If anything can, even temporarily, fill the gaping hole left by the absence of 24 from our screens, then I suppose a World Cup will just have to do.
My 10-year-old godson got it about right the other day, returning from Tesco with a stash of England-branded Mars bars. ‘I don’t know what all the fuss is about,’ he said. ‘They’re not going to win.’ Well, almost certainly not, but England do have one of a handful of world-class managers in the tournament. The others are Spain’s Vicente del Bosque, humble, unassuming, hugely successful and far, far more than just a plump bloke with a moustache, and Italy’s Marcello Lippi. Everyone loves Spain, and under del Bosque they’ve lost just one game in 25. But their status as favourites isn’t necessarily bolted on. Mourinho showed with his Champions League defeat of Barcelona how to lock down Spanish teams — deny them space. Will anyone succeed with Jose’s tactics against the free-flowing national side?
More to the point, why are Italy double the price of England in the betting? They’re the champions, their five strikers have an awesome scoring record in stingy Serie A, they were relatively untroubled in qualifying, and Lippi is proven quality. Also, everyone at home is writing them off and that’s how they like it.
As for Capello, the other coaching star, the whole team seems shit-scared of him, which can only be a good thing. But this team is broadly the side that hasn’t done well in the last two big tournaments, so where is the next generation of England players — Walcott, Adam Johnson, Ashley Young? That’s why I don’t think Capello will be necessarily staying on, though everyone is spinning that he will. If England get to the final, it’s job done and get out while the going’s good. If England fail, there’s an interminable process to rebuild. I just can’t see it, though maybe Capello will stay because he needs a nice big place to house his enormous Cy Twomblys. And the £6 million a year must concentrate the mind too. Reassuringly, England have played dismally in their last three training matches and won them all. They only have to do that seven more times and we’re home and dry.
I am not sure there will be a load of goals this time. All the top teams have phenomenal defences — not least Brazil, with Maicon, Lucio, and the best keeper in the world, Julio Cesar. Brazil’s reserve right-back, Barcelona’s Dani Alves, is in a different league to England’s first choice right-back, Glen Johnson. And where will the surprise team come from? In 1990 it was Cameroon, in ’94 Nigeria, and in 2002 Turkey and South Korea were semi-finalists. I have a sneaking regard for Uruguay, though they are in a very hard group, and by all accounts Serbia could shock us all. They qualified well, and in Vidic, formerly of Old Trafford, Chelsea’s Ivanovic, and Dortmund’s Neven Subotic they have the foundations of a stunning defence, while Radomar Antic’s team has also won many admirers with an entertaining 4-4-2 formation. Don’t underrate the patriotism factor either: this is their first World Cup as an independent nation.
So have a punt on Brazil, and Italy for value. And anyone with a heart must look to the compelling drama around Diego Maradona’s star-packed Argentina. The bearded old cokehead now looks like a grizzled revolutionary (well, he is I suppose) and has set his battered heart on bringing the trophy back to Buenos Aires. It would be a fitting end to an extraordinary career if the hand of God is wrapped one last time around the Jules Rimet, as a manager. Even Jack Bauer would raise a faint smile.