2-0. That’s the result of Morten Olsen’s big push for a draw against the Dutch. Between Elia’s legs, Dirk Kuyt’s right foot and Daniel Agger’s back, Denmark was thoroughly dominated by a Dutch team that showed flashes – just – of brilliant play.

Zonal Marking has a great summary of what went down, and it reports what you might expect: for a 2-0 win there wasn’t much in it as the Dutch struggled to bring down tightly-managed Danish resistance. The Dutch were favored and they got their win, and you might – as they do – take good note of the fact that the Danes avoided the mauling that was suffered by a poor Australia or a far better South Korea against similarly talented teams. But you can’t help thinking that they were capable of more – that if the Swiss can manage a very shaky team to a shock victory over the tournament’s favorites, Denmark could have taken one over an uncertain and only vaguely-favored Great Team.

Morten Olsen’s little fake-out routine with Bendtner was probably a mistake – at least it was a waste of time. I suppose there’s a chance that when he gave all those interviews he really didn’t think Bendtner would play. There’s also a chance that tomorrow I’ll become CEO of Merrill Lynch or the Sun will crash into Mercury. The fact is he played a little mind game with the Dutch that ultimately caused them no great consternation and got out of it was sixty-five minutes of mature but ultimately ineffective play from his star striker.

Ruse or no, he had little choice: with only three strikers in a squad that often plays two and veteran Jon Dahl Tomasson down with injury, it was either Bendtner or Soren Larsen, the journeyman striker who’s played little for the national team since his sensational introduction in 2005. You almost get the sense that he was included only because two strikers was too few even for Olsen; and when Bendtner went off he was replaced by Mikkel Beckmann, an attacking midfielder who seemed a poor fit and left little impression.

Eventually all three substitutions went to players up front – before Bendtner, the young Thomas Enevoldsen went off for the venerable Jesper Gronkjaer and Thomas Kahlenberg went off for Christian Eriksen. None had the effect of the Dutch substitution of van der Vaart for Elia, who terrorized the Danish right and turned Jacobsen, Rommedahl and the reinforcing Eriksen inside out. Worse, his runs pinned back Simon Kjaer and Daniel Agger, both of whose support were an important component in the early threat by the debilitated Danish strikeforce.

The lack of striking options, and the over-reliance on tried-and-true players like Jorgensen, Christian Poulsen and Rommedahl are problems with no solution; the squad is there, like it or lump it. But the good news is that Denmark’s defense did prove a good deal of mettle and for the first thirty minute the attack was as good or better than a Dutch team with far more options. Now Denmark has got its most difficult match out of the way and low expectations mean no psychological shock like that suffered by France, England or Italy. Poulsen/Agger’s own goal was unfortunate but a bizarre lacuna to otherwise excellent play – and perhaps only a little worrying in view of the fact that the only goal surrendered by Italy in the 2006 group stage was their own. The next match is against a Cameroon side which can’t work with Samuel Eto’o and Japan are not likely to get any better result against the Dutch. A final match against Japan suits a Danish team that tends to thrive with their backs to the wall. The dynamite burns slowly, but it burns all the same.

FULL TIME. So that’s it. No denying the Dutch were good for this, especially after bringing on Elia (it would be incomprehensible if they can’t find a place to start him after a display like that). As for Denmark, all this means is that it won’t be 1986. They’re not running away with anything. But from today’s form I can see them taking results against both Cameroon and Japan, who play momentarily. Now they’ll need to; but that’s the hardest match out of the way. Thanks to Mike de Vries and Sean Carroll and Peter in Denmark, and to the surprising number of people who checked in on this. For a first effort, it was a gas.
90+3 min. Sneijder takes a knock and petulantly stays on the ground like a dead fish, spewing abuse at a Danish player.
90+2 min. A final, desperate run is wasted. The Dutch still have near-unchallenged authority in the two-thirds of the pitch near then. I came to work 90 minutes early for this.
88 min.  MASSIVE CLEARANCE! Elia fatally breaks into the box again and beats Sorensen, but the effort isn’t fast enough and a defender (Poulsen?) boots it off the line at literally the terminal moment. If it were close, that would have been the moment of the match.
85 min. NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLL!!!!!! Elia breaks away with Kuyt on the two central defenders. Elia winds up, strikes half-powerfully and it bounces off the post, pass the outrunning Daniel Agger and straight to Dirk Kuyt. He boots it into the empty net.
80 min. Denmark actually moves again, but three times are either dispossessed or let the ball run away from them. How do you come back from this? Also, I think I was slightly unfair to Daniel Agger, but then so was the Jabulani. Though really I blame the vuvuzela. And international communism.
77 min. Remembering the match against Portugal, we know that Denmark comes on late. It’s their bread and butter. Van Persie off for youngster Affelay. Teams are getting younger and younger all the time… ESPN also wants you to vote for man of the match. My pick’s Daniel Agger (NED).
73 min. Elia is practically rioting on the Danish right, outrunning his men and crossing for van Bommel. The back line is holding but the Danes are not looking like winners. They need a chance and pronto. 18 year-old Christian Eriksen comes on for the effort.
71 min. Confronted with a big opening Mark van Bommel decides that charity requires the donation of his ball to some of the poorer neighborhoods on the opposite side of the city. A decisive man, he uses his right foot to send it express.
70 min. Elia gets away, but Sorensen calls out the militia and the effort is cleared away on a pass.
68 min. Van der Viart off, Elia on. American commentator says all that Mike de Vries just said for free and is richly praised by John Harkes.
66 min. A free kick for reckless glaring is awarded to Denmark. It’s a good ball in, but headed away, and a resulting cross back scorches away faster than Jay Leno’s ratings. “Thinking from a Dutch perspective we might see Affelay or Elia come on in order to stretch the Danish back line late on,” prognosticates Mike. We’re gonna hold you to that.
62 min. Striker Beckmann on for Bendtner! Probably insurance for Bendtner’s injury issues, but that doesn’t smack of much confidence of salvaging a result. Denmark are dropping passes everywhere and, like England, look like the error has got under their skin. How doesn’t it? “Remarkable that the Dutch haven’t scored any goals actually,” Peter remarks from Copenhagen. I think it’s more remarkable that they have. This performance is shaky. Probably good enough to hold on, but shaky.
59 min. Decent save by Sorensen. The mostly unmarked Van Persie passed to the entirely unmarked Van der Viart, who takes a stab. Not much for it, as the Danish defender was out of position to convert for the goal.
57 min. First sub. Enevoldsen off, Gronkjaer on, almost immediately gets his first touch.
55 min. Another Guardian commentator for Denmark, freshfromdk, remarks that he thinks the Dutch are playing a severe game and getting away with it. That it took de Jong so long to get booked is bizarre, but I’m not sure the Dutch aren’t just playing the physical game the Danes usually do but aren’t.
53 min. Another Dutch foul leads to another wasted Danish free kick. “Well a dull first half gives way to a dull opening goal! A lovely header from Poulsen takes a touch off his own man,” quips Mike de Vries. But it was a lovely header, was it not? I call that looking on the bright side.
49 min.Sean Carroll writes, “Come on Holland, a draw here is not good for Japan!” Yeah, Denmark’s stealing all that own goal thunder!
46 min. HORROR! – An own goal to Agger, though Poulsen is sensed to have some culpability. A quick rush by Van Persie sends him wide, but he maintains possession and flings it into the box, where the defenders convert. Some team talk they must have had.
Half -This match has rather been like a work by that Great Dane, Soren Kierkegaard – heavy with flashes of brilliance but long stretches of rather tedious digression. Fortunately that has not included many of the odd vowels favored by the Danes which, having never seen them on Sesame Street, I can only think heretical. (Come to think, do the Danes have Sesame Street? And what the Hell do the Japanese do?)
ESPN are so invested in this match they’re encouraging people to wake up their friends – for Japan and Cameroon. Thanks for that.
“The Dutch are too slow,” says Gullitt. I think the primary problem is that they’re a bit too fancy. But of course calling the Dutch slow is already too thinky for ESPN, which quickly cuts away to a report about Tim Howard’s injury as a result of Emile Heskey playing soccer in his general area.
It goes out for a corner which Bendtner fails to convert. “Right now these two Europeans – the giants – are looking to change things up for the second half,” says American. Denmark? Giant? Aw, shucks. We’ll see what Ruud Gullitt has to say about this fact.
Also, correction on 44: de Jong picks up his booking. About bloody time.
44 min. – de Jong brings down Bendtner – his tackles are coming with increasing nastiness – but he dodges the card. Christian Poulsen’s free kick is wasted, on Simon Kjaer or indeed anyone shorter than a Chinese NBA star.
43 min. – Van Persie gets clear in the penalty area, but can’t deliver a shot until Agger and Sorensen have all the roads covered. It goes agonizingly wide. In the commentary box, American commentator says blah-blah-blah. John Harkes says yes.
40 min. – “They don’t ever actually build up a play,” sighs Peter. “They just shoot it off to the Dutch and wait for a counter.” What else do you do? Denmark’s got a world class defense but players up front who don’t have the ability to carve up a packed defense. The breaks are the best chance. Inter did it successfully during the Champions League final.
38 min. – Absolutely deadly break leads to a shot from Kahlenberg palmed away for a corner. The resulting kick leads to a Sneijder breakaway, but though he’s good to win it he’s not to keep it. The Danish defense must be among the best we’ve seen so far.
36 min. – Denmark wins a free kick, which Kjaer rifles into the wall. The Dutch are dominating possession but two of the three best shots have come off a Danish boot. This is really tight stuff.
35 min. – On counter-attack the ball is crossed beautifully to Dennis Rommedahl, unmarked high on the right. Rommedahl rushes in and unleashes a zinger, which unfortunately goes straight into the arms of Martin Steklenburg. He’s definitely on notice after that one.
33 min. – Van Persie nearly has a sitter but Simon Kjaer forcefully muscles him off. Schneijder for the corner… leads to a close-range cracker from Kuyt!
32 min. – “Denmark are holding their defensive shape really well. They are frustrating the Dutch passing,” says Mike. And that’s exactly what they’ve got to do. Indeed it’s their only hope, that and finding the droids they’re looking for.
30 min. – Oh, for those just joining us for a little pastry trivia: the Danish call Danish wienerbrød, which means “Viennese bread.” But then what do the Viennese call it? Must get to the bottom of this. A fair challenge brings down Martin Jorgensen, who doesn’t get back up. Some players mill about like cops at a crime scene.

27 min. – Does anyone else feel disconcerted to hear an American commentator? It’s like instant coffee, it just isn’t right. Meanwhile Dennis Rommedahl lifts in an excellent cross on a rare Danish attack; Bendtner heads narrowly wide.
23 min.Mike says, “I’m loving van der Wiel’s charging runs from deep. He’s causing a few issues. The Dutch are just starting to click into gear a little.” I was going to quip that that gear is neutral, but of course Denmark are wandering around at vague distance from their own goal, occasionally obligingly hoofing the ball towards the Dutch goal.

21 min. – Brilliant run by van der Viart ends in frustration some twenty yards out. He keeps possession but shoots well wide.

19 min. – The Dutch win a corner which comes to naught. No Rommedahl, but injuries seem today to favor Denmark, which was highly unexpected. “The danish players dont gain control over the ball at all. They just hit the ball randomly away from the Dutch,” Danish Peter complains. How very English of them. At least they’re not serving it up shined and on a doiley.

14 min. – Denmark are locked up tight but this far aren’t doing much but repelling slightly shiftless attacks. The vuvuzelas are eternally peppy, though. I can’t believe they want to ban them. I think they’ve got a delicious existentialist quality.

12 min.Sean reports that Japan favors the Dutch to take three points today. Surely this outcome is more likely than desirable. Peter in Denmark: “At least they haven’t scored.” Typical Danes.

8 min. – Good also to see Enevoldsen playing for Denmark; he made a bit of a splash in the qualifier against Senegal. First Van der Wiel makes a run and Kuyt follows up; both come to naught.

6 min. – Lousy DC bus system. I rush into work just in time to see a) a crunching tackle and missed Dutch free kick and b) Bendtner’s alive!  He’s alive!

It’s 7:00 and I’m alone in a windowless room, which means it’s time for my very own extraordinary rendition of the tried and true minute-by-minute. More speculative than a Greek government bond, it is my hope that this effort entertains, informs and failing that avoids the sort of humiliation normally reserved for a first-choice England goaltender. (No points for the observation that it’s far, far too late.)

Group E’s  juggernauts the Netherlands meet my own adopted Denmark in a match-up whose conditions bear some similarity to this year’s Arsenal-Barcelona tie in the Champions League. Both teams were automatic group qualifiers; both feature strong defenses and attacking players of individual brilliance; both share not merely a style but a shared experience of play, with many players on both sides hailing from the Dutch Eredivisie; and one is the obvious favorite, overflowing with talent, while the other looks in desperate need of their own hospital emergency room. The Dutch may be short the miraculous if folically-challenged Arjen Robben, but they have a side packed with players of unquestioned international quality like Wesley Sneijder, Robin van Persie and the retiring Giovanni van Bronckhorst. By contrast Denmark feature a combination of old international hands and up-and-coming youngsters like defender Simon Kjaer and Arsenal’s Nicklas Bendtner, both of whom have been struck by the illness and injury plague that has also raised doubts over keeper Thomas Sorensen, striker Jon Dahl Tomasson, midfielder Daniel Jensen and even the coach, Morten Olsen. Olsen already ruled out Bendtner, though there are hints in the Danish press it may be a strategem, especially when he declares that he’d be perfectly satisfied with a draw. Given how badly outclassed Denmark is supposed to be, you don’t blame him.

But the teams’ histories are more complicated. The Dutch, of course, stand with Hungary and Spain as one of the best national teams never to win the World Cup. They created the total football that revolutionized the game but twice in a row fell just short of the prize, having to content themselves with a European Championship in 1988. They looked to repeat but the Danes, winners of the classic World Cup Group of Death six years before and admitted to the 92 Championship days before thanks to the expulsion of the collapsing Yugoslavia, saw them off in a thrilling semifinal penalty shootout on their way to a shock victory. Since then the Danes have been relatively unfancied and unimpressive, only reaching the World Cup Finals twice between 1986 and 2010, while the Dutch make regular appearances but never with the payoff they seek. As a result the teams rarely meet: the last time was  2008. Once again the Danes are the darkest of dark horses; once again the Dutch eye hungrily the prize that might very well, this year, be theirs.

I’ll be monitoring the match and updating regularly, so be sure to refresh the page. I’ll also be lucky to have the contributions of two of my fellow Group E fans from the Guardian’s band of international irregulars. Mike de Vries is a self-described “pessimistic Oranje supporter,” which did not stop him from effortlessly and rightly schooling me for my unintentional dismissiveness of a “youthful” Dutch side. (Average age: 27.7 – same as Denmark.) His blog is a great source of comment on these potential World Cup winners. Sean Carroll is a Tokyo-based writer and Japan aficionado who does, like, actual journalism, which I think will contrast nicely with my aimless blundering. Very much worth a look is his interview with Japan-based North Korea international Jong Tae-Se, which has kicked up quite a stir. Both gents have been good enough to lend their pith, mirth and insight on the match. I also hope to call upon my friend Peter Stockmann, who doesn’t have a website but is an actual Dane and can read Danish papers. Literacy is a huge advantage these days. The more you know.

(Starting off late here but feel free to e-mail your thoughts – wahlberg(dot)peter(at)gmail(dot).com. Sorry to be irritating, but I fear the spammers.

A handball a day keeps the World Cup away. Sorry, Thierry. Parts I and II here.

Group F… ig newtons

Italy, Paraguay, New Zealand, Slovakia; last prediction 1st Paraguay 2nd New Zealand

It’s a balmy, breezy tropical night.

You’re out. Nice little bar. You’re having a drink, you’re having a good time. You go into the bathroom. There’s a guy there, with a couple other guys. Something happens. Shit goes down. Out comes a gun – out comes a bullet. You’ve been shot. In the head.

This is Paraguay’s World Cup story: a brilliant qualifying campaign marked by wins over Brazil and Argentina marred by a shooting paralyzing their star striker. Still stranger, though, is the result: Salvador Cabanas not merely survives but is even now an outside chance to play!  In a World Cup plagued by injury this would surely be the bizarre angel atop the Christmas tree – and even on half-fitness Cabanas would be a massive boon to Paraguay’s chances. A Club America star, he has emerged as an absolutely top-class striker and was being seriously scouted by Premier League clubs before the shooting. (Also he’s money in FIFA 10.)

Italy’s story has rather less to it. The whole purpose of this exercise was ostensibly to retcon my unenviably optimistic prediction of a second-place finish to Paraguay. And yet… and yet they haven’t won a match since last November; they lost to Mexico; their qualification campaign was shaky from beginning to end; they’re roundly criticized for being too old, too immature, too rickety and crickety and for smelling a bit of formaldehyde. They have no injuries, which is good for their opponents since it means they miss the chance to play someone new and useful. Everyone says to me, “Oh but don’t you remember X when Italy were terrible but went on to win.” No. No I don’t. I don’t think the fussballgeist does either, for it a just spirit.

This group’s a two horse race: New Zealand have shown flashes of brilliance but more than anything are happy to be here at all, while Slovakia – fourth seeds and shock group winners ahead of Slovenia – in fact showed little spunk in a poor group (a weak finish whittled their lead to nothing and featured a loss against Slovenia) and none since. Either could finish third or fourth.

Prediction: Not much in it. Italy. On goal difference. Anybody who thinks they make the Final – and there are people – are absolutely unstable.

Group G – One is the loneliest number…

Brazil, North Korea, Cote d’Ivoire, Portugal; last prediction 1st Brazil 2nd Cote d’Ivoire

All right, well, easy bit first. Brazil is going to win the group. There’s iconoclasm and then there’s just magical thinking: I could downshift Brazil all I want, but they’ve not gone out in the group stage since 1966. I can only imagine that team was crap, but still really good crap, the easy-out no-wiping kind. That slightly disgusting metaphor aside, they glance at the group and win.

On the other end, North Korea are impeccably strange. How they got here, who they are, their tactics – we know nothing. What we do know is that a couple of humph-inducing results aside, they’re probably not very good and in a group with at least two good teams are likely to be totally outclassed. I think it’d be a remarkable result if they took a point. (Enjoy especially the grainy smuggled-out-under-a-cassock quality of the enclosed photo.)

My original pick, Ivory Coast (no more of that Frenchness; I expect them to call where I am “Etats-Unis”), are in the mire. They limped through the African Cup of Nations’ group stage after a humiliating draw to Burkina Faso only to be put to grass (GREAT phrase) by a violent Algeria. They got beat soundly by South Korea, drew to Cabanasless Paraguay and the only virtue in their Japan win was that they scored both of their goals unlike some England teams I could mention. That virtue certainly didn’t cancel out Didier Drogba’s elbow fracture, which has left him with a so-so chance of playing at all.

Portugal are far too Ronaldo-centred. (It goes around.) But the few results they’ve had in 2010 have been sound wins and their form was definitely on the uptick as qualifyiers drew to a close. They’ve lost Nani, true. But Portugal without Nani is weakened; Ivory Coast without Drogba is not.

I was ready to dump them in January, Drogba or no. Brazil then Portugal to come out of the group.

Group H – Ode to Ricky Martin

Spain, Switzerland, Honduras, Chile; last prediction 1st Spain 2nd Chile

Ricky Martin was maybe talking about a different country, now that I think about it. But looking at a team picture, he’d certainly have sung for this Spain team. Who have not lost since 2009. And were unbeaten for 35 games before that. Let’s be honest, they’re a deeply arousing squad. Is that gay to say that way? It’s not gay to say that way.

Honduras on the other hand are just keeping a place. (Though they beat the USA. That juggernaut.) They don’t have much chance to acheive anything.

In the middle Switzerland and Chile are both very decent sides. They’re also fighting amongst themselves for the chance to lose to Brazil, so it’s something of a poisoned chalice. I believe my reason for picking Chile last time was that Switzerland are racist. There wasn’t much else between them then and time has not changed the fact; both have injury issues with key strikers, both had very solid qualifying results (Switzerland a group winner, Chile the CONMEBOL runner-up), both are used to cooler conditions and playing at altitude. In this World Cup it’s no small advantage when the other team doesn’t have it…

Chile follows Spain. Yay for geographic diversity. As for how full of shit I am… tune in.

To assume makes an ass of you and me. So let’s get on with it. Part 1 here.

Group C – In-ger-lund!

England, United States, Algeria and Slovenia; last prediction 1st England 2nd Slovenia

Listening to today’s Football Weekly – the super-duper special World Cup preview – I can’t help but wonder what’s wrong with the English. Is the malaise in football’s motherland so great that America – America! – can be turned into some great vicious enemy waiting to maul hapless, helpless Albion?  What strange days we live in.

Yes, England looks a bit, uh, French lately. Indifferent against Mexico and fortunate to have two of Japan’s three goals go their way, you would rightly sniff a bit at the prospects of this being England’s Year. But only a bit: England were deadly in the qualifiers. You might smell a whiff of diffidence from their surrender to the Ukraine, but then a little charity is perhaps in order, especially since the squad was so much more unsettled this year than last. (A contagion starting with the Russian roulette going on in goal and abating only at the shiny golden pate of Wayne Rooney.)

But then. That Japan match was just – ugh. Ugh! God. I feel the bad kind of dirty just thinking about it. England’s best chance was a penalty. Which Frank Lampard missed.

Deep breaths. Deep breaths. We recall that they’re facing the same USA side that took a single point in 2006 and blew the 2007 Copa America. Their qualification run was basically identical this time around and the Confederations Cup, while an inspiring moment for a team of lesser lights, mattered rather less to Spain and Brazil, who seemed as though they simply couldn’t be bothered to lose. 3-1 against Australia is no mean feat – but big losses to the indifferent Czechs and the Dutch (minus Van Persie) are highly unencouraging.


But that’s not how I really know the USA is in trouble. You know how? All this big tough bluster about giving England a rough time and psyching out Wayne Rooney when they can’t even muster the best widow’s peak. Like Jay DeMerit is Cristiano Ronaldo and Rooney’s just going to oblige them an hysterical red card  or gift some horrible passing error in a fit of pique. I think they’ve been basing their team strategy on the Nike commercial.

Told you so.

Of  course Algeria are a horror show and will not foul themselves to a single point. (Though I’ll tip them for worst group stage disciplinary record – take that Uruguay!) Slovenia, however, still tug at my soul. Their friendly results are encouraging but sparse – only three since last September, two wins and a loss (to England). However in terms of finding it where it counts Slovenia are up there, tossing out the top three seeded teams in their qualifying group and an excellent Russian side in the playoffs. Like I said before: it’s the fussballgeist.

Admittedly their group was easy-ish. But besides Mexico, was the USA’s any more challenge?

Hmm. Perhaps cynicism towards your home nation is an Anglophone thing.

England wins all three. Their first match will result in less a defeat than a rout of the United States. Slovenia comes through, but on only four or five points.

Group D – Sitzkrieg

Germany, Australia, Ghana and Serbia; last prediction 1st Germany 2nd Australia

The months have not been terribly kind to Germany. They’ve lost Michael Ballack to a needless meaningless injury (Arsene Wenger will hopefully feel some sick pleasure that the pendulum swings both ways) and ex-coach Franz Beckenbauer is using it as an excuse to say they won’t contend. Balls. (Balls-ack? Can I get a har har?) Ballack was good, a lynchpin, but Germany are not a team so inspired by a single player. His loss doesn’t rule them out the way Rooney’s would England or Ronaldo’s Portugal. It’s the difference between an A and A- team.

But maybe they don’t sweep the group. All of the teams they face are notionally quite strong; Serbia and Australia actually so. Ghana has a lot to offer in FIFA World Cup but they were bad at the Africa Cup of Nations, atrocious against the Netherlands and will see none of Michael Essien, who was a best a toy flashlight in the midst of a black hole.

Australia impressed in 2006, qualified effortlessly in the more difficult Asian Confederation and their last several friendlies have been positive. (Especially after forcing a 0-0 draw with the Dutch.) Star midfielder Tim Cahill is an injury doubt but you’d argue this still leaves them better off than others. (Germany, Ghana…)  I noticed Serbia got some buzz as a dark horse team; this is right, if for no other reason than that they’re on par with Australia (and the USA) but get nothing like the coverage. Reservations about their shaky form lately weren’t helped by a slightly hysterical 4-3 result against Cameroon.

Though neither were they after Australia’s 3-1 loss to the USA…

Germany will top the group, but may give up a draw. Australia with Cahill is 54-46 to come second; without 52-48. See what I did there? I used numbers to seem sciency.

Group E – Stale Danish and doubled-over Dutch

The Netherlands, Cameroon, Denmark, Japan; last prediction 1st Netherlands 2nd Denmark

I have to admit the subtitle’s a bit forced. After I spent a solid 15 minutes on it. Yeah.

The Dutch have continued a strong run of form after a perfect qualifying run, but… I don’t know. I watched them against Ghana and it was probably the most jittery big victory I’ve seen. They seemed tentative and slightly distracted and only very late did they expose the soft underbelly of Ghana’s misery and crap goaltending. For a great team, they weren’t very great – and they’ll be down the truly excellent Arjen Robben in the opener against Denmark. If they’re lucky.

The Danes, however, have fared far worse. Their key men both up front and in back, Nicklas Bendtner and Simon Kjaer, are on the knife-edge for desperately-needed inclusion against the Dutch. Then just today the coach/namesake of Olsen’s Gang took to his bed with a fever. In South African winter. You can’t make this shit up, can you? Bendtner and Kjaer have at least returned to full training, but with all three fit Denmark dropped three of the last four friendlies. (Taking it easy to avoid injuries?) Bendtner in particular is a blessing, since Olsen brought only three strikers to the tournament, preferring to keep his options open in a variety of supporting roles.

Cameroon are fully fit and somehow even more pathetic. Samuel Eto’o threatened to quit because Roger Milla wouldn’t be his friend (dude, cold) and the rest of the team aren’t much to write home about. Even Japan has rather more depth. Cameroon haven’t won a match since the group stages of the Africa Cup of Nations and I’m not sure their 0-0 draw against Georgia qualifies as a result. Or their 1-1 against Italy, come to that.

As for Japan – I can’t even. Read this instead. Too bad they’ll go as their fan contributor knows his stuff and is far less crap than I.

The absence of Robben probably won’t noticeably hinder the Dutch this early. They’ll come first. The Danes, luckier than good of late, to slide in second. If Cameroon are lucky they’ll make a good third.

Alia iacta est!

Unwisely a reputable newspaper saw fit to air two hundred daft words by me on the subject of this year’s Danish national team. In it I nail my colors to the mast for a Danish appearance in the quarterfinals – at the expense of Italy, at that! Only later did I remember that the last time I did this I said Italy wouldn’t even win the group, which would leave the Paraguayans – minus Salvador Cabañas, who’s busy recovering from an epic headshot – less dramatically feeding my Danish dream.

So in the interest of posting these irreconcilable opinions straight down the memory hole – and with the newfound results of dozens of friendlies/bizarre group job interviews – here are my new Officially Approved Opinions.

Group A… or should I say Group Uhhhhhhhhhnnn

South Africa, France, Mexico, Uruguay; last prediction 1st Mexico 2nd France

I would hand it over, except they've actually stopped paying me

With hindsight, this was not a terribly comfortable prediction.

Make no mistake, France have been terrible – too terrible even for my prediction. Their last match was a shocking 1-0 loss to China (who aren’t good); in 2010 they lost to Spain, drew Tunisia and narrowly bested Costa Rica. Except against Spain it was formulaic as a soap opera: lots of possession, lots of shots and little to show for it. All this against teams they should have totally outclassed. Raymond Domenech responded by saying he was pleased with their progress. And then deciding to keep Alou Diarra, the midfielder who was recently diagnosed with a blood disorder. And then a French minister complained about the lavishness of the team’s lodgings. If they have any good players they’re surely about to fall to an attack of dengue fever. You wonder if the French kind of wish they weren’t going at all.

By contrast South Africa have been a revelation, routing Guatemala, beating my own Danes (*gulp*) and turning in several creditable performances elsewhere. Not bad for Steven Pienaar and the “guys he found at the bus stop,” I think I called them. Their experience playing together is a major advantage versus “better” sides – most of the 23 play locally and they’ve packed 10 friendlies into 2010, getting a result from every one. Uruguay have performed well but in very few recent matches (and carry a whiff of brutality, apparently) while Mexico are on a creditable run: losing narrowly to the Dutch and controversally to the English but beating Italy strongly.

The question is this: could Le Snooze finish fourth? On recent evidence, yes. Domenech still hasn’t settled a formation and in the China game they just seemed indifferent. If anyone impressed (Gourcoff? So much for that new attacking formation), they’re probably about to fall to an attack of colitis or something. By contrast the hosts – and tournament minnows – are desperate to impress and the two Latin sides are capable. The favored French seem well-placed to blow the luckiest draw ever.

Prediction: South Africa and Mexico neck and neck at the top. But this group could feature four teams on four points each. An unexpected group of death?

Group  B – The head of Maradona

Argentina, Nigeria, South Korea, Greece; last prediction 1st Argentina 2nd South Korea

Happier times

WHY do they insist on calling South Korea “Korea Republic”? They’re both republics. Difference is one is in the South and the other has no food. It’s ridiculous.

South Korea have continued to dazzle me – the finest friendly I’ve seen in the run up to the World Cup was their meeting with Spain, ending in a late 1-0 win to the favorites after ninety minutes of exciting, attacking, classy play. I don’t know much about the team besides that, with the notable exception of Manchester United attacker Park Ji-Sung, most play or have played in the native K-League and so have had ample opportunity to get adjusted to playing as a unit. (Also they have a terrible chant.) It showed against Spain.

Along with the rest of Africa (save absent Egypt) Nigeria have been dire. Greece are no better. Both could be shut out. The big question is whether Argentina sinks or soars; excluding Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso brought gasps from the world media but nary a peep within the country, per Joel Richards in Football Weekly. That Diego Maradona is unstable is already beyond doubt; whether he is crazy like a fox or mad as a March hare will become clear in the first game against South Korea, but even a falling-apart Argentina would be favored to go through.

Though I don’t like it, Maradona’s crazy like a fox. Not impossible for South Korea to force a draw but Argentina should top the group with the South Koreans coming second.

7:15 – Alarm goes off. Lie on sofa-cum-bed-cum-home while contemplating calling out of work with bad hangover or plague. Used both excuses this month. Get up.

7:25 – Shower. Sit under hot water while ruminating on the emergence of the white-collar wage slave as a new underclass. Brush teeth in the shower in an attempt to shave valuable seconds off morning routine.

7:40 – Out of shower too late. Scour room for correct black belt. Upon failure put on brown belt and wear glasses with unfashionably thin black rims in an attempt to make up for it. Curse my choice of lightly-stained shirt and third-wear pants out of single twitching eye.

7:43 – Miss L2 bus as I exit building.

7:45 – Stare at bus schedule pensively while deciding if the additional $.95 to take the metro is worth getting to work on time. Do this until the next bus in fact arrives. Congratulate myself on being so decisive.

8:30 – Work starts. Just now changing buses at Lafayette Square. Think bitchy comments about political elites on issues of the day I don’t understand. (Oil spill, financial services reform, Armenian genocide etc.) Hope no one sits next to me on the X2.

8:40 – Stew all the way through Chinatown about crushed hopes.

9:00 – Arrive 30 minutes late. Check e-mail, Facebook, news.

9:30 – Check work e-mail. Examine paperwork for jobsites I didn’t know existed.

9:32 – Close work e-mail.

9:40 – Leave to get coffee and bacon egg and cheese croissant.

10:10 – Return with coffee and bacon egg and cheese croissant. Uncap coffee and blow on it. Try to save portions of croissant to go with coffee. Fail.

10:35 – Take impudent phone call from person interested in free labor. Engage in second bitter anti-capitalist mindrant while explaining that twelve hour days, while economically desirable, contravene guidelines and goals of program, law, Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

11:00 – Tab between Facebook, gmail and YouTube as I stare into the distance. Imagine that I look very thoughtful, penetrating and majestic. Fantasize about leading potential future dictatorship with accompanying fashionable clothing paid for by other people. (Masses recently released from capitalist oppression?) Wonder if all Communist regimes must have the same color red. Prefer burnt orange. Unsure of the symbolism of burnt orange. Research.

11:40 – Begin processing paperwork from yesterday.

11:42 – Someone trips over dangerous extension cord hooking my computer up to inconveniently distant electrical outlet as the outlet under my desk continues to be mysteriously non-vital. (T+ 3 months, 1 week, 2 business days.) Dangerous extension cord finally breaks and is rendered unusable.

11:44 – Complain to superiors about dangerous extension cord and continuing outlet injustice.

11:50 – Accuse co-worker of stealing back-up extension cord. Co-worker uncomprehending and incredulous. Coded passive-aggressive conversation about missing cord, general job performance, life and family history. Resolve to satisfaction of neither.

12:00 – Look for new extension cord.

12:04 – Grow frustrated and steal extension cord from unoccupied computer.

12:24 – Unoccupied computer apparently not so unoccupied. Convince myself that I am a more important part of the organization. Play dumb.

12:30 – Restart paperwork.

12:35 – All paperwork done improperly. Return to original senders with questions. Confident this will be the last I hear of it.

1:00 – Seethe over Michael Lynche being voted off American Idol.

1:05 – Co-worker calls with work question. Spend 30 seconds on this. Spend subsequent conversation on injustice of Michael Lynche expulsion. Expound theory of ethnogeographic voting patterns preferring contestants from the rural Midwest and South living in economically depressed and racially homogenous areas. Complain about my hometown’s lack of spirit. (Think better re. economic depression and racial homogeneity.)

1:20 – Corrected paperwork returns. Horrified.

1:40 – Relief as corrected paperwork evinces further errors. Return to sender.

1:47 – Someone has come into the office and begins to sing in a suggestive fashion. Co-workers are applauding. Subsequently they begin a heated discussion about the taxation of prostitutes.

1:55 – Angry participant misdirected to my desk as a result of colleagues’ sex worker summit. She is seduced by obsequious apologies and officious civil-servanty manner into thinking the mistake was hers.

2:10 – Another call. Mother. Witness and reflect mutual anger about Michael Lynche. Offer unqualified legal opinions about defaulted mortgage.

2:43 – Get mother off the phone in time for kickoff of major soccer match.

3:03 – French team highly disappointing. Begin sorting backlog of other paperwork.

3:05 – Papercut requires immediate emergency medical attention.

3:10 – Convalesce. Write a blog post as part of healing.

3:13 – Abandon blog post. Begin desultory Gchat conversation with infrequently-seen friend. Conversation fails as weather, job and future plans occupies barely five minutes including typing time and friend does not watch American Idol. Fail to muster passion for philosophy, international relations and all other topics.

3:30 – Go for a walk.

4:00 – Missed three goals and a red card.

4:10 – Angry phone call about site visit. Say calm, reassuring things to complainant while I scribble increasingly vile profanities on my notepad. Caller placated by the time I reach the lower intestine.

4:30 – Frantic e-mail from superior regarding statistics for which no one has the necessary information. Write 300 words explaining this in lieu of “No.”

4:50 – Concerned about increasing backlog of work, initiate time and motion study of my working day. Determine that most productivity lost is a result of repetitive attempts to placate angry callers. Resolve to cease answering phone.

4:52 – Decide I am a servant of the people and time and motion studies are in any event part of the edifice of capitalist oppression leading to escalating white collar wage slavery.

5:15 – Inadvertantly stay past closing time, missing parade of punctually-departing employees past my desk. Angry at continued exploitation by bureaucratic capitalist superstructure, resolve to come in late tomorrow as a retaliatory gesture. Congratulate myself for being fearless standard-bearer of the revolutionary vanguard.

5:16 – Leave.

Am I actually still writing this?  Bah. Part 1 here. 2 here.

The night before the day after the night of

Speaking of elections-to-come.

British polling organizations rely on national polls of voting intentions taken via various means, much like national polls in the US. A few sources (Electoral Calculus and the UK Polling Report, principally) are available to translate that result into what really matters, namely seats in parliament. In that sense, individual parliamentary races function much like state-by-state campaigns in a presidential election. In Britain results are individually more or less important for the personalities they return, but the end result is the same: hit the magic number and win. The polls, therefore, are less an effort to see who will “win” – or what the British people are thinking – than to determine the difference between this time and last time. That’s the swing.

When there are two parties really competing for government and a third with some areas of strong localized support and steady but diffuse strength everywhere else, this is generally a useful exercise.  But when all three unexpectedly start to poll the same nationally, the system goes haywire. This is especially true when you add regional differentiations, unevenly distributed turnout and the targeting of specific seats, at which LibDems and minor parties have grown adept. In the last election, which began to lay bare these predictive deficiencies, Electoral Calculus mis-predicted 74 seats, 52 of which resulted in an erroneous prediction. It suggested a Labour majority of 130 rather than the 66 which was actualized. The swing between Labour and the LibDems in key marginals was 6.7%: but Labour lost Cambridge on a 15% swing and Manchester Withington on 18.4%. (And these were not the only ones.) Strange, unexplained results in what was otherwise a relatively-average election. What happens when the same factors are at play but with all three parties even nationally? What happens when a relatively small number of three-cornered contests become four-sided or five-sided with independents and nationalists? What happens when talk of a majority is totally anachronistic? (And what happens when it isn’t?)

If you ask me, the models are crap, the polls no longer tell us anything – in marginal seats or nationally – and nobody will have much of a pot to piss in on election night. I think that fact in itself is meaningful. We’ll get there yet.  (I’m not doing a fucking Part IV – if I do I’ll have to write about Toynbee tiles or something weird.)

Watch out, Radioactive Man!

Yes, that was a reference to a show nobody watches anymore. But more on Gordon Brown later. (Snap.)

On BBC America and similarly British themed broadcasts and bootlegged internet streams (which, if you know of one, I’d be obliged if you’d share) the election broadcast will start shortly before 5pm Eastern. British polls close nationally at 10, and shortly thereafter the BBC’s Election Night broadcast will report its exit poll, which will predict not merely share of the vote but seat totals, swings and a potential majority. Or not, as the case may be. For the next few hours after that, not much will happen – as counting proceeds only a few seats will declare their result before 12:00. This declaration consists of a returning officer, having concluded the final count, reading out the results for each candidate and then announcing who has been elected, after which each reads a speech. It’s wonderfully dramatic and avoids the disgusting back-and-forth we have in this country, but it’s trustworthy because the seats are too small to rig convincingly. (Though they do try.)

Here’s an example from 1997: (The creepy man whose picture opens the video is actually Labour’s prospective parliamentary candidate for the new seat of York Outer. Ouch. Fortunately he won’t win.)

For the past several elections, the first place to declare was Sunderland South, a urban riding in the North that was held from the darkest days of the 80s by Labour’s Chris Mullin. Mullin is not running again and the Sunderland has been broken up from two seats to three: Sunderland Central, Houghton and Sunderland West and Washington and Sunderland West. One of these three will be the first to declare, and chances are none of the three will take longer than three hours. If any of them fall it would open the curtain on a catastrophe for Labour – the most marginal, Central, needs a 13% swing to the Conservatives. It’s not likely, but they will be useful barometers for the rest of the night – pay especially attention to the Liberal Democrat vote, as they’re targeting heavily Labour areas for upsets.

Some of the other early seats, in a change of pace, may be from Northern Ireland. In the past these were only of regional interest – Northern Irish seats are dominated by local parties on either side of the sectarian divide. However the Ulster Unionists, the old ruling class of the northern provinces, saved just one seat in 2005 against the onslaught of the hardline Democratic Unionists and in an effort to stave off electoral oblivion announced a merger with the Conservatives. The result is the first credible candidacy of a national party there since the Sunningdale Agreement. It’s not clear whether the new Ulster Conservatives and Unionists, as they now are, will save the single seat they presently hold much less gain. Only two seats fall within a 5% swing, but David Cameron has been working Northern Ireland hard and the sympathies of the Democratic Unionists are also with him. (Though Brown won’t be counted out, in the entirely unreliable words of the Daily Mail. How this is a “bribe” but Cameron’s dangling of government jobs something more principled is beyond me.)

At that point some more results will start to pour in. Tis’ much to go over 650. But here’s a few things – both seats and trends – to watch:

Celtic Kittens: Scotland and to a lesser extent Wales have been largely closed to the Tories since 1997, when they were eviscerated in both, and since Labour have come to power they have prospered from vast new investment. The conservatives regained one seat in Scotland – with difficulty – in 2001, which they held – with difficulty – in 2005. The Scottish Nationalists saw their UK MPs increase to six and in 2007 won one seat more than Labour and formed a minority government in the Scottish Parliament. The LibDems did well, taking nearly 20% of Scottish seats, twice their UK average. In Wales Labour suffered slightly to the Conservatives and LibDems and lost a seat on a huge swing to an independent candidate, Peter Law. Shortly after he died of cancer – his election agent, Dai Davies, now holds the seat and is standing again.

Scotland has been one of Labour’s bright spots during the campaign – successive surges by the other three parties have been seen off, the luster is off the Nationalists and there’s surely real sympathy for Gordon Brown. It’s now a reasonable question whether Labour might actually gain seats. (At least one seat, lost in a by-election in 2008, is likely to return to the Labour fold, though this won’t count as a “gain” since Labour was the winner at the last regular election.) If Labour suffers but only slightly, as some polls have indicated, only the lowest of the low-hanging fruit is likely to fall. The Tories will continue to have a single Scottish MP.

Wales is tougher: it has a stronger native Conservative tradition, especially in rural areas, and fewer Nationalists and Liberals to act as a buffer. (Unlike elsewhere, the Liberal vote moved almost wholesale to Labour in the 20s and 30s and has infrequently looked back.) A referendum, held the same day, on increased powers for the Welsh Assembly are likely to focus the attention of locals on devolution of powers, an early and influential Labour reform. The Conservatives look likely to gain, but only because their vote before was so low. The Nationalists may as well. If the Conservatives gain fewer than six seats Labour’s had a good night. The reverse if they take more than eight. I think Labour will take back the independent seat.

Minor parties: Only a few seats are held by independents. (Excluding several MPs who’ve been thrown out of their parties; most of these are standing down.) We’ve already mentioned Blaenau Gwent. Bethnal Green and Bow in central London was taken by George Galloway in 2005 in protest at his expulsion from Labour (prompting this interview, which single-handedly proved to my 17 year-old mind why British elections are better – by the way, yes, their MP is Scottish). Wyre Forest fell in 2001 when Labour cuts threatened to close a local hospital.

I think all three are likely to fall. In the 2006 by-election in Blaenau Gwent, shortly after Peter Law’s death, the official Labor candidate came close to regaining the seat. By-elections are traditionally opportunities for an easy protest vote on a low turnout. So it was, but that Labour came so close says that the drama surrounding the 2005 result has faded greatly. With no real opposition from the other three Welsh parties, this looks a Labour gain. Same with Bethnal Green, where George Galloway has abandoned the seat to a lesser light. It should be an even easier take. Wyre Forest is a Conservative seat, but Dr Richard Taylor benefitted from both the old Liberals and the LibDems standing aside in his favor. This year both will feature, and even in 2005 the Conservatives gained 10% in a strong area. The presence of UK Independence Party (anti-Europe) and right-wing British National candidates may help or hurt him; but either way, he’s unlikely to survive.

Independents are unlikely to disappear from the Commons, however. In Brighton Pavilion Caroline Lucas, the spokewoman for the Green Party, has an excellent opportunity to gain their first seat at the expense of Labour. They’ll need a swing of only 7% in their favor, assuming the Conservative vote holds steady; but since 2005 this seat is a 4-way marginal between the three main parties and the Greens, and promises a cliffhanger of a result.

In Luton South, Esther Rantzen, who you would charitably describe as a television personality, is standing as a general anti-everything candidate and may win herself or let in the Tory or LibDem at Labour’s expense, while Labour may gain at Castle Point where expelled Conservative MP Bob Spink chose to fight on as an independent. If he takes a third of the old Tory vote, Labour takes it.

Each of these results may seem small-scale: but if no party wins a majority, especially if they’re only one or two a way, they take on new and specific importance.

How do the LibDems actually do?: One or two polls this week have shown the third party dropping back to their pre-debate numbers; others have them ahead of Labour. All polls agree the Tories will take first, but the relative success or failure of the Liberal Democrats in England will make the difference. Indeed the sole reason the Tories are not gaining a majority is because expected gains from the LibDems aren’t realizing.

They’ll gain seats in the Southwest, an area of strength for hundreds of years. But their strength here limits opportunities; there just aren’t many seats to take. Watch West Dorset, the seat of the Tory former Shadow Chancellor and a frequent LibDem target: if it falls, the Tories will be having a very bad night. The Southeast is ultrasafe for the Tories, but the areas in between – South of London and East of Portsmouth – are the key LibDem-Conservative battleground. Until recently the LibDems were danger of heavy losses. They may still be. Guildford is an ultramarginal that changed hands in the last two elections. Watch who wins and by how much for clues to the surrounding areas.

North of London, especially along the East of England, both Tories and LibDems will be fighting to exploit a drop in the Labour vote. The LibDems are at a disadvantage in that they didn’t expect to be targeting so many potential gains, but their candidates are generally solid, decent local people who can speak well in an electorate furious with the political class. A few specific areas stand out. The LibDems heavily targeted the city of Newcastle’s seats last time and narrowly failed to seize them, as they did with several key seats in Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham. They will need to make gains from Labour in such Northern urban and suburban seats to realize a total above 100.

And now, my final thought

It’s like writing a goddamn novel. I have to be in Congress Heights in the morning.

At the wire polls have swung the Conservatives’ way. If borne out, they may be in range of a majority.

I don’t think they will be. In fact, I think – against all reason – that Labour may yet have a good night. After the swings and the BBC gimmicks and the snotty interviews and the bad computer animation, and after all of the crap Gordon Brown has received, I think he’ll be right in his prediction that the people who haven’t quite decided – and they may be 40% – will come back.

The British press hate Gordon Brown. They hate him when he’s decisive and they hate him more when he waffles. They hate him for what he does and for what he doesn’t do – they hate not what he does with power but that he has it at all. They hate him because he’s ugly and half-blind and worst of all Scottish, the bad aftertaste of Tony Blair and the offensive reminder of the favoritism granted the regions for their loyal support of Labour. They hate him for good reasons and more often for bad ones. A lot of people agree with them.

But not all. Just like not all agreed that John Major was shit just because he came after Thatcher. In 1992 a “Shy Tory” factor kept him in power – disastrously, it turned out. Voting Conservative may not have been cool, but a lot of people did, to borrow Goldwater’s phrase, know in their hearts that he was right. I think the contrast Brown draws with Cameron and Clegg is precisely the sort that would encourage this sentiment – and this week in the campaign seemed to be the first time Brown himself believed it.

For a man who may not have a job tomorrow, he’s bounding around the country with something like a spring in his step. Maybe that’s the key difference: he can risk being effusive rather than dour precisely because nobody expects anything from him anymore. At the least they’ll be able to say he went out with something like grace. At the most…

Well.  At the most I’ll need a Part IV.