Hardly any other sport allots such a big role to luck. In rugby or basketball, the team with most possession usually wins.
There are 54 outs in a baseball game, and usually more than 100 points in a tennis match, so one bad bounce rarely matters. But in football, a weak team can get one lucky break and spend the rest of the game hanging on in front of their own goal.
Live the tournament totally, but don’t take it seriously. “The essential absurdity of football — that it has become so important — is nine-tenths of the poetry,” writes Phil Ball in Morbo: The Story of Spanish Football.
Most fans understand, even while they are screaming at the screen, that this isn’t serious. After England’s eliminations, people go to work the next morning. Suicides fall during World Cups, probably because an entire nation living the same event briefly creates a community that draws in even the loneliest people, as Stefan Szymanski and I wrote in Soccernomics.
Nor, for all the hysteria, is there much hooliganism. There have been zero noteworthy violent incidents at the past four World Cups.
Don’t imagine that World Cups affect real life. Contrary to the hype, a successful tournament can’t keep a president in power or create racial harmony in a country. A World Cup vanishes like a dream. It often reflects sociological reality, but doesn’t shape it.
Don’t trust everything you see. Some outcomes at World Cups are fixed. When South Korea were co-hosts in 2002, their defeat of Italy probably wasn’t just an innocent episode of terrible refereeing. Soon afterwards the referee, Byron Moreno, was suspended in his home country, Ecuador. In 2011 he was jailed in Brooklyn after landing at New York’s JFK airport with heroin hidden in his underpants.
The writer Declan Hill has produced evidence to suggest that the crooked gamblers who operate in most national leagues fixed at least one recent World Cup match. And Michel Platini, organiser of the 1998 tournament in France, casually revealed last month that the draw was manipulated to raise the chances of a Brazil-France final (which materialised).
The best moments at the World Cup are away from the football. In Brazil for the 2014 tournament, I spent 24 hours in Manaus in the Amazon. In my one free hour, I went for a walk, turned a corner, and there it was: the mighty river. A man was washing his hair in it, and chickens were wandering in the shallows. That was probably the only time I’ll ever see it.