World Cup fever has arrived. Every morning on the way to work, more little plastic flags of St George flutter from white vans or, in my case, from the window of our trusty Audi A6. Many of my fellow countrymen regard this footie orgy as wholly unnecessary — not me.
Bunting will go up at the front of our house if we advance to the quarters, whereupon my wife will spend most evenings in a curry house with a girlfriend, leaving me to invite the lads round for random games such as Honduras v. Ecuador. Result.
More than anything, the tournament offers a chance to wheel out my one Roy Hodgson (he’s the England manager) anecdote. It was back in 1994 when he was coach of Switzerland and about to take his team to the World Cup in America, for which England did not qualify.
I was working at the Sunday Telegraph at the time and was dispatched to Zurich to write about Sepp Blatter, who was doing a terrific job scaling the greasy pole on his way to becoming Fifa’s disastrous head honcho. Interview over, I spotted Mr Hodgson in the lobby of Fifa’s swanky HQ and introduced myself.
Thinking I might get a piece along the lines of ‘Here’s one Englishman who is going to the World Cup’ and noticing that it was almost 1 p.m., I asked if I could buy him lunch.
‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘I’ve got meetings all day. But I could do tomorrow.’
We met at a plush hotel and he could not have been more charming. We talked football during the starters and broadened things out for the main course to include women priests, the novels of Philip Roth and his experience as a PE teacher at Alleyn’s, the independent school in south London.
He chose an excellent red and what amazed me was that we had a conversation rather than me firing questions and him giving pap answers. He asked if I had children and said that speaking a foreign language (he speaks fluent Norwegian, Swedish, German and Italian and can make himself understood in French, Danish and Finnish) was a great qualification.
As we got up to leave he inquired whether I knew Zurich. I said I didn’t. ‘Well, I’ll show you round if you like. Hop in.’
And off we went in his shiny Mercedes, stopping every now and again while he pointed out various landmarks. After almost an hour, he pulled up and we shook hands. I thanked him profusely and he drove off to pick up his wife, Sheila, with whom he was going to a concert later that evening.
I enjoy telling this story because I hope it helps people get behind Roy’s boys and, believe me, they are going to need all the support they can muster. Yes, it’s exciting that he’s picked some youngsters but we all know that, with apologies to Robert Louis Stevenson, this is a classic case of how to travel hopefully being far better than to arrive.
Of course, if England go all the way, David Cameron will bemoan ever agreeing to a fixed-term parliament, although it’s worth pointing out that contrary to popular belief, Harold Wilson did not win the 1966 general election on the back of England’s World Cup triumph, for the simple reason that he went to the polls on 31 March and the Wembley final was on 30 July.
My first book was about the 1998 World Cup. It didn’t sell many copies because England lost (heroically as ever) on penalties to Argentina in the first knock-out round and nobody wanted to be reminded of that balmy night in St Etienne, when an 18-year old Michael Owen scored arguably the best goal ever by an Englishman at a World Cup, before Becks got sent off for kicking the Argie captain and then Paul Ince and David Batty missed their penalties.
I was pretty much in tears at the final whistle, not least because it meant I had to drive through the night to get back to La Baule in Brittany to catch coach Glenn Hoddle’s valedictory press conference the next morning.
‘Pull yourself together,’ said the man from the Times. ‘We’re not supporters with typewriters,’ said the Mail’s Jeff Powell.
But it’s not all about England. Think about Bosnia and Herzegovina, playing in their first ever World Cup. The father of one player was killed in the war, another watched, aged seven, as his family home was burned to the ground. I hope they do well.
And I always like the way the USA are seen as minnows. Most Americans will have no idea the World Cup is going on. Conservatives over there see soccer as a liberal sport, a foreign import with socialist leanings, when of course nothing could be further from the truth. No professional American sport dares flirt with a league system in which teams get promoted or relegated. Instead, everything possible is done to create parity — hardly capitalism in action.
But back to Croydon-born Mr Hodgson. He’s playing a blinder so far, allowing the players to get out and about, co-operating with the media. More important, he’s even said ‘We can win it!’ when we all know this is plainly absurd.
Mark Palmer is travel editor of the Daily Mail.