"Why," asks a friend, "is this World Cup so rubbish?" At least, he says, "Italia 90 had a good sound track going for it." And it's true: Pavarotti is better than the Vuvuzelas.
But is this tournament a disappointment so far? I'm not convinced it has been. True, there's not been too much spectacular football—though Germany and Argentina have had more than their share of moments—but did anyone really expect much from, say, France? Or England? And wasn't Italy-Paraguay always likely to be a tactical affair? (Actually I thought it interesting and Italy surprisingly close to being really rather good.)
True, Holland-Denmark was dreary and Ivory Coast-Portugal a disappointment. But this doesn't seem enough to justify the apparent levels of disappointment. No, we must look elsewhere: It's the teams.
The wrong ones are there and too many of the right ones remain at home.
The ideal World Cup admits some novelty teams but demands they be charming or bring something useful to the party. Mostly, however, we crave a tournament in which the Big Battalions are all present and correct. A crafty, selective formula of pedigree, weight of history, style of play and anything else you care to lump into the mix help calculate a country's World Cup "worth."
And the 2010 edition seems disappointing on that front. To put it another way: Apart from our Slovenian friends is there anyone who really wouldn't rather have Croatia in the tournament than their neighbors?
Not that this is the only example. Sorry Slovaks, but the rest of the world is just more interested in Prague than Bratislava. Ditto on the Oresund: I rather think most people would rather have Sweden in South Africa than Denmark. If the tournament needs more Slavs then Russia would be preferable to this particular Greek team.
Doubtless there are good Slovenian and Slovak stories but one struggles to avoid the notion that, really, they're just making up the numbers. They deserve their places for sure, but many of us would rather see Russia and the Czechs in South Africa since their presence would be somehow reassuring and serious. This, of course, is all most unfair. But so is football.
Moving to questions of politics and football: One would have liked to have seen Belgium take part even as their little country comes apart at the seams, while North Korea is a poor replacement for Iran when it comes to playing the role of American bogeyman since, alas, it is all but impossible for anyone to speculate on anything about football, power, politics and the people in the DPRK whereas Iran offers fertile ground for just that kind of entertaining, but harmless, guesswork.
As for no-hopers: New Zealand are bland and lack the charm of a Trinidad or a Jamaica. Besides, we all know that the World Cup doesn't matter to the Kiwis at all and so, in a curious sense, it feels mildly wrong that they should be there.
None of this means the tournament won't burst into life in due course. But the absence* of so many "proper" mid-level powers of the type that have often made a run to the semi-final makes for a slightly less compelling, interesting first round.
*And, on a technicality, Scotland. Of course.