“But I think we can take it there won’t be any air raids, not on London at any rate,” Sir Joseph Mainwaring says confidently on the day the Second World War, and Put Out More Flags, both begin. “The Germans will never attempt the Maginot line. The French will hold on for ever, if needs be ...” For the rest of Evelyn Waugh’s novel, Sir Joseph's taste for of lofty predictions—“But there is one thing of which I am certain. Russia will come in against us before the end of the year. That will put Italy and Japan on our side”—becomes a running gag.
Anyone who has ever attempted to foresee the future, in speech or in print or online, must have a flicker of sympathy with Mainwaring, or with a minor journalistic hero of mine, the political writer on a Wisconsin paper who wrote, after the 1946 midterm elections, that the state’s new junior senator would be a valuable addition to liberal Republican ranks on Capitol Hill. That was not quite how the career of Senator Joseph McCarthy turned out.
Readers may have an inkling why I approach my subject in this crab-like manner. My last post here, the day before the World Cup quarterfinals began, bore the headline (which I didn't write) “Only Germany Can Redeem Europe From Total Soccer Disgrace,” and averred (in words I certainly did write) that “it hasn't been a good year for Europe.”
“For all that most of the best Latin American footballers play in European clubs,” I breezily said, “the superiority of their national sides is startling.” Within little more than 48 hours of the appearance of those limpid phrases not only had Spain beaten Paraguay as expected—though only just, and in the 83rd minute—but Holland had dramatically ejected Brazil, and Germany had trounced Argentina.
Not a good year for Europe? Three of four teams in the semifinals are European. Only one South American team is left, and it shouldn’t be. If the very last kick of extra time on Friday night hadn’t seen poor, poor Asamoah Gyan hit the crossbar with his penalty, Ghana would have beaten Uruguay, and not gone on to lose the shoot-out.
These musings are not merely an exercise in Maoist ritual self-humiliation. We all make mistakes, and calling any event, sporting, military or political, is rarely easy. At any rate, I was in good company. As the veteran Rob Hughes observed in the New York Times, “The World Cup turned on its axis over the weekend. Before Friday, virtually every soccer expert was certain that the power in this tournament belonged to teams from Latin America, that European soccer was stale.”
“Guardian experts predict the likely winner” ran a headline in that esteemed paper last Thursday. There were five such experts. Three of them said that Argentina would beat Germany, and all of them said that Brazil would beat Holland. On Saturday morning, the London bookmakers made Argentina clear favourite for their match, with Germany at 9 to 4. After the game, I looked back at the bookies’ morning-line prices (why does one do these things?) and saw that if you had nailed the exact 4-0 score you could have had odds of 125 to 1.
No, let’s leave prognostication to palmists and astrologers. As Hughes said (in the print edition of the International Herald Tribune, though these words were mysteriously deleted from the online Times), “soccer analysts are no more reliable than the global economists” who failed to foresee the credit crash. And in sport, as opposed to finance, he adds, “uncertainty is a good thing, because if we know the results beforehand, why bother to go to the stadium or to switch on the television?”