You have five hours. Your challenge is to find, interview and photograph a fan (in team colours) from every nation at the World Cup finals. So, where are you going to start?
While no reporter ever doubts his Editor’s judgement (*cough*), it was one of the more frantic and enjoyable assignments thrown my way by Simon Kelner when he led our sister title The Independent. Two of us hit the streets in what was, really, a rubbish version of Challenge Anneka. I was nearly run over chasing a car that flew a Ghana pendant. One street in south London gave us Brazil, Portugal, Poland, Germany and Australia, but other countries eluded us until, at 6pm, a woman in the Ecuadorian embassy finally put us out of our misery by posing with a flag.
The 2014 World Cup begins in eight days and, as Simon writes, our reaction to it is unusually restrained. i reader Jimmy Pierce of Ponteland writes: “The England football team will be back before the postcards.” In fact almost the only thing recognisable from previous tournaments is that someone (20-year-old Ross Barkley) has been described as “the new Gazza”. Hopefully it’s the Gazza who scored that belting goal against Scotland, rather than the Gazza who turns up in the middle of televised police manhunts with chicken and beer for the fugitive.
This time, if England collapse in the group stage, I don’t really mind. Thinking back to that day pounding the streets, looking for football fans from 32 different countries, reminds me of the fun to be had in adopting other nations for a few short weeks: picking a second or third team. Who could begrudge debutants Bosnia a scrappy victory over frightening Argentina? Or minnows Honduras knocking the Les Bleus off their perch?
i’s World Cup team of writers includes Rafa Benitez, Tim Sherwood, Neil Warnock, Sam Wallace, Ian Herbert, Tim Rich, Paddy Barclay, Grace Dent, Mark Steel and John Walsh. When there’s real news, the World Cup will break into the i news pages. But otherwise our comprehensive coverage will run in a bumper i Sport section, extended so as not to short-change those who prefer test cricket, Wimbledon, the home nations’ rugby tours, the Tour de France (three stages in England), the British Grand Prix and the build-up to the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games.
When you ignore the commercial razzmatazz and the venal governing body, there is a simplicity to the World Cup’s colossal appeal. For a short moment, hundreds of millions of people around the globe stop what they are doing, and watch 22 men take to a field in their quest to bring joy and excitement to others’ lives.