And never more so than watching England in the football World Cup.
It’s the hope that’s metaphorically slain us numerous times - that and Kevin Keegan’s miserable header against Spain (1982), that and ‘the hand of God (1986), that and some wayward penalties (1990), that and a linesman’s incorrectly raised flag to deny Sol Campbell a goal (1998), that and a badly positioned David Seaman (2002), that and Ronaldo’s ‘wink’ (2006), that and another horror refereeing decision (Frank Lampard’s ‘goal’ against Germany, 2010), that and the fact we just weren’t very good (2014) ...
So who are the potential heroes and villains of the 2018 World Cup? I have no idea, and neither do you. And that’s why football is the greatest game in the world. Despite the occasional outbreaks of diving, spitting, cheating, biting and general gamesmanship - and the World Cup certainly has had its fair share of all those - it always has been, still is, and always will be the greatest sport.
That is why I will be riveted to The Magic Rectangle - as acerbic critic Victor Lewis-Smith described television back in the 1990s - over the next month. Pele’s Beautiful Game, gloriously brought to boiling point under the glare of a global spotlight. Without resorting to hyperbole, the greatest sporting event on planet earth. Don’t believe me? Then digest this little stat - over one billion watched at least one minute of the 2014 final. This game, this kicking an inflated bag of air around, matters to so many.
Argentinian ticker tape, the 1970 Brazilians, Mexican Waves, Marco Tardelli’s manic celebration, Pickles the dog, Vuvuzelas, Gordon Banks’ save from Pele, Roger Milla’s wiggling hips, Gazza’s tears ...
... that was the past.
This is the present - the 21st Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) World Cup starts tomorrow afternoon with hosts Russia taking on Saudi Arabia.
I know the next few weeks will be wonderful, whether I get my hands on £65 at the end of it or not.
And remember this ... once the World Cup finishes, there’s only 20 days until the 2018/19 Football League season starts!!!!!
Simon Carter will be writing a daily World Cup column on The News’ website. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with your World Cup memories.