Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Gods Must be Cheeky

Trying to intuit what will happen at the World Cup does my head in. There are so many variables that the situation does approach chaos. But it's not quite chaos, because some teams are better, right? Yeah, a bit.

The World Cup in our age is a contest of Homeric proportions, and for this one there are already signs that the football gods are engaged in their own parallel battles. Meanwhile, past the statistics and history, which is, well... in the past, picking which teams are better than others is not as easy as it looks. 'Better' here, as in Darwinian evolution, merely means, "the most suited for the conditions," whatever they are on the day. "The conditions," of course, means approximately an infinity of things, from the nature of the opposition to the intestinal bacteria of your holding midfielder, from the ref to the weather.

The advantage of home crowd and the disadvantages of playing away are well documented. Apparently Kuper's Soccernomics (which I haven't managed to purchase yet) gives the home side, statistically, one goal on average. These statistics ring true with a peruse of World Cup history, with host countries always doing well and particularly with European countries doing better in Europe and South American countries doing better in their own continent.

There's a strong suggestion that some of the upset, including the strong success of the South Koreans, at the 2002 Cup was because it was outside any of the traditional territories. If this factor has anything to it at all, and if many of the teams are really not much more than one goal apart on average all things being equal, then this factor alone could give rise to all sorts of surprises, statistically.

Remember that home teams have an extra goal on average, over the studied games. Personally I think the home advantage for all the African teams, with a huge fan presence drumming and blowing those horrible horns, and easilly out-chanting, out-dancing and out-partying the rest of us, will be at least two goals. I haven't ruled South Africa out for getting through Group A, and Ghana, especially if Essien is on, could do anything.

Meanwhile the gods are keeping many of the heroes at home. Ronaldinho, of all people, has been left at home. Ballack is out (and prepares German fans for humiliation in parting). Even if Essien plays, he won't be the great we know. Our main opponent Germany is being attacked in camp by the gods apparently, with one player after another sucumbing to injury, but they're not leaving us alone either. "The gods" may be merely a cute metaphor, but they express the factor at play here well: fate, completely out of anyone's control.

Russia, after a run of great form, was knocked out (by our own foe Germany, incidentally), under no other coach but Australia's saint Guus. That's a bit like King Odysseus sitting out the Trojan War.

France enters this competition with an open curse upon it from the entire Irish population of the World. I for one would not take that lightly.

Meanwhile the recent friendlies have been weird. A full strength Portugal can't score against Cape Verde at home? Australia very nearly embarassed by New Zealand at home? Ireland, who really should be in rather than France, beats Paraguay? I think we might have already left the script behind.

The English population are whinging anyway of course even though their team just beat Mexico, but then that is what English fans do. I'm digressing here but I sometimes think that Australian fans are a bit too desperate to emulate the great English football tradition, because there's been a lot of whinging at our coach who has done everything asked of him to date.

Here's something I will predict with a certain confidence: There will be upsets at this World Cup. There will be heavyweights knocked out in the group stage and there will be surprises from the ranks. There always is a bit of that of course, but I think there will be a lot. Brazil, Italy and Spain are the only ones I would bet upon getting through the group stages. Of Germany, France, Portugal, England and Argentina, I reckon two or three won't make it, but I wouldn't dare guess which ones.

Star players who are there - I can't guess who but I have my eye on Rooney and Ronaldo - could flop (in the context of their teams), and names we've never heard of will be being spoken of all over the World.

Pim Verbeek will either be deified or damned for all time.

This World Cup is exciting. It's on new territory which will challenge every team in new ways. There's chaos in the atmosphere, the chaos of drumming, dancing, poverty and race; the chaos of injury and best-laid plans. There's a backdrop of dramatic politics, the coolest and wildest animals on the planet and the usual seething, unpredictable national tribes, including about 30 travelling away (I doubt North Korea will have much of one).

I'd say stay away from the betting shop.

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