23 December 2022

Fall, submission, knockout: Messi and the World Cup sublime

There are ... let's say ... naming no names ... certain footballers, historically great footballers, harbour-bestriding colossi of footballers, who can could perform supreme feats which were as predictable as they were unstoppable, devoid of mystery or confusion, entirely legible, their inner workings laid completely exposed and polished for the world to admire, and indeed these feats were very admirable, tremendously admirable, but left no trace, and the player always going way around the defender, rendering the defender's personal physical space and headspace irrelevant, just like how these feats bypass the viewer’s viscera, a pattern of clean exit wounds...

...but do you want to be a spectator, or do you want to play? Or, rather: get played?

Watching sport is an act of humble submission. For all you know, you could be submitting yourself to a pile of shite. But Lionel Messi dignifies that submission by taking you somewhere.

He isn't a showman, if you take 'showman' to imply pandering or ostentation. His play is far more generous than that: he takes you right into the game. In allowing you to see that a situation is innocuous, then taking the ball into what appears to be a cul de sac, or strolling into a dead spot off the ball, he gives your sophistication instinct an airing. Sure, I know this is Messi, but I've seen football before, and there's nothing good happening for him here. I am very smart. And then comes the incredible touch, or the death-defying dribble, or the unforeseeable pass, and you realise you knew nothing. Messi is the master of the double cross, and he turns the viewer into the opposition. You take the same sharp intake of breath they do at that moment the picture suddenly starts to shift. But whereas for the actual victims that inhalation can only resolve to a resigned sigh at best, for you, it comes out as laughter. Illusion/reveal. Set-up/punchline.

I doubt the role of longevity in a personal pantheon, if that pantheon is based on sensation rather than sobriety. But Messi has done this so often and for so long. He's made me laugh more than any other player. He's the funniest fucker in football.

And if you'd asked me before the World Cup for my preferred outcome from the event I would have said, but of course I want Argentina to win, it's only just that a player who has given so much joy should be a world champion and shed the rubbish he's been burdened with on the international stage, why, I'm a partisan for greatness, don't you know, and I'd probably have meant it. But then the tournament started, and I realised that what I wanted most of all was for him to be put through the wringer.

For everyone to be put through it, though. The meaning is in the jeopardy, and in seeing how the participants succumb to it or extricate themselves from it. It lies too in the accumulation of such trials over the competition's history, in its layers of petrified narrative (and petrified players). I want to see the pretenders carve their glory out of rock-solid myth.

I don't believe in the mythical GOAT, but I do believe in the myth of the World Cup, the crucible of crucibles. I believe in what can change in four years and in the eternal truths. I believe in the near impossibility of retaining the trophy and in rotten-fruit homecomings. I believe in the Spanish giants going back to sleep and in Mexico shitting themselves. I believe in Vavá and Władysław Żmuda. I know Maradona didn't win the World Cup on his own, but I believe he did.

I don't believe in destiny or the football gods but I do believe in teams submitting themselves to forces beyond their control: in twenty-two psyches steeped in the angst of their countries' football past and weighed down by their own past failures, and by their successes. I believe in the World Cup mattering, and in the mattering mattering. I believe that the World Cup makes people mad. I believe in the World Cup overwhelming the strongest. I believe in the roll of great World Cup losers.

Now that we've reached the part of the piece where it's only sickos left reading, let's say this: if you believe in the poetry of the precipice to which all who play in the World Cup must submit, then the prospect of Messi failing again — or of Argentina failing Messi again — was beautiful. Aye, beautiful. Not pretty or sweet, but something majestic, dissonant, unsettling. Club football's behemoth player-processing machine tends to mean that talent gets rewarded reasonably efficiently with the biggest contracts, the grandest championships, and awards handed out by the baldest administrators. Overall, the best get the most. But the World Cup, which everyone wants the baddest, brings the pascals and puts the squeeze on such logical, fair narratives. The pressure can silence the Maracanã, deprive the Golden Team and the Total Footballers and Ronaldo, and arrest Scotland's march on Buenos Aires. Even Pelé only has three winner's medals.

That such a force can swallow up the best we can throw at it makes it a character in its own right. Just an inkling of what it's capable of makes its gloomy, lowering ubiquity exhilarating: the thrill of thinking you know what's going to happen, then being double-crossed.

Or of thinking you know what should happen. Messi, of all people, should have won the World Cup. But his dreams had been variously hobbled by bad management, bad luck, bad health, bad miss by Higuaín, perhaps even (gasp) some bad play by himself. His failure to win the trophy — to even, let's be frank, have one tournament commensurate with his ability — cast the World Cup sublime in magnificently high definition. The improbability of such a sequence of duds was startling, and exponentially more so with each new addition, such that yet another would positively light up the afternoon sky with magisterially grey fireworks.

This would be the case however such a failure may have been arrived at, but in the 2022 edition, Messi really ratcheted it up. He was actually playing a World Cup as Lionel Messi, thoroughly and throughout rather than in explosions punctuating puzzling silences. He was playing like an angel with the devil in him. It was what should have happened, but was nonetheless moving for all that. He was really doing it. Like it or not, it was Maradonian. Or Baggioesque, except that Baggio didn't have a Maradona in his unbidden heritage, or arrive at the World Cup quite so heavily pre-loaded with everyone else's baggage, or have multiple prior failed attempts to carry it home. And still he fell short.

Each act of magic brought Messi simultaneously closer to his ultimate victory and to the lowering boom. The World Cup gives you two shows at once: in the foreground, the great practitioners of their craft performing with heady motivation; in the background, fate quietly slipping lead into the boxing glove. The connoisseur of the World Cup sublime embraces and welcomes the triumph of either, even though one may leave them heartbroken, rivulets of snotty tears collecting at their feet.

But we know what happened. Imagine Higuaín had converted that chance in the 2014 final. Messi would have his world championship, but after a tournament in which his decisive contributions had been, by his standards, few. In the 2022 finals, he couldn't stop being the decider. He made it happen as surely as any individual player ever has. Any, if you know what I mean. He'd never looked more alive. 

We could say that Messi's legendary status should not — could not possibly — have depended on him winning the World Cup, such is the formidable nature of his achievements. But sport demands that the abstract be made vividly real. It's really good at it. Football's nearest approximation to the vividly real is the World Cup. Even given all that immensity of talent and his practically habitual realisation of same, and all the times he's set your brain alight, there would have been left, without the big one, that small but heavy part of the Messi phenomenon that remained unformed. But not now.

No-one can sidestep the forbidding myth of the World Cup, not even a genius. When someone uses its force to propel them forward instead of being crushed by it ... when they can take that myth and become one with it, knowing full well what they're doing (just look at his face) ... when new myth is being made before your eyes and you know full well it's happening (maybe Maradona's '86 will come to be seen as merely foreshadowing Messi's '22) ... when you get to witness, nay, take part in such a grand act of beautiful collusion... 

 ...well, what can you say? 

 Except that, if I was French, I'd be pretty fucking pissed off.



19 December 2019

On the Way - or - Do you believe in magic?

Time's up. Here comes Just Another Manager, to be followed, no doubt, by Yet Another Manager.
I'd say I hate to say I told you so, but I hate to say I hate to say I told you so. So I say: I told you so.

Seems like we have a series on our hands. Welcome to part two of Arsenal Managers Get Sacked, Sigh. Farewell, Unai Emery, who couldn't stick around long enough for English speakers to be able to say his name properly. Stress is such a problem for managers.

In the last thirty-three years, Arsenal have waved goodbye to only four permanent managers. When an Arsenal boss is given a single to Stepaside, it tends to be an occasion with heft – the end of a dynasty, the prelude to a succession. George Graham's sacking was explosive and wreathed in scandal. Arsène Wenger's departure was monumental like a retreating glacier. The end of Bruce Rioch's brief but productive tenure was baffling at first, but soon revealed itself to be part of a plan. The end of a manager's term was a sign that one way or another, something was happening.

Just a year and a half separated late Graham from early Wenger – all there was between that grit-turned-stodge and the first hints of the sublime. More than that: it separated two completely different conceptions of the club. There, apparently, for a steady and remarkably fruitful century, solid and deadly as a cannonball, flew Boring Arsenal; suddenly, in its place danced a company of angels (with surprisingly bad disciplinary records). A totally new fundamental truth had been established, displacing the old one. Within months, Boring Arsenal was so long ago that it may as well not have existed. Today, even further removed from that strange idea, somewhere there is an Arsenal fanatic taking time out from dealing with a second divorce by watching a YouTube clip allegedly of pre-1996 Arsenal and wondering what Rotherham have to do with anything.

And sure, the start of the subsequent decline long preceded the end of the Wengerian age, and Wenger was a participant in that decline. But his leaving was an ending. Events since then have shown that he may have been the only person at the club who knew what went where.

Emery’s time as manager had its merits. Arsenal would have qualified for the Champions League if not for the games they lost. There was the occasional display of the elan that had periodically shone right to the end of the Wenger era like a beautiful smile through fading ideals. You might have been tempted to believe that this was just what Arsenal did – that even when times were rough, they would occasionally allow confidence to overwhelm them, if only out of habit. Time gave the lie to such naivety. In part to cover deficiencies in the squad he was given to work with, Emery's tactics from game to game evoked a recurring dream where the protagonist spends an age searching for something before realising they don't actually know what it is they're searching for. The players would second-guess themselves, third-guess, fourth-guess, and eventually just guess. The last year and a half has been a slowly draining battery. The key word is "purposelessness", which enacts itself by starting out full of intent, then hissing to a sorry halt. The sacking of Emery was totally unshocking because no-one had the energy left to be shocked – an unnervingly mundane conclusion.

Just a year and a half. It's nice to think that a team's highest historical standards are a default to which it should return once choppy waters have been sailed through. The [Club] Way will kick in, especially if the team is helmed by men with [Club] DNA. All that success must have happened for a reason: virtue rewarded. This mythologising of past euphoria is one of the pleasures of being a fan, but it hides the reality, which is that your club is just a lifeless spirit needing intervention by an animating force. Or, as one sage put it: you gotta make it happen. The positive thing about this is that you can make it happen. But you can't just wave your Way at the opposition and expect them to fall in line – they have their own narratives to nurture. A past, and the pride, self-aggrandisement, and nervous aspiration that come with it, are useless on their own. Whatever you want has to be dug out of the cold, hard present, and then dug out all over again next time around. A sustained spell of success should, if you're being reasonable, be regarded as miraculous. It will fall apart if not tended to. It might fall apart even if it is tended to, but the tending is mandatory. An era, a self-image, an amour-propre – they’re fragile conceits.

And if a club's upper echelons allow a long-serving manager's reign to drift gently into impotence, if they fail to properly plan for his succession, and if they then fire the successor without much of a plan for his succession, you see what happens when nothing happens. Revealed is the default human state: to faff about cluelessly. A club's default state is to sink towards the bottom, which in this sport is a long way down. The basic aim of a club is to counteract this descent. You hope it's up to the task.


14 April 2019

Negative space

The first season I followed the English league was 1989/90. Liverpool won the championship for the eighteenth time. (Next on the leaderboard were Arsenal, with nine titles.) Even then, I knew that this was a completely normal, even banal, occurrence. Liverpool won leagues. That was that. It was the natural state of affairs, and would always be so, like the post-Cold War world peace.

The league and FA Cup Double (capital D) was much more difficult. Even the mighty Liverpool had only won it once. It had been on offer for over a century, yet on only five occasions had anyone won it. NASA got people on the moon more often. Then in nine seasons between 1993/4 and 2001/2, Manchester United and Arsenal won five Doubles between them and made it almost routine — albeit, like Liverpool's league habit, a routine available only to favoured few.

With the establishment of the League Cup in 1960 came a new pinnacle: the Treble. To date, no-one has reached it. But this season Manchester City, the League Cup already in the cabinet, could well do it. They're in the FA Cup final and continue to maintain a Formula 1 tempo in the title race.

And though in the first leg of their quarter-final tie with Tottenham, they seemed unsure about how much they still want to be in the Champions League, they're still there. The Quadruple is usually spoken of as something perfectly plausible in theory but unlikely to exist in real-world conditions. Yet here we are in April, and City are only ten games away from taking their place alongside the Celtic immortals of 1967.

Wouldn't you like to see something you've never seen before?

Then again, which would be more impressive: City conquering the monster called Quadruple and carrying it home draped across triumphant shoulders; or that beast slipping away from another would-be slayer and living to roam free, mighty, and mysterious for at least one more year?

The paradox: to fulfil a grand ambition is to diminish it. If something is special because it’s so difficult to acquire, then its acquisition means that maybe it wasn't that special in the first place. It's been done.

The prize is defined by the strain of those who just fail to win it.

So it would be better if Liverpool were to win the league. Not only would it preserve the Quadruple, but we would get to witness the sating of a once unimaginable hunger, which would no doubt be somehow spiritually uplifting.

Mind you, if we're celebrating the improbable, their long streak of nothingness is to be cherished. If you'd said, way back when, that at least twenty-nine years would elapse before they won their next title, I shudder to think what your peers would have said about you, I really do. For Liverpool not to have won the league since then seems so wrong and is therefore so right. It's the lean in the Leaning Tower. To see logic refuse to slot into place for so long — to see the elastic band stretch and stretch and stretch, knowing it will surely snap soon but just ... not ... yet — is one of sport's exquisite pleasures. It confirms that the game is too big to be apprehended in full — that no-one has this stuff figured out. Liverpool not yet winning another league (not winning yet another league?) is the essential companion to Leicester's success of 2016.

(Twenty-nine years before Liverpool last won the league, Spurs, in black & white, did the first Double in sixty-four years.)

So the ideal shake-out this season would be for City to win the league and then lose to Watford in the Cup final. Then they can do what they like in the Champions League as long as they beat Spurs.

Sorry, what's that you say?

Oh, I see what's happening here: you're basically just jealous of any team other than no-league-titles-for-fifteen-years-is-that-right-so-called-Invincible Arsenal enjoying the success that you, deep in some foul cavern of your soul, feel is your team's by right, and although you are very grudgingly accepting of the current pecking order of English football, you feel that if other teams attain these accolades, it should be in as joyless a manner as possible?

How dare you.


19 July 2018


I read previews to get educated, and I even tolerate the predictions of the learned to help set the scene, but (with due admiration for those experts) it is with glee that I see such attempts to give shape to the future confounded by each World Cup. It's in there every time, the mysterious element just beyond your ability to identify or to understand how it got there: the strange light outside in the night, someone else's bloody tooth in your drink.

This edition, more than most, careened from certainty to new certainty contradicting the previous one.

After their opening game against Portugal, it looked as though Spain might be emerging from their post-golden era slump, and that their performance might match the talent they collected, imposing as it yet again was. But it turned out they were just the bad old Spain in the good old Spain's too-big suit. Their performance against Russia was a fascinatingly grim self-parody, a sublime monument to mental paralysis: a vast blank slab.

Germany — as constant for the last dozen years as the old West Germany had been, but more fun — were outeverythinged by Mexico, then knocked on their backsides again by Sweden before getting up and showing, in a desperate flash of pride, that they were still Germany. Their tame surrender to South Korea and their management's offloading of blame onto Mesut Özil exposed a rotten heart and showed that they were in fact the new France (and not in a good way).

Mexico made their standard exit in the last sixteen, but the joy and hope they sparked with some of their performances at least ensured that had been promoted to the rank of this year's Chile.

Colombia's goals against Poland, and their outstanding centre-half pairing of Yerry Mina and Davinson Sánchez, made you optimistic to the point of stupidity. Against Senegal, Colombia were nervous, and then Jamesless, but finally victorious. Against England, they seemed terrified. (Why? Jameslessness?) The terror manifested itself first as destructive cynicism, and then, as it dawned on them that they would actually have to play football to win, in a thrilling urgency that almost won them the match. England had looked composed (if blunt as an attacking force); now it was they who looked scared, misplacing simple passes and resorting to the soothing hoof. Yet they paced their way back into the game like a cyclist dropped on a climb, and given a second chance, they kept their heads when it mattered.

Japan were so frightened of elimination in their last group match against Poland that they ceased to play altogether. Against Belgium, they were courage itself.

"...and at the end of what was an intriguing first half..." is usually the most professional way a commentator can plead with a viewer to watch the rest of a dull game, but the first half of Belgium-Japan really did load the second with possibility. The game was the best of the tournament because it was a complete piece, the first minute tied to the last.

The favourites were struggling to impose their desire on the game, while constantly being undercut by the underdogs. Belgium had most of the ball, but couldn't threaten. Japan attacked with quick, smart passing through midfield, then worked the ball around the Belgian half until, almost invariably, a space opened up on the flank (either one), into which a Japanese player was making a run. The ball would find him, and Belgium would be stretched. In the second half, Genki Haraguchi scored following just such a run.

Then Takashi Inui scored with a long-range shot struck with such apparently maximal transference of energy that he made the ball seem at one leaden and weightless. It was a goal experienced more viscerally than euphorically.

Japan harried Belgium into error after error, but a fluke goal (albeit a pretty one) triggered a torrential comeback from Belgium, finished off with a hurricane of a counter-attack goal to win in stoppage time.

In the next round against Brazil, Romelu Lukaku would snake his way through midfield at high speed before setting up Kevin De Bruyne for Belgium's second, in a virtuosic combination of control over his own body, over the ball and over his own mind (picking his path, laying it off to De Bruyne at just the right time before he himself got clattered). He made the winner against Japan without even touching the ball. His outside-in run drew his marker away from the wing down which Thomas Meunier would run to cross for Nacer Chadli to score, the ball having been dummied on the way by Lukaku. He exhibited so many facets of his game in those two moves that without showing it, the striker Lukaku reminded you what a great goalscorer he is too.

Much of the World Cup is about defeat: teams being beaten by teams soon to be beaten. To watch the World Cup is to become a connoisseur of pain. You get an education in the many ways of the knockout. Japan felt the exquisite agony of giving everything of themselves in almost breaking the order, only to find it twisting violently back into place. Peru sang beautifully, but kept missing the high note. England's consolation for elimination was to step straight into a honeymoon period and to break a cycle of negativity (although we've heard that one before). Poland's defeat to Colombia furthered their Sisyphean run of qualifying and flopping. (Would that Ireland could do that.) Senegal were eliminated on a fair-play tiebreaker: death by bureaucracy.

The exits of Germany and Spain were those of a privileged class being confronted with failings they can't decide whether they want to acknowledge. That of Argentina was the inevitable fate of a broken team. (For the neutral, though — if being a Lionel Messi fan counts as neutral in this fractured age — the whole weird mess was worth it just for his goal against Nigeria. With some players, you slow the video to understand their tricks. With Messi, you do so to understand his simple touches. An image to go along with those of Lukaku is that of Kenneth Omeruo putting his weight on his left foot as he prepared to make a tackle with his right, because he didn't expect Messi's second touch to be taken before the ball had hit the ground from his first, because who would expect that? We are all Kenneth Omeruo.)

Panama's first World Cup appearance was so precious that celebration overcame elimination. Russia and Sweden left the stage contented in their overachievement.

Croatia started the competition looking quite flat, but spent the quarter-final, semi-final and final straining every muscle and wearing away every nerve ending. Their effort was embossed on the latter stages of the tournament. And there in the middle of it was Luka Modrić, whose "gift", as described by Jorge Valdano (a candidate for player of the tournament), "consists [of] filling the game with common sense". He was a still point in a frantic world — but he snapped into tackles as fervently as his teammates did.

And their hopes ran into France, who proved almost casually that they were the best team in the world. Croatia wound up a punch into which they put a lifetime of hope and fury; France bobbed; Croatia whiffed and fell to the canvas. This was the most confounding thing about the whole tournament: that the prize we attach so much importance to should be won at the cost of so little sweat. It made you wonder whether French has a word for 'insouciant'. It was all a bit anti-climactic.

My favourite major tournament, and the one that has therefore become the standard by which I measure others (this is the kind of thing that chooses you; you don't choose it) is the 2000 European Championship. France, the Netherlands, Portugal, and (coming up on the rail) Italy — they, and other teams, fulfilled so many of your expectations of what a championship should have: daring, passion, bitterness, beauty, anguish, surprise, truckloads of drama and, crucially, truly excellent sides putting each other through the ringer. It was, like Belgium-Japan, a total story, but one stretched over three weeks.

If the 2016 European Championship suffered, it was not because the expansion to twenty-four teams allowed more mediocrity to flood in, but because the countries you might expect to be great were not. This World Cup was similar, except that Belgium finally showed much of what they'd been promising for so long, and France showed how great they are by how much they withheld.

But also by how much they gave. There may have been something disturbingly Mourinhoesque about them: a terribly well-organised defence with an attack loosely connected to the front of it. But Kylian Mbappé called to mind the young Ronaldo. Paul Pogba at times looked ten feet tall (his slashing pass to Mbappé in the final to start the move that led to Pogba's goal stands next to Lukaku's finest moments). While everyone else was busy running around looking for the answer, N'Golo Kanté quietly solved the game yet again. And yes, that defence, as a defence should, glorified the art of responsible spoilsporting: Raphaël Varane and Samuel Umtiti were magnificent. Didier Deschamps did, after all, once win a World Cup playing in front of Thuram, Desailly, Blanc and Lizarazu. Maybe he knows a thing or two.

So even if it didn't scream out, the exuberance (the joie de vivre, as we say in English) that uncoiled in their celebrations after winning the trophy could be glimpsed in their play all along.

I wish this year's France could have been serially tested like their counterparts were eighteen years ago by Spain, Portugal and Italy. I've yet to see a World Cup that has lived up to Euro 2000's strengths. But I can hardly say I've ever regretted watching one. Even the bad ones are good. There's too much going on. To add to the above Diego Costa's solo masterpiece of a goal against Portugal, which encapsulated so much about the player (including how he got away with a foul on Pepe to begin with); Nacho and Pavard's twin strikes; the somewhat distressing dominance of European teams; the last half-hour of Switzerland-Serbia; Artem Dzyuba; the flamboyance of Neymar; Iran and Morocco putting the fear of God into Spain and Portugal ... it would barely begin to cover it. So many memorable moments are already forgotten.

And the World Cup has strengths all its own. It's global, and it matters more. We are privileged to see players in such a vulnerable state — to see how much they can bear, in front of the world and the folks back home, to stake on the outcome, which will eventually be defeat for all but that lone escapee.

Pussy Riot's intervention in the final shook you out of your arrogant reverie (before you drift off again) and reminded you that this most important of the least important things is bound up with the most important things and the world's worst people. The paradox is that it's also a relief from those things, and others, to devote a month of intense absorption to what is, at best, a celebration of human creativity and enthusiasm. Even if it is run by FIFA.

In these days after the end of the tournament, when it's now absent, you can think back to before it began, to the blank slate that was the draw and the fixture list, and think about how much has changed, and how little.



13 July 2018

The Past of Football: The World Cup, 1506-2022

Following on from his chapters on Alfbert, Lord Ramsey’s England, statistics, and the NASAL, General Sir Frank Lazarus bravely continues his chronicling of the history of the Beautiful Sport by tackling the Large One: the World Cup.


A spectator slips a ball into the ring during a bout of the traditional Florentine post-pub fighting game calcio stramascio (Italian for "proper twenty-one-man brawl"). No one notices, but football is invented once more. A group of holidaying Frenchmen challenge the locals to a game. The World Cup is born. Things gets heated, and an irate Frenchman charges an Italian much in the manner of a rhinoceros, which had only recently been invented.


The soccering world plead with their British masters to revive the old World Cup idea. The British say no, but gallantly allow the foreigners to stage a competition by themselves, if they were even capable. The winner of this event would face the champion of the Home Internationals, then the supreme tournament, in a showdown for global supremacy. In the final, Uruguay and Argentina can't decide whose football to use, so they use both. The ref can't keep score, and in the confusion declares Uruguay winners. Reminded of their promise of a super global playoff, the British go oh, we don't know what you're talking about, we're busy that decade, we were joking anyway, shut up, go away, there's a Scottish League-Irish League game on.


With the World Cup hosting rights awarded to Italy, Argentina decide to enter the tournament disguised as Italians, in the hope of profiting from favourable refereeing decisions this time. This fails to work, as the officiating is scrupulously fair and impartial at all times. Despite this, Italy/Argentina win the competition.

To save time, the 1938 World Cup is held simultaneously. Italy/Argentina also win this.


With everyone else too busy killing the flip out of each other, my now late then punctual fifth cousin Bobberidge Lazarus seizes the opportunity to stage the 1942 World Cup in his self-declared microstate Lazarusvania (pictured below). All the other nations of the world being too chicken to turn up, Lazarusvania are declared champions and remain the only unbeaten team in World Cup history except Scotland. The FIFA still won't recognise this because ooh that bloody Sepp Blatter.


The whole world clean forgets about the World Cup! They promise they won't do it again.


200,000,000 people cram into the brand new Maracanã to watch the final game between Brazil and Uruguay. The Uruguayans are victorious, but Jules Rimet has left the Him Trophy under the bed from the war. To cover up his mistake, he points out that since the competition format did not technically include a final, the World Cup actually has no winner. Everyone shrugs their shoulders, goes home and never speaks of the match again.


The FIFA decree that all games will be first to 100 or until it gets dark. The Germans stun the world by beating Hungary in the final. They celebrate by being very friendly to strangers, drinking lots of water, and dancing all night to acid oompah.


Brazil power to glory behind young phenomenon Edson, who celebrates by stealing a name from the tournament's Swedish hosts. He will henceforth be known to all as Pelle. In his victory speech, Pelle declares: "I am much better than Maradona."


Chile and Italy get into a massive fight, but a dog runs on and pees on everyone, and people rejoice in the sheer bloody beauty of the moment. Pelle misses the latter stages of Brazil's triumphant run due to injury, but nonetheless collects his medal in full kit.


England's triumph and subsequent fall from grace have already been extensively covered in this series. Suffice it to add that further research has revealed that a large shipment of grain was dispatched from Felixstowe to Leningrad the day after the final. I'm just leaving that piece of information there.


whoooooooooaaaaaaahhhhhh duuuuuuuude have you seen this it's all like colours and stuff it's so bright and shiny and bluuuuurrrrrry and like green and yellow man look at that yellow it’s the yellowy yellow lellow lellyowest yellow I’ve ever seen where is this place it's sunny like aaaaaaaaall the time dude is it just me or is this game going reeeeeeal sloooooow like they're barely even moving wait did Italy just win their group 1-0 is that weird looking German dude okay he can't stop scoring goals for some reason look at the yellow and the white it's like there's a party in my retinas and everyone's invited OH MY GOD HE'S SHOOTING FROM THE HALFWAY LINE AAAAAAAHAHAHAHAAAAA wait wait what they were two up weren't they weren't they answer me man what the fuck dude I want a Peru shirt is that guy playing in a sling like an actual fucking sling HOLY SHIT HE JUST WENT ROUND THE KEEPER WITHOUT TOUCHING THE BALL FUCK FUCK I CAN'T TAKE THIS THIS IS GETTING TOOOOOOO MUCH they keep passing passing passing what are they doing passing passing passing I feel sick passing passing passing he's just passed it to nobodFUCK MAN IT'S THE FULL-BACK I'm going to die


A World Cup of firsts: Scotland truly become Scotland for the first time; future 40-year-old Dino Zoff concedes a goal for the first time in his life; and the Dutch qualify for their first World Cup (apart from that other time when they were called the Dutch East Indies).

The Dutch had created an entirely new soccering philosophy called Sexy Football, which was a development of the Brazilian style, O Sexy Football, named after Irish missionary priest Fr. Peter O'Sexyfootball (an t-Athair Peadar Ó Soichsighphiotbál). It was invented by Czechoslovakia's 1962 goalkeeper Johan Cruij/yff, who would for inspiration stare for hours at paintings by the old Dutch goalkeeping masters: Vermeer, Mondragon, van der Saenredam, &c. Sexy Football involved players running around all over the place and kicking the crippins out of the other team.

In the final, the Dutch do it so astoundingly magnificently that after 22 minutes the Germans concede defeat. The Germans' captain, Franz 'The Director' Peckinpah, personally hands over the new cup, bought in a trophy emporium in Munich because Brazil had left the old one under the bed from the Mardi Gras. But Cruy/ijff isn't satisfied and holds out his hand again, whereupon Peckinpah gives him the European Nations Trophy cup the Germans had somehow accidentally won two years earlier.

Crui/jyff moves to Spain where he assassinates Franco and retires to stud, siring a master race of footballers with some very short women.


In the last minute of the final, a goalbound shot by the Dutch's Derek Manninger is stopped short of the line when an Argentinian general runs onto the pitch and shoots the ball. The ref waves play on, and Argentina win in extra time. Buoyed by this boost to national confidence, Argentina immediately invade Derrylondonderry but are trampled by a herd of plucky British sheep.


The first ever official World Cup anthem is recorded by The Fall. It is a searing commentary on recent FIFA history: "Put the blame into FIFA Haus, go round there and kick out Rous ... Rous rumbled, Rous rumbled ... I'm João Totale, the yet unborn son ... PELLE'S COBWEB EYES!!!!!". Called "The Goal of Love", its b-side is a reworking of "Bingo Master", telling the story of Sepp Blatter's impeccable handling of the draw for the '82 finals. The single is a global smash in several German cities.


Uruguay's José Batista sets a new World Cup record by getting sent off against Scotland before the draw has even been made. Sócrates refines his penalty technique to the point where he doesn't even have to score anymore. Bryan Robson's sling and Gary Lineker's cast make arm injuries a hip new trend for English kids bored of stealing VW badges. Peter Shilton is outjumped by a tiny man and is quite rightly still unhappy about it to this day. Said tiny man, Diego Maradona, waltzes his way through the knockout rounds, but his effectiveness in the final is blunted as he is marked out of the game by Pelle.


The 1990 edition is filled with cynical, negative football, if football is indeed the word. Tactics are horribly defensive. Goals are almost impossibly hard to come by. Games are a stop-start travesty of fouls, dives and whines. Claudio Caniggia is assaulted by three Cameroon players in quick succession in the opening game. Maradona spends his entire tournament being hacked down or diving to avoid being hacked down. A record number of red cards are handed out. Frank Rijkaard twice spits at Rudi Völler, yet Völler is sent off. Gary Lineker dives to win a penalty that helps to keep Cameroon out of the semi-finals. Argentina drug water bottles they then allow Brazilian players to drink from. Ireland 'arrange' the closing stages of their match against the Dutch to secure qualification from the group stages, and make the quarter-finals despite winning no games and scoring two goals. Argentina finish as runners-up after winning just two games. The Germans win the tournament scoring three goals in their last three games: two penalties and a heavily deflected free kick. Not one but two players are sent off in a terrible final. This remains the greatest World Cup of all time.


The United States yet again ruin soccer by calling it soccer and going to the matches in huge numbers. After Argentina's game against Nigeria, Diego Maradona is led away for a drugs test by an official who looks very familiar although no one can quite put their finger on it. The Germans merge with the East Germans to form superteam The Germans. This somehow makes them worse. Stefan 'Effin'' Effenberg is sent home by manager Berti Vogts because you would, wouldn't you. Many games are played in temperatures that are blatantly discriminatory against teams from northern Europe. Sweden finish third.


Adidas claim that their official World Cup football, the Obélix, is the roundest ever, thus solving a great problem that has long bedevilled the game. Dennis Bergkamp does not stamp on Siniša Mihajlović. Zinedine Zidane turns up fashionably late and steals the plaudits as France win. Fontaine, and just Fontaine, presents the Raymond Kopa to Didier Deschamps. Lilian Thuram, Marcel Desailly, Laurent Blanc and Bixente Lizarazu are dismantled, shipped to China and reassembled brick-by-brick to dam the Yangtze.


The World Cup is awarded to the sci-fi technotopia of Japan/South Korea. To celebrate, the organisers decree that it will be the first tournament ever to be staged in the future. Unfortunately, the confusion over dates leads to many of the favourites not turning up. The official ball of the World Cup is made of pure neon, making it the most visible football ever. Keepers still complain about it.


Swarthy Latin Cristiano Ronaldo grabs Wayne Rooney's foot and stamps his own gonads with it, thus getting the greatest player in the world sent off. Ronaldo finds his camera and winks, taunting the English by slyly referencing the derivation of the word 'connive' from the Latin for 'wink'. The next day he reveals his nefarious plan in a tell-all memoir called How I Got The Greatest Player In The World Sent Off.

To celebrate the 500th anniversary of the World Cup, a special re-enactment of the first ever World Cup game is held. Everyone goes home happy with no lingering bitterness or recrimination.


I don't know?


The world is plunged into mourning as Neymar is shot dead by top bad Colombian Pablo Escobar. The World Cup is cancelled in what many suspect to be an elaborate Brazilian conspiracy to deny Lionel Messi the chance to win the World Cup on his own. As part of Neymar's funeral, a game is held between Brazil and the Germans. Brazil honour Neymar's memory by being completely shit at football without him.


Croatia win the final on penalties after a 1-1 draw with France.


The FIFA controversially decide that the World Cup will be held in catarrh. The tournament is moved to the winter to allow more catarrh to be produced.





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