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Festival of football offers something for everyone

England is disappearing under a sea of red and white, wrapped up in a faded and fraying patchwork of flags of all sizes, well-worn because they come out weeks before every major tournament for which the national team qualify.

In fact, some of them are never taken down. They are displayed permanently on walls and in windows, not because people cannot be bothered to remove them, but because there is always another occasion around the corner.

Next year it will be the Ashes, and then the Rugby World Cup. Next week it will be Andy Murray, completely overlooking that the Scots have their own colours. If I were to hazard a guess, I'd say the flags purchased new for 2014 made their debut for the Eurovision Song Contest, bought and brandished by a population desperate to celebrate anything.

It's a bit like the annual millionaires who pack the local at Christmas, three deep at the bar in their Santa sweaters, paying for their food and drink individually but not having enough money because they didn't realise how much the sherry has gone up in the past year. But hey! This is the World Cup. It's the ultimate festival of football and it's for sharing.

It is this phenomenon that prompted my publishers to ask why people who do not particularly like football get so wrapped up in the World Cup. A subsequent Twitter appeal revealed a hierarchy among World Cup watchers.

There are the students of the game, the obsessives who log all the match stats, colour-coded to differentiate goals, cards and substitutes — not because they have to write stuff for the media, but because .?.?. well, just because.

There are the less committed who drew the line at staying up until nearly 4am here in the UK to see if Japan could improve on their 2010 tournament average of 42 per cent possession.

Some will watch only the big games, others will clear their diaries — but only to see England. One Twitter follower confessed to having posted pictures of swarthy Italian players purely, she insisted, because it helped her to feel part of the big event.

That strategy of dealing with the World Cup as an intrusion to be endured or tolerated is not uncommon and even lasted beyond Father's Day. But that so many agnostics develop a sudden fervour for the fortunes of impoverished Iran is surely indicative of an early three points for the marketing teams.

When every road, shop and pub has those flags fluttering, when every newspaper and broadcast delivers the latest snippets from Brazil, when the soaps are shifted in the TV schedules and the streets fall silent for another must-win England match, you know the World Cup has won.

But, thankfully, there is more to it than hype. The sort of quality, drama, excitement, shocks and controversies we have seen throughout history, and from just the first round of group games this year, will always enthral fans of all persuasions.

World Cup six-pack

Stars: Undoubtedly Holland, whose scintillating second-half performance sparked by Robin van Persie's early contender for goal of the tournament left the holders shell-shocked, but not yet down and out.

Flops: Spain. Twice. Demolished by the Dutch, the holders still had the chance to sneak into the round of 16, but were given another chasing by Chile. A similar failure against Australia will condemn Spain to the worst showing by any defending champions since Uruguay refused to travel to Italy in 1934.

Bad Boys: Thomas Müller deserves a dishonourable mention for the play-acting that led to the dismissal of the equally foolish Pepe, but the thugs of this World Cup are Honduras, almost knocking my TV off its stand with every cynical, crunching challenge.

Ecstasy: Written off by a global media who could not see beyond England, Italy and Uruguay in group D, Costa Rica were quoted at 2,500-1 to win the tournament by some British bookmakers. But they not only produced possibly the biggest upsets of the tournament so far, they gave a goal start to opponents who reached the semi-finals four years ago.

Agony: Clint Dempsey has a strong claim after his facial features were rearranged in a clash with Ghana's John Boye. But Gary Lewin, the England physio, endured the pain of a broken ankle followed by mockery from Rio Ferdinand after tripping over a water bottle while celebrating the goal against Italy.

Hey ref!: Croatia caught Brazil napping with the opening goal of the tournament and, even after Neymar's equaliser, looked set for a deserved draw until a dodgy decision by Yuichi Nishimura, the Japanese referee, gave the hosts a penalty that proved to be the turning point.

n Phil Ascough, the author of Never Mind The Penalties — The Ultimate World Cup Quiz Book (foreword by Kevin Kilbane) and Never Mind The Tigers, both published by The History Press, was a senior reporter and sub-editor at The Royal Gazette from 1989 to 1992

Iker Casillas is well beaten for Chile's second goal last week, confirming the early exit of the world champions

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Published June 21, 2014 at 9:00 am (Updated June 22, 2014 at 11:54 am)

Festival of football offers something for everyone

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