At the heart of football, as a friend's father once told me, is the beautiful unfairness that the better side doesn't always win.
In many team games, the score at any given point during a game, is calculated from the results of a number of scoring opportunities and methods. This means, by and large, that the team with the higher score is playing better, and, as a result, is winning. In football, however, the only way to add to your score, is by, scoring a goal.
The upshot of all this is that a side can play wonderful, flowing, total football for 90 minutes, and end up losing. In the 1999 European Champions League Final, Bayern Munich, by all accounts, played the better football, and dominated the game. They led one-nil for most of the game, but were never able to score the second goal that would surely have secured the trophy. In injury time, up popped two Manchester United substitutes to score two goals out of nowhere to steal the game. Two years later, in Cardiff, Liverpool were outplayed by Arsenal, but won the FA Cup, through a combination of outrageous fortune, poor refereeing, and two late goals from their wunderkid, Michael Owen.
The 2002 World Cup has continued this trend. At the time of writing, the first semi-final is a day away, and of the remaining four teams, only Brazil were fancied before the opening ceremony to make it this far. France crashed out in the group stage, having played badly, but also having hit the woodwork numerous times. Italy fared little better, losing to the South Korea in the second round, after a flawed display of refereeing from the man in black. Spain, too, suffered at the hands of the referee, having two goals disallowed. Meanwhile, a weak German side that was expected to struggle has made it through to the semi-final despite playing poorly, and being outplayed by the US, largely thanks to their almost unbeatable goalkeeper, Oliver Kahn, and, yet again, some strange refereeing decisions
The simplicity of the game hasn't stopped numerous commentators and pundits trying to intellectualize and deconstruct the modern game, and its star players, newly mainstream and acceptable to the chattering middle classes. Some work well, some not so well.
It all began, probably, with a book called Fever Pitch, by a former teacher and obsessive Arsenal fan, Nick Hornby, in which he recounted his life, through his relationships with other people and football. Since then, bookshop shelves have become gradually more cluttered with volumes on, or relating to, football. The best books work well because, football aside, they tell fantastic stories - "The Miracle of Castel di Sangro" - or cover their topic from an unconventional angle - "Brilliant Orange: The neurotic genius of Dutch Football". Attempts to mythologize or deconstruct the game, the players, or their motivations - "Burchill on Beckham", by Julie Burchill being the most recent example - are infinitely less valuable.