England face France in the World Cup quarter-final on Saturday and the dwindling band of psychic animals has spoken. In the early stages of any World Cup, of course, you cannot move for obliging creatures predicting match results. However, as the tournament progresses, several of this global menagerie will have a shocker, effectively knocking them out of further opportunities to have their random movements anthropomorphised by pushy human keepers/people who reckon there might be two hundred quid in it from a tabloid. As we near the business end of Qatar 2022, though, a psychic alpaca from Chipping Norton is still in it, along with a lion in Thailand. Inauspiciously, both have wandered vaguely in one direction in their enclosure/predicted a France win on Saturday night, which I assume has led to accusations of talking England down, and a slew of credible death threats.
Not that a perfect record insulates any creature from meeting a sticky end themselves. Rabio the octopus was the Japan-based mollusc oracle who accurately forecast every Japan result in the group stages of the 2018 World Cup, yet he was reported by a local news outlet to have been chopped up and eaten before the round of 16. (Which certainly puts the BBC not renewing Mark Lawrenson’s contract into perspective. Though not, perhaps, for Mark.)
Still, a nation awaits, and we are where we somehow always are at this stage of things: waiting it out against a backdrop of mid-level English madness. Alongside the various animal attempts to people-please are an increasingly deranged series of stunts from the tabloids, who in days of yore would hit some national pulse with this sort of stuff, but now come across as having only recently learned human from a textbook.
What’s brought it all on? Rupert Murdoch was recently said to be incensed that the Daily Star’s can-this-lettuce-outlast-Liz-Truss stunt went around the world, believing it to be classic Sun territory into which the paper had somehow failed to plant its flag. Perhaps consequently, readers are inflicted with near daily attempts to chase that dream. These have tipped into the advanced stages of something or other, if Friday’s headline “Walker’s Got Mbappé In Pocket” is anything to go by. On closer clinical inspection, this turned out to be a reference to a pair of jeans the Sun has had specially made up, which bear a leather label reading “KYLE WALKER JEANS CO” and which feature a printed image of Kylian Mbappé peeking out of the back pocket. I mean … guys? Is everyone involved in this idea OK?
While that question remains tantalisingly unanswered, the signs don’t look good, considering the Sun’s self-styled “jean-ius” stunt incredibly contrives to be even worse than Thursday’s high-concept coverage, which involved finding a 16-year-old kid in Leicester whose name is also Kylian Mbappé, and who said he reckoned England would beat the French. According to the report, this teenager also said “all my friends are Three Lions-mad”, and told the paper: “I’d pick a sausage roll over a croque monsieur any day.” And yet, did he? Did he really? Did a Leicester teen honestly fix the Sun’s reporter with a discerning metaphorical eye and go: “I’d pick a sausage roll over a croque monsieur any day”? I somehow find it impossible to hear those words without also hearing the words; “No boss, I didn’t tape it but I’ve got a contemporaneous note”.
The only saving grace at this familiarly ominous stage of a tournament is that politicians have largely stayed out of the football – though we have to countenance the possibility that might not continue should England defy the all-seeing animals and beat France. Rishi Sunak’s speech at the annual parliamentary lobby drinks at Downing Street on Thursday night was reportedly full of football jokes, which confirms that a) he didn’t write it and b) there could be worse to come. The prime minister certainly posted a sensationally tone-deaf tweet before last weekend’s Senegal game, chirping: “Hats off to Qatar for hosting an incredible World Cup so far.” This fell comfortably into the you-had-one-job category, though may simply be based on his assessment that weapons will soon be our last remaining export.
In general, though, England’s tournament has been greatly enhanced by ministers not feeling the need to define themselves by Having A View on it all. This state of affairs reached a hideous nadir during the Boris Johnson administration, which had lost twice to Marcus Rashford on free school meals, and appeared horribly sore about it. The Euros last year were marred by any number of senior ministers failing to condemn the booing of players for taking the knee before games. In fact, some even appeared to support it, and barely a day went by without one or other secretary of state who was utterly failing in their job feeling the need to pontificate at players doing rather better in theirs – right up until the racist abuse suffered by black stars in the wake of England’s final loss made it perfectly clear why many felt the need for the gesture.
This England side itself may have rather less chance of advancing to the final than they did in summer 2021. But the absence of ministers feeling the need to muscle in on every moment of it all has felt like welcome progress of a different sort, and a bizarrely overdue reminder that these major tournaments can actually happen with precisely zero input from people no one wishes to hear from on footballing matters, and who have rather more pressing things to do with their time than be wrong about how others choose to use theirs. Let’s hope this period of silence continues; otherwise it might be time to set the psychic animals on to election polling predictions.
Marina Hyde’s World Cup Week will appear each Friday during the tournament