What are your World Cup predictions?
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The Greatest Show on Turf kicks off in Russia this week, bringing with it all the emotion, heartache and joy that every football tournament does. Mark Heath takes a look at what we can expect in the next month.
It gets me every time.
Every four years, as the greatest talents in global football prepare to do battle for the biggest prize in the game, I insist that I’m not interested.
There’s too much football already, I protest. The games are always over-hyped and underwhelming, I cry.
Then, come the first week, I can be found watching every single match and excitedly discussing the merits of some obscure striker from far-flung climes on social media with anyone who’ll listen.
Because it’s impossible not to get caught up, isn’t it?
Indeed, my very passion for the game itself stems from the World Cup.
I was 10-years-old at the time of Italia ‘90, a youngster still trying to decide which team to support and where my best position on the pitch was (as it turned out, that was the sub’s bench – I was rubbish).
But something incredible happened that summer, as an unfancied England side galloped all the way to the semi-finals.
I still remember my parents running upstairs to bring me news of David Platt’s dramatic winner against Belgium – it was long past my bedtime.
I was torn as England saw off Cameroon – Roger Milla having danced his way into the hearts of many a football fan with his flamboyant celebrations.
And then of course we had all the drama of the semi-final with West Germany.
Little did I know then that England penalty shoot-out defeats would be a recurrent theme of my footy-following life for the next few years!
Gazza’s tears, Lineker’s gesture to Sir Bobby to keep an eye on the mercurial midfielder and Robson’s incredible leadership – I was hooked!
We even had an assembly the day after, where our terrifying headteacher came over all soppy and told us that Paul Gascoigne was a great example that it’s ok to cry. Wonderful memories.
As I think about it now, in fact, I can recall exactly where I was and what was going on in my life for all the World Cups since – I bet you’re exactly the same...
1994 – All I remember is Diana Ross missing an empty net from about a yard in the opening ceremony. We weren’t there though, so I didn’t care – although Ray Houghton scored a cracker against Italy.
1998 – Michael Owen scoring a worldie against Argentina, Becks getting sent off, penalty heartbreak again. In other, less important news, I sat my A-Levels.
2002 – Every game was at a ridiculous time because it was in South Korea and Japan. I got up at 7.30am to watch England draw 0-0 with Nigeria on a TV with a screen smaller than most modern mobile phones – I was but a poor young cub journalist at the time.
2006 – More penalty heartbreak, this time thanks to Portugal. Rooney got sent off, Ronaldo winked and the country was outraged. My Portuguese neighbour at the time thought it was hilarious.
2010/2014 – I’ll skip these... it’s best for all of us...
Anyway, what can we expect this summer?
Well, England go to Russia with a very young squad, and – to date, at least – lower expectations than usual.
That’s a good thing – for years we’ve got far too carried away with ourselves and expected too much.
Of course, if we win our first game, anything other than going all the way will suddenly be inconceivable, but let’s resist that for the time being.
A run to the quarter-finals would be nice, and a noble penalty shoot-out exit where we all feel saddened, rather than embarrassed for a change.
Ultimately, anything which breaks the cycle of the last few years would be great...
1) England exit in embarrassing fashion.
2) Much gnashing of teeth from pundits, calls for a winter break etc.
3) Premier League starts again, everyone forgets points 1 and 2.
4) Repeat for every major tournament.
Who wins? Well, I’ve got a feeling that those pesky Germans are going to defend their title and make history – the conditions will suit them too.
Whatever happens, enjoy the tournament.