Playing the waiting game at the World Cup
Back in January, as the rain poured down beyond the windows of a Soho Square hotel, England coach Fabio Capello confided that one of the things that most concerned him about his preparation for the tournament was that "forty days is a long time."
There was a pause and then he added: "well, I hope it's forty days."
Everyone hopes it's forty days; no one wants to go home after the first two weeks of the tournament. But forty days is indeed a long time to be holed up together. Bored out of your mind.
Watching yesterday's games, sinking lower and lower into the sofa as the matches dragged on and on, one Madrid-based agent, close to a number of the players at the tournament, ignored the dross in front of his eyes and moaned: "the worst thing about the World Cup is the number of pointless messages you get from players -- because they literally have nothing better to do."
Now, that's not entirely true.
England's players took to the golf course after their game against the United States -- even if the photo that the Spanish media said showed Wayne Rooney taking a difficult shot from behind a rock looked more like Wayne Rooney relieving himself behind a rock.
The Playstation is almost every player's inseparable travelling companion -- even if Spain defender Carlos Marchena today insisted that he'd never played in his life.
And there are table tennis tables, and pool, and DVDs and the internet, Facebook and Twitter -- even though they have been banned by the Dutch, the Spanish and a handful of other national teams.
Then there are card games, with some Spanish players insisting that the togetherness fostered by long games of 'Pocha' and 'Mus' helped them towards success at Euro2008 -- even if the British media claimed the opposite after Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen allegedly fell out over a Poker-indicted gambling debt in the hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Or excursions, allowing players to take in a spot of sightseeing, some culture -- even if that tends not to be their cup of tea. One footballer famously passed up on the opportunity to visit the Great Wall of China during a tour, allegedly remarking, "when you've seen one wall you've seen them all."
And some players even read -- even if Joan Capdevila spoke for many footballers when he responded to a question about the last book he'd read by joking: "Book? What's a book?"
Players spend much of the tournament scratching round for something -- anything -- to do.
There was a bit of a scandal last week when Mexico's Chauhtemoc Blanco was caught smoking in his room (raising the obvious question: 'why, was it a non-smoking room?').
The Argentina youth team once famously smashed up their hotel, running down the hall and performing flying kicks on telephones and tables. Mainly just because they had nothing better to do.
The 'traditional' pastime
And then there's the traditional pastime, the one that had one national team doctor -- who may or may not have been casting a cheeky glance John Terry's way -- insisting just before the tournament started that "sex itself isn't the problem; it's sex with people who are not the wife or partner that's the problem."
Mostly, though, players sit about getting bored, training and watching the other games, the wait becoming interminable. Especially for those countries that are last to make their World Cup bow.
Countries like Spain, who do not make their bow until tomorrow night. No other team -- except opponents Switzerland -- has had to wait as long to finally get going at this World Cup. For them, it's been a long and frustrating wait.
"We've been counting down the hours until we begin," says Xabi Alonso.
Wth Spain promising the kind of football that has been conspicuous by its absence so far, frankly so have we. Spain came into this tournament as favourites; five days later, their advantage looks even stronger.
Thing is, as the cover of the sports daily Marca put it last week: "Spain are the best in the world. Now, we have to prove it." So far they have not been able to. Tomorrow afternoon, at last, perhaps they can. The wait is nearly over but there are still 24 hours to go. Twenty four hours in which all they can do is all they have done for the last week: watch everyone at the World Cup else play.
"We are," one player privately admits, "bored stiff."
Now they know how the rest of us feel.
About the Author
Sid Lowe lives in Madrid and writes a weekly column for guardian.co.uk. He also writes regularly for the Guardian, World Soccer, FourFourTwo, and the Telegraph. He works as a commentator and panellist for Spanish, Asian and U.S. television, and has acted as translator for David Beckham, Michael Owen, and Thomas Gravesen.