Football: World Cup - Defeat is not so bad, it's hope that is intolerable

ANDY MARTIN At Large In France - Lens

THE SMALL northern town of Lens is as tense and wound-up as a nervous bomb-defuser tackling a highly booby-trapped unexploded bomb, timed to go off tonight.

I swear all I did was send back the cafe au lait in Le Michelet on the main street - "Monsieur, this milk is cold. You cannot make a decent cafe au lait with cold milk" - and within 10 seconds (no, I am not making this up), five bus-loads of policemen in full riot gear pulled up outside and piled out. Someone had pressed the panic button. I slipped away in all the confusion and doubled back later to find harmonious handshaking and photos being taken.

A British brass band - curiously garbed in gaucho gear but bearing Union Jacks - strikes up the Match of the Day theme tune on the main square in front of the Hotel de Ville. But, in truth, there is a sombreness in Lens which has nothing to do with the slag piles on the edge of town. Over at Le Sporting bar, the Tannoy is belting out Frank Sinatra's My Way, but the only line that strikes a chord with the listless fans sitting about at the tables is, "Regrets, I've had a few". "Regrets. Regrets. You can say that again!" pipes up one, miserably.

The ruthless laws of supply and demand are starting to bite. While the price of tickets has been ratcheted up to pounds 250 each, most of the would- be buyers are running low on cash and optimism. "I've only got a hundred left," says one, "I'm nearly cleaned out already."

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, a few tables away, a tout is cracking a deal over his mobile for pounds 3,000 (for what precisely I don't like to ask). "It's a nightmare," says another. He is talking about the camping ground where he has set up miles out of town, but he might as well be referring to the semi-apocalyptic mood prevailing here.

Years ago, as I was revising for my university exams and bemoaning my lot, Alf - the psychologist I shared a house with - used to go about saying, "Enjoy the pain". It annoyed the hell out of me at the time, so I decided not to bother with that line where discontented fans were concerned. But there is no question that a degree of masochistic pleasure in suffering has set in over here.

The great thing about the kind of pain induced by a major trauma (let's say, for the sake of example, a World Cup defeat), I have realised over the last couple of days, is that it blots out every other kind of pain - for a while at least. And there is a definite solidarity in suffering. Variations on the theme of "Poor old Scotland/Morocco/Spain" can be heard on every street corner, even in Paris, a city not normally noted for its compassion. No, disappointment and dismay and depression are not so bad - they are a kind of catharsis.

The only thing that is intolerable, especially in Lens, is hope. Hope, if I remember correctly, was the last of the dreadful vices to be let out of Pandora's Box - and the worst because it sharpened all the other assorted torments. Hope, at present, is buried and secret and publicly inadmissible.

The talk is all of early exits and who-will-replace-Hoddle speculation. But there is a perverse psychology at work here which we can see as a version of the wrong-footing bet. Everyone knows that the penalty-taker tries to make the keeper go one way so that he can blast the ball into the opposite corner. Equally, the goalie often tries to make the penalty- taker think he is going right (let's say), so that the ball will go left (which is the way, in reality, he was planning to jump all along). The wrong-footing bet plays the same sort of cunning game with the larger forces of fate.

Raffaele, who makes coffee into an art form in my favourite bar, is an old hand at this trick. If he wants Italy to win, he will go out and place a bet on the opposition. Since he invariably loses, the chances are that Italy will win, and if they don't he has the certain consolation of collecting his winnings.

Such is the inverse prayer: if you want something to happen, pray for the exact opposite. Something like this paradoxical strategy is even now being tried out by downbeat and desperate England fans gearing up for the big one. Expect the worst, actively embrace it, live it, and all may yet be well.

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