Archie Bland on World Cup 2014: USA v Ghana was good...

...but nothing like getting one over my mates by predicting the score

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The Independent Football

As I leaned forward on the sofa and took a jittery gulp of my beer at a quarter to one yesterday morning, I thought to myself: I hate those ads for bookmakers. You know the ones: there’s been a glut of them in recent years and they’re always the same. There’s a charismatic uncle type, Cockney or comically foreign, to represent the bookie, and a group of lively young men who’ve wandered in from a WKD Blue campaign being filmed next door, having a hell of a time as they piss away their paycheques on correct half-time score accas. The troubling decision to go long on the number of corners with an impulsive £20 is made to feel implausibly heroic.

Just in time for the World Cup, there’s another new one, featuring a set of likely lads who have each been assigned their own reductive betting persona: The Professor, Mr Brightside, Gut Truster, and so on. Gut Truster, in particular, is obviously a man with a problem, but treated like a role model: “You don’t choose the bet, mate,” he tells the camera confidentially. “The bet chooses you.” As they swagger down the street arm in arm, boozy Reservoir Dogs in Ben Sherman, the slogan appears: “This is the Ladbrokes life.” The grimmest thing about it: this is the glamorised version.

All of this gives me the creeps, and while I stick the occasional optimistic tenner on a longshot first goalscorer, I’ve never thought of myself as a gambler. So why the racing heart? Why the bug-eyed attention to USA v Ghana, a match about which I cared little, when I was only about six hours away from getting up? The answer, I’m slightly embarrassed to say, is this: I had backed 2-1 to the USA, and they were knocking on the door. Then, in the 86th minute, the debutant substitute John Brooks connected with a corner, sending a sharp header into the ground and up and out of the goalkeeper’s reach. He went berserk. I pumped my fist more vigorously than I would like to admit, and grunted “Come on!” Then I worried that I might wake my girlfriend, and put a lid on it.

This isn’t the Ladbrokes life, though. This is something a bit different. My friend Tom is part of a group of old mates who mark major football tournaments with the well-named Julian Rimet Prediction League, run through a fairly snazzy website knocked up by one of the more technologically adept members. They were looking for extra participants – I suspect mostly to bolster the pot – and so I paid my £20 and signed up. And somehow, by the wholly unsporting mechanic of not predicting a single draw and backing the probable favourite in every case, I found myself top of the league. I know we’re not a week into the tournament yet. I know, as Mark Lawrenson might sagely point out, that there’s a lot of football to be played. But when young John Brooks rose like a lovely Yankee salmon, matching the scoreline to my prediction exactly, I was forced to admit: I want to win. I haven’t gone through my guesses again with a correct-score odds predictor on hand, but it may only be a matter of time.

I feel like a bit of a tosser, to be honest: Tom aside, I don’t really know any of these people, and here I am, jovially weighing in on the round-robin emails with mediocre World-Cuppy one-liners – Gut Truster gone circular. If, by some miracle, I do cling on to a spot in the money, I’ll feel like I’ve pulled a fast one.

Still, as I write this, I’m all too aware that I’ve only got 15 minutes before the next set of predictions get locked down, and I find myself wanting to just have one more check.

In the ordinary run of things, I would never get into something like this. Every time I’ve tried Fantasy Football I’ve given up after about six weeks, around the first time that I forget to make my substitutions and leave my cheap relegation-fodder centre-back in the starting XI for the game against the league leaders.

But the World Cup is delightfully different. It’s not just the Julian Rimet: I’m also participating in three office-based contests. There’s a vanilla sweepstake, and another with booby prizes for best celebrations and worst overall performances. Then there’s the sports desk’s deliriously complex version, which requires your prediction of every result, top scorer, total goals scored, and, I believe, the number of times Gabriel Clarke will give himself a mental high-five for the penetrating psychological acuity of the way he has phrased his question about the starting line-up.

I suppose this is all a waste of money – £35 altogether, and £10 of it on my crushingly disappointing picks for the sweepstake, Algeria and Switzerland. And I am, to be honest, pretty certain I’m not going to win any of them: the Julian Rimet, I fear, is a cruel mistress, and I will shortly be found out.

Unlike the Gut Truster and his pals, I guess I’ll be able to live with this. Normally, having a stake in contests you wouldn’t otherwise care about is a certain route to misery. But for the blissful four weeks of the World Cup, it’s something else. It’s a way of re-enforcing the fact that this isn’t the dreary, mostly-disappointing football of a wet winter Saturday, but an exuberant festival that’s already given us Van Persie, vanishing spray, and the delicious bamboozlement of Jonathan Pearce. It’s a way of getting more excited about something great, not about something crap. And so I stayed up, and got a bit too into it. It would have been more sensible to have been asleep when Jürgen’s boys put one over on the Black Stars, it’s true. But it wouldn’t have been half as much fun.