Put down the Kopparberg and wipe that fake smile off your face, because the 2018 FIFA World Cup is finally here. Three summers of barbecues, birthday picnics, uni-mate get-togethers and plans to not drink every day are nearly over. Those listless, football-less days you yearned to be punctuated by something as simple and beautiful as the second half of Poland vs Senegal have finally come to an end. The hype is well past boiling point; the discourse is about to begin.
Even though we've been inundated with build-ups, player profiles, tactical breakdowns and Hand of God iPlayer featurettes since Gotze scored the winner in Rio, we still haven’t managed to shake the fever. With just hours to go, it's time to take one more look at who and what is going to tip our life/work balance into Pure Football. Time for one last roll-call of the lightweights, scapegoats, wildcards, bottlers and klepto-krats who, in all likelihood, will win us little more than a Paddy Power account suspension and a few months of couple's therapy.
So enjoy this one last World Cup preview, the one for people with a score on Diego Costa for Golden Boot.
Oh boy, who'd have thought it? The world's most organised international team – the squad who've been playing together since they were teenagers, the masters of the academy system, the kings of the smooth managerial transition – are left looking like a League One side trying to manage the sudden departure of Paul Tisdale.
Granted, their system is basically designed to cope with this kind of issue – but the idea of a Clasico-schism and subsequent embarrassment is too good to resist. How would you most like to see Spain get done? A dubious Timo Werner pen and a bawling Sergio Ramos refusing to leave the centre-circle would do nicely for me.
Sepp Blatter's Death Rattle
The 2018 World Cup will be the first to take place since the big man's enforced retirement, but that doesn't mean his presence won't be felt. The long scheduling of the tournament means that like some pariah DJ Rashad figure, he continues to influence the culture even though he's not around.
With his eastern front just hours away now, and the gulf-futurist nightmare of Qatar to come in 2022, it appears we are still very much living in the Blatter era. His sticky-fingered spectre will be seen and heard in almost every part of this World Cup: the Robbie Williams opening ceremony extravaganza, the Amnesty International six-pointer between Russia and Saudi Arabia that follows it, the Gazprom hoardings, the half-time Gillette adverts, the military presence, sexist gags, human rights abuses and inescapable feeling that somebody, somewhere, is making a lot of money from this.
You can almost imagine him watching proudly from his Gstaad retirement chalet, looking down on the proceedings like Mufasa at Simba. Nodding in quiet approval as the helpless reformer Gianni Infantino tries to hide the brown envelope in the back of his trousers. "Every man has a price," he mutters to himself as he takes another sip of Remy Martin.
The Politicisation of Anything and Everything
As the tabloid media continues its miserable, drawn-out star-death, it's become apparent that they've decided to have a pop at football one last time before all the reactionary Geoff Hurst Stans drift off into senility and the entire fanbase become YouTubers and vegans.
In Raheem Sterling, they have found the perfect scapegoat; young, gifted and slightly too Jamaican for the British public, his name is being bandied about as a symptom of moral decline – Body Count's "Cop Killer" come to life, with a tight fade and a mansion in Alderley Edge – while Harry Kane is being treated like the Unknown Soldier, despite being an almost entirely neutral character. Even though the two link up well on the pitch and seem to be mates, they also represent some kind of false divide in the game, like Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath or Liston and Clay before them.
The whole thing is absurd, deceptive and sad – but expect differences like these to be politicised by both sides of the divide as the tournament rolls on. Any mistake by a player who doesn't fit the bill will be seized upon, and any moment of glory from one who does will be spoken about like Agincourt, Waterloo or the moment Leave won Barnsley. Whether Sterling can do enough to win a pardon from Middle England remains to be seen.
There's always one: a nation blessed with a team of VillaRreal squad bods and Ligue 1 individualists that somehow finds themselves in the quarters with a few giant scalps tucked in their belts – only to find the impossible weight of an entire planet dreaming of anything but a tiki-taka final too much to bear. Think Costa Rica in 2014, Senegal in 2002 and Cameroon in 1994.
Personally, I'm going for Senegal once more. They've got a decent squad full of Premier League talent (but a keeper who is currently on loan in the Turkish second division), and have pedigree for surprise. But if you’re looking for a more... sensible choice, you could do worse than Poland: good spine, great striker, but just slightly too many West Brom players to really do the bits. .
Or how about throwing your inevitable post-England support behind Portugal’s ageing bandits? Fonte, Alves, Pepe and CR7 himself might be starting to look like a prison theatre version of Il Divo,but players who have long-mastered the art of knowing when the referee is and isn't looking are a boon in international tournaments.
Last time round, I put a quid on Shola Ameobi for top scorer. I can't even remember if he played or not, but some latently sentimentalist part of me enjoys the idea of throwing my support behind a player on their last throw of the dice – somebody who you remember from your teens, still inexplicably turning out for Olympiakos or Guangzhou Evergrande. A player who is the same age as Katy Perry, yet in football terms is basically a Highlander.
When it comes to veterans, all the media focus will be on Iniesta, but frankly I'm far more interested in John Obi Mikel's international swan-song, Ricardo Quaresma's redemption or a Tim Cahill fairytale than anything to do with that tedious sideways pass merchant.
One Tournament Wonders
Every competition throws up one – an international flash in the pan, a player who becomes the panic buy of the summer, only to become a pub quiz tiebreaker question before they turn 27. Recent tournaments have given us the inscrutable James Rodriguez, the mercurial Milan Baros and the maverick El Hadji Diouf – flashy sorts who bag a couple of goals in the group stages, only to find themselves airlifted out of Lyon for €40 million and a whole lot of unanswered questions. Not sure why, but their dads are always their agents.
The rising bullshit levels around the England camp mean that, invariably, there will be players whose importance is vastly over-stated, or lack of game-time sees them exalted as some kind of ace in the hole – when, in actuality, the manager has probably just realised the extent of the damage caused by their pre-tournament visit to Ocean Beach Club Marbella.
I remember really believing that Matthew Upson was the man to do the job, that Trevor Sinclair was the answer to the left side problem, that Danny Mills was the new Lizarazu. I even remember some bloke on talkSPORT claiming that Ross Barkley could have saved it for us at the Euros. This year, with football so heavily and constantly analysed, we'll be surrounded by armchair Glendennings and message-board Marcottis who will claim that of course Danny Welbeck would have been the natural choice to capitalise on the lack of mobility in the Costa Rica defence, that Alfie Mawson was the kind of technical centre-back we desperately lacked against the Germans, and that Jack Wilshere isn't a total waste of space. That's not to mention the inevitable cries for Jonjo that will ring out across the nation at the end of every game.
Burgundy Short Violence
Football hooligans aren’t what they used to be. They’ve been neutered, shaved, put on low carb diets, gentrified and quite possibly red-pilled. The baldy beasts of yore have long been forced into retirement by ticket prices, banning orders and angina. In their place comes a young, affluent new breed hopped up on burgundy shorts, Mark Noble haircuts, Carlton Leach books and "free Tommy" memes. They come from places without top-tier football teams and have watched enough episodes of The Real Football Factories to know a bit about the Spartak mob. They have been suspiciously quiet in recent weeks.
The Kremlin Kibosh
The likely lack of English piazza-trashing will probably be attributed to them cowering in the face of the Boys from the Bloc. But the police will probably have as much to do with that as the firms, because if there's one thing the Russians are good at, it's state suppression. If they can handle the Chechens, Americans and Pussy Riot, then a few blokes from Stevenage with rolled up copies of Goals On Sunday aren't going to phase them.
At the age of 31, Keisuke Honda has been a World Cup superstar for as long as I can remember. A true legend of the tournament, he encapsulates the global feel to it all, a player who seems to exist outside of club football, coming into our lives every four years with a sick haircut and a series of superb set-pieces. As football becomes better known and more intensively studied, players who come with such a level of intrigue and excitement are a rarity. While he's still doing his thing, treasure him. The Carlos Valderrama of our time.
Don't let the warm-ups fool you. If there's one thing I'll bet all my worldly possessions on (a laptop and a few pairs of trainers, in case you’re interested) it’s Belgium having an underwhelming tournament. It's been said more than once that they are the new Netherlands: a squad of immense talent – cool, technical forwards, dependable defenders and a world-class keeper – yet one which seems strangely fractured.
People fancy them more this time round due to their spree-scoring qualifying rounds, but really that doesn't matter. The World Cup is about bottle; that's why the Germans and Italians and Brazilians win it and the Dutch and the Belgians and Argentinians don't. In Martinez's ridiculous axing of Radja Nainggolan, they've lost one of the great bottle-men of world football – all because he doesn’t play into their system and likes a tab and a pint. Expect tears running down Kevin De Bruyne's puffy, gingery face somewhere around the quarters.
Whenever nobody knows who's going to win it, Germany win it. Put your nan's pension on it.