“So who’s playing?” I ask. “At left back?” responds Dave. “No,” I say, helping myself to a slice of pizza. “I mean which teams?” I look up. Everyone is staring at me, open-mouthed, then everyone laughs.
“Nice one,” says Dave, clapping me on the back. Then under his breath, “Brazil and Croatia, Ben. Brazil are playing Croatia.”
Sometimes I feel like I am the only man in Britain who doesn’t know anything about football. If I’d collected football cards at school I’d have had a way in, but I went for the dinosaur ones instead. Other kids seemed to know the offside rule by the age of seven, and could calculate an aggregate score before they could spell their own name, but not me.
The truth is, we didn’t really watch football in our house. My dad never had a team and, as a result, neither did I. He did take me to see my local side, Crewe Alexandra, once, but they were playing Millwall and there was a riot and we didn’t go again. I have to say I was relieved. You don’t get that sort of thing at chess club.
Plus I was rubbish at the actual game. And who wouldn’t be? Football is impossibly difficult for human beings to play. Even the best players in the world aren’t that good.
Why invent a sport that ignores six million years of evolution? The reason we’re not all munching bamboo in a forest glade is that we learnt to use our hands. What’s next? Knee billiards?
As I’ve matured, of course, I’ve learnt ways of concealing my ignorance. When watching football with my mates in the pub, for example, I just do whatever they do. Moan, leap, shout, it’s easy. No one’s watching, anyway, because true football supporters are always in their own personal hell. And if anyone asks me who I support, I just say, “Arsenal”, and they immediately change the subject. Unless they support Arsenal as well, of course, in which case I’m in a world of pain.
“Right,” says Jim, our host. “I want all your predictions in before 9pm.” My blood runs cold. “Winner, finalist, semi-finalists. Dave, who did you go for? “I quite like the look of Chile,” says Dave. Someone else plumps for Holland. Jim scours the room, and I try to hide behind some ferns. “Ben. Who are you going for?”
Who else is in the World Cup? Brazil are the hosts, I know that much. And England are, right? But clearly they aren’t likely to be in the final. “I’m very much going South American…” I’ve bought a bit of time. Now I only need to think of another country in South America. Venezuela, do they play football? Chile?
Colombia? Yes, Colombia do, because one of their team got shot when he missed a penalty. Shows they care. They must have qualified, right? “Brazil and Colombia,” I say. There’s a long pause. “Nice,” says Jim. “Brazil versus Colombia. Brazil to win?” “Definitely,” I say. One or two others nod their heads. “Yes, I like the look of Colombia,” says Dave.
And do you know what the really surprising thing was? I thoroughly enjoyed the whole evening. In fact it was so entertaining I stayed up for the England match. And if Colombia make the final, I might just watch that, too.
The godfather of alternative
So sad to hear of the passing of the great Rik Mayall, one of my all-time comedy idols, and who I recently worked with on the Dave channel’s new series of Crackanory. True to form, he had me in stitches, improving a whole routine about what would happen if a newsreader was as bad at reading autocue as he was. Genius.