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Seeing the whole world through football-tinted spectacles

I DON'T see any way to avoid talking about the World Cup at least once in this column, so I might as well get it over and done with. Get ready for a stream of racist stereotyping.

But don't blame me for it. The problem is that the first thing I ever knew about places like Paraguay or South Korea or Morocco (or Holland or Germany, come to that) was that they were in our group in the World Cup. It'll be the same this year. By the end of July, what will the youth of Britain have to say about Tunisia or Colombia beyond the performance of their respective football teams?

In my first World Cup, at the age of 11, I obediently immersed myself in the football commentators' view of the world, according to which all foreign players (but especially Latins) were slimy cheats. Even the way they played the game - all that weaving and dummying and feinting - was indicative of a dishonest temperament. And when not hoodwinking our boys, those fiendish foreigners were falling over like ponces and deceiving refs into awarding them unjustified penalties. The referee's nationality, by the way, also became mysteriously relevant whenever he had just made a bad decision. What on earth did that Greek/Russian/Turkish referee think he was doing, giving a penalty for that blatantly Argentine/Italian/Spanish dive?

As for the British players, they were entirely different. They played a fundamentally straightforward sort of game, hard but honest; they were clean-shaven team-men. The only other team to whom we could accord a grudging respect for being anywhere near as decent was Germany, but even that became impossible after the arrival of that flailing lover-boy, Jurgen Klinsmann.

By my second World Cup, I had progressed to distinguishing between the various foreign teams. I noticed that the Germans were robotic and remorseless. I saw that the Spanish were defeatist under-achievers who never lived up to their potential. The French were cultured and sophisticated in appearance but were inevitably beaten into a pulp by more disciplined opponents. The Brazilians and Argentinians were prima donnas who couldn't care less whether their teams won or lost as long as their sex-appeal was enhanced.

That still left quite a large number of anonymous European countries (Poland, Norway, Switzerland etc.) whose only known characteristic was to be an irritant to the English during qualification rounds. But some other small countries had begun to take on remarkably well-defined characteristics. The South Koreans, for example, those pugnacious little fanatics who were ready to die for their team; or the Cameroonians, those overgrown children who became so absent-mindedly ebullient that they almost forgot they were supposed to lose.

Basically, I had acquired a handy working knowledge of all world cultures by nothing more arduous than watching a football tournament. It was as if the World Cup took place precisely in order to publicise national qualities, which was also why the only country we already knew enough about - the USA - didn't bother joining in.

Except that now, the USA has started to get involved. And this is where the World Cup, as an indicator of national identities, comes badly unstuck: because the USA, in footballing terms, are nobodies. Even Iran is tipped to beat them.

What a relief that would be to everyone. If Iran could beat the USA, it would mean that countries could no longer be summed up in terms of their football teams. It would mean that Japan could play loosely, Jamaica could play cautiously, Saudi Arabia could play irreligiously and Germany could play badly - without it reflecting on the national character of the country concerned.

Presumably, it would even mean that a British team could win the World Cup without having to proclaim their national superiority over anybody else.