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2018 World Cup predictions: Who will be the England of the tournament?

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Plus the beautiful tournament that brings countries together, even if they aren’t countries.

Hello, and welcome to Tactically Naive, SB Nation’s column looking back at the week in football. Or soccer. Whichever you prefer. This week our sponsors are: the complete lack of complaints about the official World Cup ball being too round.

Good morning, afternoon, or evening. Or happy tomorrow, if you’re late to the content. The World Cup is just days away, the squads are set, the friendlies have almost all been endured, and that means it’s time. Time to step up. Time to make a commitment. Time to make …

WORLD CUP PREDICTIONS

Here is what’s going to happen. Do not put any money on any of this.

Surprise package

It has become traditional, over the last few years, to identify Belgium as the likely surprise package for pretty much any tournament going: World Cup, European Championships, the Alan Turvey Trophy (formerly the Isthmian League Cup [known as the Velocity Sports Trophy for sponsorship reasons]). So much so, in fact, that Belgium are the least surprising surprise package since that Christmas you stole downstairs and peeked at your presents, you enemy of fun.

This has two consequences.

First, the only way Belgium could surprise us now is if they turned up, were terrible, and clattered out of the tournament in humiliating — wait, Roberto Martinez? How interesting …

Secondly, we need to look elsewhere for potential shocks. Tactically Naive has been absorbing all the pre-tournament friendlies and has concluded: buy shares in Morocco. For one, they’re fun. For two, they’re actually pretty good. And for three, that Portugal-and-Spain group is looking far too neat and tidy. Frankly, it’s suspicious.

England of the tournament

It’s refreshing, but it’s also concerning: England aren’t looking very England at the moment. The squad is likable and liked; the hype is being constrained within sensible parameters; and on the pitch, they seem to have something like a plan. It just doesn’t seem fair.

So, is some other nation going to collapse into the abyss created when hubris slams into failure? We’re looking at France. There’s something about the contrast between the ebullient talent that runs through the squad and the grubby misery of Didier Deschamps. There’s a disaster waiting to happen in there, absolutely everybody’s going to come out of it looking awful, and it’s going to be great.

James Rodriguez of the tournament

Or: which player is going to have a really good tournament and get bought by Real Madrid for more euros than is strictly sensible? The key here is not to think about what Madrid need or about what might make sense, but to read the vectors of hype. We need somebody who can use this tournament to level up, as it were; to advance from mere footballer to potential galactico.

So it probably has to be an attacking player. They have all the fun. This attacking player has to play in a team that has a good shot at doing well, and in a way that allows this player to star. Assists are nice, and goals are better. And finally, they can’t play for anybody too big already, because that could get messy. This needs to be swift and grand.

Add all that up, and it looks like Madrid are going to spend untold millions on, er, Timo Werner. Congratulations to him! Congratulations to Leipzig! Buy yourselves something nice.


Getty Images

Exciting-looking game that is going to be really boring

Spain vs. Portugal. The more we think about this game, the worse it starts to look. Spain nicking an early goal and then just passing the ball around. Cristiano Ronaldo pointing and shouting and walloping free kicks into the middle distance. Portugal’s midfield getting increasingly annoyed and breaking the game up with snide little fouls. Yellow cards. A red card. Some pushing and shoving. A brawl. The benches emptying. A last-minute penalty to Portugal. Ronaldo step-

Hang on, this sounds great. Tell you what, this World Cup fever is strong stuff. It rejects even the possibility of anything being boring.

Boring-looking game that is going to be really exciting

Poland vs. Senegal. Senegal have a really entertaining front three; Poland have two quick wingers and Robert Lewandowski. This one ends with 13 goals, or Tactically Naive isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.

Top scorer

We got really into this question. We looked at precedent. We considered form, both international and club. We looked at the draw. We refused to fall into the “oh, they’ve got an easy group” fallacy. We thought about likely lineups and impact subs. We balanced the creative talent in squads against the likely attitudes of the coaches.

Then we realised it’s obviously going to be Neymar.

Winner

Brazil. No, Germany. Wait, Spain. No, it’ll definitely be Brazil. They’re the best, and everybody else looks a bit weird. Although pre-tournament friendlies are basically meaningless. Germany, then. They know what they’re doing. But they look so tired. And Spain’s midfield is so good. France, maybe? France are pretty good. But we picked them to be a mess. We should stick with that. Germany it is, then. No, Brazil. Neymar’s the best. Well, Messi’s the best. But Argentina … no. England? England! England. Spain. Let’s go with Spain. Or Germany. Or maybe Brazil.

All sorted.

The other world champions …

… are Karpatalya, who on Saturday defeated Northern Cyprus to lift the ConIFA World Football Cup. Congratulations to them, and to ConIFA’s branding team for such a cute piece of trademark dodging.

The tournament wasn’t entirely without controversy. Ellan Vannin, from the Isle of Man, withdrew from the tournament after complaining — IN CAPITAL LETTERS — that hosts Barawa had been allowed to bend the rules around player registration. But on the whole, it passed in the intended spirit: a festival of football around the fringes of the international game.

And existence around the fringes of international borders. While Cascadia were losing to Karpatalya in the quarter-finals, Trevor Owen, of Cascadia Underground, was waving his flag on the sidelines. And when his arms got tired, he was pressing merchandise and the idea of Cascadia on London’s non-league groundhoppers. Not just a bioregion, apparently: a community, a flag, an anthem, a country in every conceivable respect … except for the fact that it’s a chunk of the USA and another chunk of Canada.


NurPhoto via Getty Images

ConIFA is also home to teams drawn from diaspora or minority communities; Karpatalya, for example, are the team of the Hungarian minority within Zakarpattia Oblast, part of Ukraine. Theirs is a different relationship to the “proper nations;” they are located in one but defined, as a community, by another. This became particularly interesting in the semi-finals, when they faced Szekely Land, a team drawn from the Hungarian community in Romania. Red, white, and green flags were doing double duty.

What these teams remind us is that international borders, and indeed our very ideas of nations, are contingent and constructed. There is nothing inevitable about them; they are products of history and politics. And they are contested, too, by those within and beyond their borders. The World Cup deals with nations as they are; the World Football Cup deals with nations as they are imagined to be. In the process, that distinction collapses.

Here as much as anywhere else, football seems to be inevitable. Take any group of people with any kind of idea of commonality, and football will happen. And wandering around the non-league grounds of London this week as served as a reminder that football, whether played by Cascadia in front of 200 people, or Brazil in front of 90,000, always looks and feels much the same. The standard goes up and down, of course, but the forms remain.

The players holding their heads. The fanatics singing their voices ragged. The interested neutrals laughing and choosing sides. Football, it seems, is fractal: whatever the scale, the shapes remain the same. So too the pleasures.

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