Pick a team, eat pretzels with pets and mention Didier’s dental state
How to survive the World Cup, which starts in Russia on Thursday
There’s a trick to watching a World Cup not featuring your country. Let’s face it, Bafana Bafana are no closer to qualifying for a World Cup than Malawi, so the wheeze is to pick another team, or another player, and follow them through the tournament.
Admittedly, this can seem artificial. But the World Cup, which kicks off when hosts Russia play Saudi Arabia at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on Thursday, at least has the advantage of being one of the most open in living memory, so there are many second choices from which to choose.
One of 10 teams could win it, so there is ample opportunity to become promiscuous for a month and, say, pretend to be a Spaniard. Brush up on your Flemish and become a Belgian or, in a cheery antidote to Afro-pessimism, get your mother to knit you a red, green and yellow scarf and become Senegalese.
If your girlfriend (or boyfriend) is a Dane or a Swede, see the tournament through their eyes. In many ways such a manoeuvre is a win-win: your expectations aren’t extreme in assuming the colours of another team, so if they do well it’s a happy bonus; if they bomb, well, they weren’t your team anyway, so you’ve lost nothing.
As with everything else in life, there are bankers — those with fair chances — at the World Cup, and some rank outsiders.
If you prefer something conservative, plump for Germany. While they err on the side of Teutonic hyper-efficiency, the Germans have a long-standing (and, to the rest of the world’s football supporters, galling) habit of being there at the end.
Brazil have been rampant in qualifying, losing one game out of 18 and scoring 41 goals with a kind of freewheeling — and very Brazilian — abandon.
Spain, Uruguay, Portugal and Argentina all have championship pedigree, so rooting for them has benefit, though neither Portugal nor Argentina have been at their best recently.
The team that has attracted the most romance in the past two years is France. They have a young, gifted side who breezed through their qualifying group four points ahead of Sweden (who have also qualified) and Holland, after starting their qualifying campaign with a forgettable 0-0 draw away to Belarus.
Holland was their major scalp. The Dutch started off their 2014 World Cup with a stunning 5-0 victory over World Cup holders Spain, and until recently were one of the form sides in the global game. The French, however, dealt with them by winning in Amsterdam through a Paul Pogba goal before thumping the men in orange 4-0 at the Stade de France in Paris in August 2017 to seal qualification.
If you are looking to impress acquaintances, bosses, strangers and members of the opposite sex, you could do worse than learn a few key facts about France. Their player to watch is the young Kylian Mbappe, poised for a possible move to Manchester United from Paris Saint Germain.
Also worth mentioning (as casually as possible, of course) are the words "Thomas Lemar", the Monaco player and one of the France young brigade. If you really want to show off, mention Mbappe and Lemar in the same sentence, which will make you seem immensely recondite. Before long people will start drifting across to your desk for help with the World Cup office sweepstake and they will want to discuss Iceland’s revolutionary use of the long ball.
The clincher, as far as France is concerned, is to talk about their coach Didier Deschamp’s teeth. Those teeth are not a pleasant sight. They have been the subject of memes the world over. To talk about Deschamp’s teeth gives you the kind of hard-core authenticity only diehard fans recognise. A discussion of Deschamp’s hatred of the dentist is almost as important as knowing that France are in the same group as Australia, Peru and Denmark. Of the middle-ranking teams who have outside hopes, England, Belgium, Mexico and Serbia look as though they could spring an upset or two. But if you are of an adventurous disposition, pick a rank outsider (Australia, Egypt, Japan) on whom to pin your hopes.
The World Cup can, of course, be a time of loneliness and heartache, when some of us end up eating pretzels with the dog while watching Costa Rica versus Serbia — which is not a tie that will have many calling in sick. For mental health reasons, watching alone should be avoided. Go out. Watch matches with other people. Remember Mbappe’s name, though be reminded that it is silly to use it when France aren’t playing.
To avoid being a social outcast, watch games with friends or take in the SABC’s World Cup coverage anchored by Thomas Mlambo and Romy Titus.
They have a long list of local pundits lined up, including Teko Modise, Steve Komphela and Jomo Sono.
Not always the best man to be stuck in a lift with, Komphela will nevertheless bring his erudition — and love of the never-ending sentence — to the SABC’s proceedings. "The nice thing about our coverage is that if a team plays pap we can say it like it is," said Mlambo.
"We’ve got no overseas guests to worry about."
SuperSport also has big plans, with an impressive cast of international pundits including Andy Townsend, the former Ivorian international Yaya Toure, Jay-Jay Okocha, Gianfranco Zola and Phil Neville. Local enlightenment will be provided by Benni McCarthy, Andre Arendse, Shaun Bartlett and Gavin Hunt, who will be broadcasting from SuperSport’s brand-new high-definition channel (SS3) that was launched on June 1.
News that Ashwin Willemse is crossing the floor in a late bid to join in the festivities is apparently incorrect.