Thursday, 3 December 2009

The Draw

Tomorrow evening the draw for the group stage of the 2010 World Cup finals will take place in South Africa. Nelson Mandela will be there, as will Archbishop Desmond Tutu, current South African president and all-round dubious man Jacob Zuma, actress Charlize Theron and soccer enthusiast David Beckham – along with Sepp Blatter, Jack Warner and assorted dignitaries from the 32 football associations represented in the finals.

Viewers are to expect nothing less than a glamorous, star-studded firework show of a draw – and why not. While on the face of it a simple administrative procedure that could just as easily take place behind closed doors or be generated at random by computer (and still suffer no greater volume of accusations of FIFA conspiracy or group-rigging), the group stage draw is truly a hotly anticipated date in this season’s calendar in the run up to Christmas – forget El Clasico or the awarding of the Ballon D’Or, the fans are actually excited by the prospect of seeing a collection of ancient ex-pros cracking open plastic balls and unfolding pieces of paper, on a stage in Cape Town, probably interminably slowly.

One of the most amusing indicators of the hype and expectation surrounding tomorrow’s draw is the high-budget and admittedly rather impressive Budweiser advert showing a packed stadium of people turning over thousands of cards to make a bottle of Bud fill up a beer glass. The ad is fine on its own – but has for the last month or so been followed by the caption ‘FIFA World Cup draw – now only 4 weeks away’, and so on. Can people really be made to be this excited about a draw? It would seem so – as since the announcement of the FIFA seedings for the draw on Wednesday morning the internet has virtually collapsed under the weight of office-chair pundits and their speculation, prediction and ludicrous omen-citing. I haven’t exactly been immune to it, of course.

Funnily enough, while taking a look at the stats relating to North Korea’s performance at World Cup 1966 on Wikipedia (as you do, etc) it occurred to me to check what England’s group had been in that ever-so-slightly hallowed year. Having noticed that it is technically possible for England to draw the exact same teams again – Uruguay, Mexico and France – I mentioned this to some friends over email, one of whom in turn mentioned it to a contact at a national newspaper who in turn passed it on to their editorial team. By the late afternoon, this page had appeared on the newspaper’s website. It seems that in amongst a largely pointless conversation about how we would like or would dread England’s draw to turn out, I had inadvertently set the Mirror’s news agenda for the afternoon. I was, needless to say, fairly pleased with myself.

Various other insights came out of the conversation. There seemed to be a consensus on what would be bad for England – various ‘Group of Death’ permutations, most of which involved drawing one of the two big name play-off winners from Pot Four: Portugal or France. Such apocalyptic hypothetical draws also tended to include one of the major African sides – particularly Ghana or the Cote D’Ivoire; possibly because as regular Premier League viewers we are acutely aware of the skill and power in the possession of players like Michael Essien, Kolo Toure and the in-form Didier Drogba. The Pot 2 choice for a worst-case-scenario draw seems to be the USA – mainly, it would seem, because few other teams in their pot present much of an immediate threat (or because they are relative unknowns).

A favourable ‘Group of Life’ draw is easier to pick – and, worryingly, easier to be too casual about. Should England actually draw North Korea, Algeria and Switzerland, we risk complacency setting in months before the tournament even starts. At the very least this will be the view the press will be keen to hammer home. The FA will doubtless set up friendlies against teams similar in style and stature to England’s opponents, which can only mean a string of dull and deceivingly easy wins against negligible opposition (see England’s 6-0 battering of Jamaica in 2006 as preparation for the group game against Trinidad and Tobago). This in turn ensures all the more shock when England inevitably stumble into the last 16 and are summarily beaten by a much stronger opponent.

The other side of the argument, of course, is that playing weaker teams at the group stage will allow England to conserve energy for the knockout stages while another hapless seeded team scraps away in a tougher group, picking up injuries, fatigue and confidence-rattling results against stronger sides.

The players and coaches will usually trot out the same line about how if you want to win the World Cup then you have to be prepared the face the best in the world – and that it doesn’t matter at what stage of the competition you meet them. This, it would seem, is a bit of professional disingenuousness, as of course there are draws that would trouble even the most confident of players on paper. There is the risk that, handed a freak ‘Group of Death’ scenario, a possibly great team could be sent packing before they’d even had a chance to get into their stride.

England, I think, will want a mix of the two. Personally I’d like to see a couple of teams that Capello’s men should despatch without much fuss and at least one relatively scary name to give them a stern test early on. A good draw, I think, would be something like Australia, Nigeria and Serbia. This would still be a group you’d expect England to win – but one in which they wouldn’t perhaps be tempted to fall into the 2006 strategy of winning without getting out of first gear. They’d hit their peak just in time to beat Cameroon in the second round, Portugal in the quarters and…no, no. Must stop.

Either way, it seems foolish to speculate – at least today. From tomorrow the World Cup will really be happening and the countdown to the whole beautiful hysteria of the finals will have begun for real. And if Australia, Nigeria and Serbia come out then the Daily Mirror might just have to put me on the payroll.

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