Looking like he’d recently been laid out by the Co-op, the mighty Diego Maradona plucked the sealed ball from Pot Two.
It seemed hot on that stage and the great man, by all accounts, hadn’t been well. Done up in black formal wear, set off with a bright yellow bow tie, he had the appearance of a wise guy recently whacked by Tony Soprano.
To make matters worse, some clown in his side view was cracking wise at his expense. ‘He’s always been good with his hands,’ said draw host Gary Lineker, whose cheeky chappy patter no longer seems quite as appealing, now he’s doing it for FIFA‘s coin.
‘I have the best player in history, that is always a plus,’ said coach Jorge Samapoli, no doubt adding to Maradona’s joy on the night. Peaky, a punchline, and now Argentina’s second best player, tops. Well, thanks for that.
The last time a World Cup draw was made, former FA chairman Greg Dyke as good as conceded defeat in the auditorium, making a cut throat gesture as England were placed with Italy and Uruguay in Brazil.
Not his smartest move but he wasn’t the worst judge. And while it would be counter-productive and arrogant to appear too happy – Belgium, after all, have some of the finest talents in Europe, and we know that because the Premier League is home to most of them – undoubtedly, by the end, the general air of pessimism around England at this tournament had begun to lift.
Maradona held the ball’s contents out for the camera, as instructed. ENGLAND.
By then, Gareth Southgate and a Football Association team of apparatchiks will already have known they had done well. Their group seed options were Belgium and Poland.
Maradona had delivered the tougher of the two but, hell, it could have been worse. Have a look at Argentina’s lot and ponder England’s chances had they come out in that.
What else? Well, while the build up to the draw has been overshadowed by the steady drip of revelations and accusations that has swirled around Russia for years now, one advantage of having hosts who know how to organise a systematic doping programme is they can get things done.
This must have been the most expedient draw in FIFA’s history. Tight, short, preamble and ceremony kept to a relative minimum. Maybe Vladimir Putin had another half-naked photo opportunity he needed to get to, maybe the Kremlin had been double-booked for an office Christmas party later, but a hall full of FIFA folk hasn’t cleared this fast since the time it was announced a representative from Qatar was out front, and was feeling generous.
Still the hosts would have been happy with their lot, which could not have gone better had they rigged it themselves, as they have most sports events in the last decade.
Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Uruguay might give even an ordinary Russian side a chance, and Luis Suarez would be well advised to keep his teeth to himself in this tournament, with the authorities threatening 15 years imprisonment for acts of hooliganism. At least in Brazil he was allowed to go home.
The challenge of containing Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard notwithstanding, they had avoided the biggest tournament hitters until the quarter-finals at least, given that one of Group H – Poland, Senegal, Colombia and Japan – await in the second round.
Then it’s Germany or Brazil in the quarter-finals, probably, depending on England’s route, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. England have reached the last eight of a tournament once since 2006.
If the quarters are par given the opposition, it doesn’t mean a bogey is out of the question. And there is always the possibility that England could lose to World Cup first-timers Panama. Hats 1 Prats 0, as the red tops might have it. All that can be said, however, is that if Southgate could have planned a schedule, it wouldn’t be far removed from the one he has randomly received.
England open against Tunisia, then play Panama, meaning that back-to-back wins could well make the final fixture with Belgium a dead rubber anyway. As what awaits in the first knockout stage is much of a muchness, and Germany or Brazil in the quarters is a coin toss, Southgate might even be able to consider giving any flagging players a rest in the final group game.
Ah, it all looks so straightforward from here; although every touch of genius from De Bruyne between now and May will be viewed a little differently, knowing it will be England’s job to contain him on June 28.