In football you have to be careful what you wish for. When the draw was made for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa The Sun greeted England’s prospects with a catastrophically hubristic headline. Using the initial letter of each of the countries drawn in their group, it read EASY for England, Algeria, Slovenia and, as shorthand for the USA, Yanks.
Anyone who has not wisely erased the memories from their consciousness will recall that England’s passage through the group stage of that tournament was not as the headline had predicted.
After a draw with the USA, and stinking the place out during a goalless encounter with Algeria that redefined the phrase wretched, England made it out in second place with a scrappy victory over Slovenia, a country with a population slightly shy of that of greater Leeds. Their reward for making life so difficult for themselves was humiliation in the first knock-out round by Germany.
The fact is, whoever England draw this afternoon (and it could be Spain, France and the US, for which the only suitable acronym is Buggered) they are not going to win the competition. Despite Roy Hodgson’s genially optimistic insistence that it is worth putting a bet on his team to lift the trophy, there is a reason the bookies have priced them as 25-1 outsiders.
Any images of man-of-the-tournament Ravel Morrison picking up on a perfectly weighted pass from Phil Jones (the player whose performances in the competition have obliged Bild newspaper to dub “the new Beckenbauer”) before dancing through the Spanish defence to score a last-minute winner in a final that will go down as the greatest display of attacking football in history will remain restricted to the Playstation.
The fact is, for Hodgson this is one World Cup where going out on penalties in the quarter-final will be regarded as something close to a triumph.
Which means, when studying the odds, the wise will be making their investment somewhere other than on the Three Lions. The bookies seem to think Brazil are out in front at 10-3 favourites. And for sure, they have a number of players, Neymar among them, who Hodgson would cheerfully relinquish several limbs to be able to select for the England team. But I have a sense that playing at home may not turn out to be that great an advantage for them.
Admittedly this is based on nothing more than the most speculative of supposition since I have never been to the country. But my suspicion is the pressure on them to succeed will be so immense it will swamp the team.
This is a country where football matters more than anywhere else in the world, a nation that finds identity through the sport. The symbolism of a home World Cup will be everywhere magnified beyond imagining. And the reminder of what happened the last time the World Cup was played there, when Uruguay sneaked off with the prize that the entire Brazilian population assumed was theirs by divine right, will be constantly available as a precedent.
I have a horrible feeling that this current generation of players are not sufficiently mentally strong to carry the burden of expectation. I am not even sure we can bet on them reaching the final. Especially when you look at who they will have to beat to get there.
At 5-1 the champions Spain and Germany both look excellent value to lift the trophy. But my money is going elsewhere. On Argentina. For sure, it largely depends where they are drawn in the group stage. Anywhere in the south of Brazil and their chances will shoot up. Should they be stationed somewhere like Porto Alegre, tens of thousands of Argentinian supporters will drive up from Buenos Aires, to fill the stadiums with their racket, orchestrated by their cheerleader in chief, that little fat bloke with busy hands known as Diego Maradona. Such a draw offers the chance of developing an unstoppable momentum.
But even if they aren’t, even if the volume of their support is muted by a draw which puts them up in the steaming north, they have the talent to subdue any opposition. With a forward line of Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez, Gonzalo Higuain and Lionel Messi, frankly they don’t need defenders.
The only obstacle in their way is a habit of self-combustion. Though now little fat guy has been extracted from the dug out and returned to the stands, thus unable to intimidate Messi into ensuring he does not challenge the Maradona legend, even that may no longer be an issue.
Far more likely than that fanciful image of Morrison sashaying through to victory, the picture we will be seeing on July 13 next year is that of a diminutive Messi skipping past Gerard Pique, before passing to Aguero to slot the ball under the despairing dive of Iker Casillas. You can put money on it.