World Cup 2014: Comedian Andy Zaltzman presents his neutral's guide to Group D
Not sure who to back at this summer's footballing festivities? Fear not, Britain's best sporting comic has the answer
Saturday 24 May 2014
For the neutral, England must have been a hard team to support in recent tournaments, even in the unlikely event that your nation is one of the few with no long-standing historic grudge against the English, relating to history, empire, being located on the same land mass, some iffy refereeing decisions in battles that were fought hundreds of years ago, or a combination of all of the above.
England's campaigns have mostly been characterised by joyless, fearful, low-scoring draws against footballing micropowers, squeezing through a not-too-demanding group stage before slinking out of the tournament in a soggy blancmange of missed penalties and/or perceived injustice, while the world analyses the inverse correlation between the players' reported wages and their ability to pass a ball in an even approximately sensible direction.
This time, however, things may be different. For a start, England are widely perceived to have absolutely no chance of winning. For a second start, manager Roy Hodgson has picked a squad packed with youthful enthusiasm, talent, fearlessness and pace.
Some seasoned pundits have expressed concerns that these players will not be experienced enough in competition football to implement England's now-traditional timorous, nerve-wracked and bafflingly slow-paced game, or instantly switch to a 9-1-0 formation after scoring an early goal in a frantic attempt to hold on to their lead for the rest of the game, before conceding a sappingly inevitable equaliser. (England have scored first in their last eight tournament openers; six times they have conceded an equaliser, on two of which occasions they have gone on to lose.)
Could this be the tournament that England surprise themselves and the world by playing to their perceived potential, and making it to just their fourth major semi-final of the past 10,000 years? Probably not. But possibly. And neutrals might – might – even genuinely enjoy watching them play.
NSR: A national record 73%
Andy Zaltzman’s guide to Group A
Andy Zaltzman’s guide to Group B
Andy Zaltzman’s guide to Group C
Andy Zaltzman’s guide to Group D
Andy Zaltzman’s guide to Group E
Andy Zaltzman’s guide to Group F
Andy Zaltzman’s guide to Group G
Andy Zaltzman’s guide to Group H
Italy offers two players to attract significant neutral support, plus an unarguably impressive national expertise in what to do with dead pigs' legs. Slow-motion midfield general Andrea Pirlo appears to have the ability to make football freeze, while he potters around the pitch with the air of a contented pensioner enjoying a leisurely Sunday afternoon tending his beloved late wife's daffodils. There are times when you feel that Pirlo is contemplating nipping out of the stadium for a glass of Barolo and a nibble on some high-end ham, before returning to unfreeze the action with a defence-lacerating pass. He plays like an underfunded primary school teacher – with a ludicrous amount of class.
Former Manchester City oddball Mario Balotelli bounces on the opposite end of the psychological see-saw.
Balotelli could be a match-winner for the Azzurri, but is equally likely not only to throw his toys out of the pram, but also to throw himself out of the pram, before his manager throws the pram at him.
On the negative side, there are racist fans, Silvio Berlusconi, match fixing, and the fact that the Stifling Negativity club is very much in Italy's footballing golf bag, and they are prepared to use that club regardless of how the ball is lying. Neutrals will eagerly await the end of Italy's tournament, whether successful or not – Italian body language at the moment of World Cup victory or defeat is worth four years of licence fees on its own – while the opening-match showdown against England could be a highlight of the tournament. Or a stultifying 0-0 draw. More likely the latter. In any case, it is a classic confrontation – Dante vs Shakespeare, da Vinci against Tony Hart, Pavarotti versus Kajagoogoo, and Brunelleschi's Duomo in Florence against the smashed-up bus shelter on the A243.
THE INDEPENDENT REPUBLIC OF TEN-MAN URUGUAY
If you like to support a sporting minnow, but believe all things should be judged relative to a nation's population, then Uruguay is the team for you. The 3.3-million-strong numerical underdogs have overbarked throughout World Cup history, winning in 1930 and 1950, and reaching three other semi-finals.
The last of these was four years ago, when goal-scoring and opinion-splitting specialist Luis Suárez pulled off an understandable if shameless handball to stop Ghana scoring in the quarter-final, one of the most flagrant acts of cheating in the tournament's impressive history of wilful skulduggery. The Liverpool goal machine has put this controversy behind him, partly by being consistently sensational at football, partly by ensuring that the handball is no longer even in the Top Three Naughtiest Things Luis Suárez Has Done On A Football Pitch.
Disappointingly, Suárez's red card was a now isolated incident of wrong-doing. Uruguay used to be entertainingly, almost heroically, ill-disciplined in the age before red cards were commonplace (peaking in 1986, when, in consecutive group matches, they found themselves down to 10 men after, respectively, 19 minutes and slightly under one minute). As refereeing became stricter, and picking up red cards was no longer a challenge, so Uruguay increasingly, and regrettably, concentrated on the football.
NSR: Between 0% and 51%, (depending on how naughty Luis Suárez is)
Costa Rica's result against England could prove decisive in the Scottish independence referendum in September.
The Central Americans beat the Scots in 1990 – a similar result against Hodgson's men would no doubt be seized upon by the 'No' campaign as unarguable scientific proof that Scotland and England are so similar as to be politico-romantically inseparable; the 'Yes' camp would see an English victory over Scotland's 1990 vanquishers as yet more evidence that the Sassenachs continue to waggle their self-assumed national superiority right in Scotland's face. Either reaction would be largely in keeping with the tone and content of the referendum debate so far.
However, neutrals may consider that Costa Rica, as the top-ranked nation in the 2012 Happy Planet Index, is quite content enough with life already, and others are in far greater need of a sporting morale boost.
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