TAC 38 Index
At risk of echoing the vapid sentiments of David Ginola and Jimmy Hill, the 1998 World Cup was much more than just a football tournament. It was the best opportunity yet to test whether places with big hills tend to beat places with little (or no) hills. Ever on the ball, TAC37 included an advance guide to the competition's group stages from the standpoint of altitudinal rather than footballing merit. But how did the tournament actually map out?
64 games were played, 48 in the groups, 16 in the knockout stages. Only the first 48 could end in draws, and exactly one-third did just that, including four of the five most topographically tight fixtures: Netherlands v Belgium (371m difference in height), South Africa v Saudi Arabia (313m difference), Yugoslavia v Germany (306m), and Cameroon v Austria (303m). Also deadlocked was the startling Netherlands v Mexico (5289m difference), along with Belgium v Mexico (4916m). The average height differential in draws was 2058m; this is 20m more than the high points of Scotland and Belgium combined, which conjures up an image of Five Chocolate Finger Gully, and could be a case of the Walloon going up.
Of the 32 decisive group matches, 14 were won by the country with the higher high point, whilst 18 went to the relative flatlanders. So nothing was revealed at this stage: there was merely a mild trend against any high-hill / ball-skill correlation. Various bankers ran strictly to form - Argentina v Jamaica (4703m difference), France v Denmark (4634m), Columbia v Tunisia (4256m), and of course Argentina v Croatia (5128m) - although the latter was overturned in terms of later progress. The average differential for these high-country group victories was 2646m (it rose to 2660m overall), whereas the average for the eighteen low-country group wins was 1955m (2191m overall). Only three of the six highest-altitude countries made it out of their groups (Argentina, Chile, Mexico), and none survived the quarter-finals. The seventh highest country was, however, France. At le pathétique end of things, only three of the eight low countries lost their way early on (Belgium, Tunisia, and, ahem, Scotland), with the Dutch and the Croats reaching the semis.
Group A was evenly-balanced, two wins by the higher country (Brazilian and Moroccan victories against the Scots), two wins by the lower (Brazil v Morocco, Norway v Brazil), and two draws. Only Norway's last minute penalty in Marseille prevented the two highest countries going through. Group B was an odd group, four draws and two higher-country wins (Italy against Cameroon and Austria). Heavyweight on paper, with no team less than 3797m; tight in reality, although the favourites came through in the end. Group C saw the French beat all those beneath them, whilst the lauded Laudrups made a nonsense of their 173m high point, and the Saudis opted for a useless 3-1-3-3 formation. In Group D, perennial Cinderellas Spain made another balls-up, while uncool Bulgaria also went out, making this one of only two groups (along with F) from which the two lowest countries qualified. The only game to go with form was Spain's 6-1 thrashing of the Bulgars, yet even here the height advantage was a mere 790m. Post-tournament, six out of thirteen Guardian correspondents chose Spain-Nigeria as their favourite game; mystifyingly, none noticed that the height difference, 1296m, equated with many people's favourite hill, Braeriach.
Group E looked the prime group for topsyturvyness, but Belgian Ardennes succumbed to Mexican Cordillera. The tournament's most TAC-friendly moments came with the Blanco Bounce, a kind of Great Carrs meets Willie Carr. Group F was the upsidedown one, with none of the higher teams winning any of the six games, and only Germany v Yugoslavia drawn. Amidst all the hype about Iran v USA, Motson, Moore, Green et al all missed that this was the highest overall height game, 11798m combined. (An amazing 10783m, or Everest + Scafell Pike + Tom Buidhe, more than Holland v Belgium.) In Group G, the Colombian high point of Pico Cristóbal Colón was more a semi-colón, or even a full-stóp; they became the second highest country (after the USA) to go straight out. Romania were doing well at this stage, before losing their way when their tops all started to look alike. England's progress could have been predicted: in only two groups (A and B) did the lowest country not qualify - although, curiously, all bar the Dutch did so in second place. Group H was the only group with no draws, but equality was maintained with 50% higher-country victories (all three Argentinian - they were top Top seeds). The nearest thing to an upset was Japan only succumbing to a Croatian Suker punch late on.
Come the knockout stages, things swung slightly the other way: nine wins by the higher country, seven by the lower. The closest match-up in the entire tournament came in the France-Italy quarter-final, only 59m between them; it was suitably tight until Di Biagio's penalty thumped off the crossbar. Indeed, there's scope for speculation in that all three penalty shootouts went to the higher-summited team (although this shouldn't mask the fact that England weren't crap because of Scafell Pike's paltry 978m, but through having failed to practice penalties at all).
It was good that Bergkamp's 90th-minute wondergoal caused the tournament's biggest topographical upset, putting paid to the Batistuta and co and overturning 6638m of a deficit. Sadly, this tectonic result failed to trigger seismic upheavals through the latter stages: the higher countries prevailed in both semis, in the 3rd/4th playoff, and in the final itself. Maybe Holland and Croatia simply peaked too early; maybe the fitful Ronaldo turned into Ronald de Bore. Whatever; in the end it was pleasing to see Zinedine Zidane emerge, as predicted, as ZZ Top.
So, what does all this tell us? Not a lot really, since gradual height erosion through the first three weeks was offset by the final stages. Insofar as there might be any genuine correlation, it could be argued that large cities more often evolve in flatter countries or in flatter parts of countries. Britain is a prime example: London sprawls across a massively dull part of England, whilst Manchester, Sheffield, and Glasgow have, for complex topographical and geological reasons, evolved in lowlying areas away from nearby hillier ground. It can also be argued that, since football is largely a working-class game, players come predominantly from urban areas. Hence there should perhaps be an inverse correlation between hills and football prowess. Certainly this fits with the perennial footballing dismalness of Bolivia (capital La Paz, altitude 3665m). And the argument is not simply plucked out of the (thin) air. It's often used, in reverse, to account for African long-distance running ability: Kenyans and Ethiopians live not only at altitude, but in rural areas which require substantial distances to be routinely travelled.
It's supposed to still be summer, not that you'd know it what with all the football and the rain. Even the political news reports tell of little but government goals and departmental leaks. But golf, there's a genuine summer game dear to the heart of several TAC readers, not least Perkin Warbeck himself. He once refused to climb Driesh by the Shank of Drumfollow unless it was renamed the Straight Down the Middle Ya Dancer of Drumfollow. Your Ed isn't such a keen follower of the game - for him, Ping is something the microwave does, not the slogan on some hellish visor worn by Jim Furyk or Fred Funk. But he was recently struck, whilst meeting Richard Wood on his 1000th ascent of appropriately named Ben Tee, by what a weird idea the golfers have in terms of their "Ladies' Tee". This is of course a launchpad located a few metres ahead of the "normal" tee (aka men's tee - although when did you last meet a normal man?); the concept presumably arose from some genteel politeness / door-opening / after-you-dear sexist nonsense. Imagine if this idea was transferred to the hills. Walkers would arrive beneath Cairn Gorm to find the Coire na Ciste and Coire Cas car parks renamed the Men's and Ladies' Car Parks respectively. Or, where a higher road wasn't feasible, a lower top could count as the real thing - thus resolving such age-old errors as the lower Beinn Dorain bump being mistaken for the summit. Any man who arrived there to find the place crowded with women would know, without reference to map, compass, or GPS, that the actual Munro lay five minutes further on. (As with the football theory, this isn't as farfetched and whimsical as it might sound: your Ed's secondary school, by no means posh, only did away with the concept of girls' and boys' staircases when turning comprehensive in 1973.)
Here's another idea. Golf may be riddled with reactionary values, Neanderthal businessmen, and atrocious fashion statements, but it can maybe solve one perennial hill problem. On the TV coverage of the Loch Lomond Invitational in July, the players were seen swishing practice-fashion before starting their rounds. And beside the practice area was a line of large, sinister-looking fans (whirring fans, not the Mark Chapman type). Peter Alliss claimed these were to keep the midges off, which sounds feasible, pro-golfers being notoriously vain and pampered. If so, it might also please Messrs Boswell, Turnbull et al in solving the windfarm problem (see recent TACs passim). Simply install fans on top of various summits, tap off enough energy to keep a few home fires burning, and blow away the biting bugs into the bargain. Even better, and echoing the Duke of Sutherland's statue on Beinn a'Bhragaidh, a large rotating Colin Montgomerie could be installed on each hilltop. Like fleshed-out kebabs, these would emit an endless supply of bluster and hot air and bad grace.
Having heard England lose six Second Test wickets during his ascent of 477m Gwastedyn Hill near Rhayader (and not a million miles from Montgomery), Richard Webb wonders if this constitutes a record height:collapse ratio. Possibly - although the fabled Scarba expedition (see TAC29 and TGO Dec 96) saw four Hearts players sent off against Rangers in the course of a 449m ascent. And returning finally to football, Richard also watched much of Spain-Nigeria on a pocket TV just below the top of Creag MacRanaich; just a shame it wasn't Braeriach.
Only days before the men's World Cup started, a qualifier for the women's World Cup was played between a hilly country and a flat one. Result? Scotland 17, Lithuania 0.
TAC 38 Index