In a bit of a public relations offensive by Russia (thankfully no chemical warfare is involved in this campaign) the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, has publicised the FIFA World Cup in Russia, by having two Cosmonauts, Anton Shkaplerov and Oleg Artemyev, practice their soccer skills in orbit on the International Space Station using the official ball design.

Of course, even without the cosmonaut’s help in publicising it, the World Cup soccer competition promises to be one of the two biggest world television events of the year (the other was the Royal Wedding).  In fact, the same ball, the Adidas Telstar 18, which has now been returned to Earth aboard the Soyuz MS-07 capsule along with Cosmonaut Anton Sckaplerov, will, according to the Russian news agency TASS, also be used in the opening match in Moscow between Russia and Saudi Arabia.

“On me head Tovarich!” Russian cosmonauts kick around the official World Cup football on the International Space Station. Courtesy: Roscosmos

All very nice but the big question about the World Cup is: who will actually win it?

The perennial usual suspects vying for favouritism given their past World Cup winning records are, of course, Brazil (9-2) and Germany (5-1).  However, actually it is best not to be the overall favourite as past World Cup results indicate that while the winner usually comes from the top five in the betting, the overall favourite rarely wins.

For those who want to back a team at longer odds, Toddy’s outsider tip for the competition is that a North African team will be in the final and may even take the cup. So Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco are on his list, and all have odds of well over 100-1.  Tunisia look particularly good value at circa 750-1 given their relatively high world ranking. Mind you, they are facing England in their first match.

Of course, being optimistic and patriotic, this writer thinks that good old England might also yet spring a surprise win at 16-1.  A bit like watching astronauts on TV walking on the Moon, unless England wins soon, living memory will not remember England winning a world cup which they once did in 1966 (your correspondent was not around then, but there is a strong chance, given his birth date, that your correspondent was conceived in the post-World Cup national feelgood celebrations).

However, the BBC has revealed computer analysis done by Gracenote, Seradata’s risk analysis equivalent in the Sporting world, has gone against these odds as they predict only a four per cent (0.04) chance for England. In other words England’s odds are not exactly good value as the odds implied by this calculated chance should be 24-1 (1/(24+1) = 0.04).  Let us hope that the England players learn the words to the National Anthem and sing it with gusto.  This is because the University of Staffordshire has found that those teams that sing the national anthem with a bit of passion, tend to let in less goals.

By the way, despite all the “hot air” announcements about British politicians and royalty deliberately avoiding going to the World Cup in “Putin’s hostile Russia” (even if most of the Russian people themselves are very nice), if ever England does beat the odds to reach the final, you can take it as read that Princes William and Harry, probably along with the Prime Minister Theresa May, will all be on the first plane out to Moscow.

Mind you, as expected, Brazil has been predicted by Gracenote to have the best chance of winning at 20 per cent  The Gracenote computer programme also predicts that of the African teams, only Senegal of West Africa has a fair chance (above 40 per cent) of progressing to the last 16.

Apart from the overall winner, there are other betting markets to bet on for the World Cup including one for the competition’s top goal scorer. For that, Toddy’s tip is that Harry Kane, England’s Captain, can do the business (odds typically:16-1) as could Mohamed Salah of Egypt (Odds typically: 33-1) who was so cruelly injured in the Chelsea/Liverpool FA Cup match. Thankfully, he is reportedly well on his way to recovery.

So come on England! And Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco!  And show them how to do it Messrs Kane and Salah!  Inshallah!

Mind you, your correspondent is hoping that it is not England vs Egypt (or Tunisia, or Morocco) in the final as then your correspondent’s financial and patriotic loyalties could be well and truly split…as already mentioned, England and Tunisia meet in the first match.

Post Script: Liability Disclaimer – take Toddy’s Tips (above) at your own risk. While he has had some success at political bet tipping (the Trump Presidential win, Brexit and UK General Election), when it comes to football, your correspondent can’t usually tip a wheelbarrow (he was even outperformed by an octopus tipster called Paul in a previous FIFA World Cup).

That said, while this not-very-good-at-playing-the-game writer was always second-last to be picked for a team in schoolboy soccer games, and never liked heading the ball given that his brain was already pretty mushy, he does, at least, know the off-side rule. And he does sometimes go to watch QPR (Queens Park Rangers) – well –  about every decade or so just to keep up with the sport. Mind you, the last time he went there was trouble at the match when a game of football threatened to break out.

Actually, that is not fair as it is usually pretty peaceful at QPR’s sweet little Loftus Road ground. Mind you, that joke might not be so funny if Russia (50-1) with its infamous hooligan fans ever meets England in its World Cup matches.

Update on 15 June 2018: Following the opening ceremony, Russia’s head of state and political leader President Putin had something to celebrate. In the opening match, the host nation Russia thrashed Saudia Arabia by five goals to nil (5-0). Surprisingly, given that Russia was playing, there were several blocks of seats rather obviously unoccupied in this and the later Russian match. It is one thing for government apparatchiks, commercial sponsors, and the rich to get the best seats, thus denying real football fans, but please use them if you get them!

Update on 16 June 2018:  Your correspondent warned you that he could not tip a wheelbarrow as both Egypt and Morocco both go down 1-0 in their first matches versus Uruguay and Iran respectively.Best teams to date look like Space and Portugal who neutralised each other in an entertaining 3-3 draw.

Update on 18 June 2018: Surprise results had pre-tournament favourites Germany lose to Mexico 1-0, while Brazil are held to a draw versus Switzerland 1-1.  Another leading fancy, Argentina, drew with Iceland 1-1.

Update on 19 June 2018: Harry Kane did the business and scored twice to get England a 2-1 win over a very tough Tunisia. Oh yes…and the “Eagles of Carthage” Tunisian players were also apparently good at wrestling.

England Captain Harry Kane celebrates during England’s 2-1 victory over Tunisia. Courtesy: FIFA World Cup

Update on 20 June 2018: The very well-mannered Japanese football fans wowed the world by cleaning up the stadium after their match in which Japan beat Columbia 2-1. Meanwhile, Russia beat Egypt 3-1 (by the way, Salah scored a consolation penalty), meaning that Russia is now almost certain to go through to the next round, but Egypt will now need “snookers” to progress. Or rather they need Saudi Arabia to beat Uruguay (a draw is not enough). In their group, Morocco look likely to go home after losing 1-0 to Portugal after yet another goal from Ronaldo (his fourth in the competition so far). By the way, another puncture for the glass ceiling: BBC’s Vicki Sparks became the first UK female commentator at a World Cup match. She was a little shaky to start with but got better as she got to know the players, and was good by the end.

Update on 21 June 2018: Well Egypt are definitely out after results did not go their way (Uruguay beat an admittedly feisty Saudi Arabia 1-0) even if they will still have to play a pointless final match. And with Morocco nearly certain to go the same way, your correspondent’s remaining FIFA World Cup bets now rest on the “Eagles of Carthage” (Tunisia). Well them and the “Lions” of England.  Off on leave now.

Update on 2 July 2018:  Back from holiday (a vain search for Loch Ness Monster in Scotland).  And as your tipster correspondent returns he finds that a World Cup winner is nearly as difficult to find.  All the African sides – including all his outsider tips – are now out of the FIFA World Cup.  And it is not only they who have fallen.  One time favourites Germany fell to progress out of the Group stage suffering the indignity of a 2-0 defeat to South Korea.  Meantime, football giants, Spain, Portugal and Argentina are also all out.   Home team Russia defied expectations when they beat Spain on penalties after a 1-1 draw in their knockout match. Your correspondent’s final remaining team tip England progresses in the competition despite losing their final group stage match 1-0 against Belgium. While Harry Kane was rested for that match, his previous hattrick in England’s 6-1 drubbing of Panama puts him at the top of the goal scorers’ list on 5 goals.

Update on 3 July 2018:  While he might be admired for his football, his acting style while feigning injury has resulted in world derision for Brazilian footballer Neymar. Nevertheless, his Brazilian side won its match against Mexico 2-0.  Also progressing are the dangerous-looking Belgium who came back from a two goal deficit against the also-wonderful Japan to win 3-2. Those Japanese footballers had an obvious height disadvantage in the air, but were supremely agile closer to the ground.  England up next against Columbia tonight, while the Swedes face the Swiss.  Come on England!

Update on 4 July 2018: England got through by the skin of their teeth after 1-1 draw, extra time and penalties against a dirty trick playing (head butts and digging up the penalty spot) Columbia. Hurrah!  And Harry Kane scored again (a penalty in the main play). After several bad past experiences in past competitions England had wisely practiced penalties.  England were also the moral victors in the bad tempered match but their play was poor for most of the game, giving the ball away on several occasions. They will have to play better than that if they want to progress further. One ray of hope was that late substitutions made the team a real force in the final part of extra time. They will meet Sweden in the quarter final who beat Switzerland 1-0.

Update on 6 July 2018: Brazil go out having lost 2-1 to Belgium partly because, like the fable about the boy who cried wolf, the referee(s) did not believe the “pleading nuisance” Neymar given his past playacting for penalties even though this time he really was fouled in the box this time and really should have been given one. Meantime France sailed past Uruguay 2-0. So France will meet their neighbour Belgium in the semi-final.  One suspects that Belgium may reach the final.  Russia will be trying to get past Croatia in its quarter final tomorrow, while England hope to do the save versus Sweden.  Let’s hope that England use their ability to play well when needed. Come on England!

Update on 7 July 2018:  England get through!  In a much more convincing performance England won their match versus the Swedes 2-0. Mind you, while Harry Kane did not score, he played well, as did the rest of the outfield players. Nevertheless, it was their goalie Jordan Pickford who was the star in saving three good Swedish attempts at goal. So it has to be said that England manager Gareth Southgate chose his goalie well.

England goalie Jordan Pickford keeps England in the game versus the Swedes. Courtesy: BBC/FIFA World Cup

Sadly the much improved FIFA World Cup hosts Russia were beaten by Croatia on penalties after a 2-2 draw after extra time.  So England meet Croatia in their semi-final on Wednesday 11 July, and thus won’t now need to be nobbled before the match as the Russians have now left the competition…Joke! 🙂 .

Now things start to get tricky for England as Croatia has one of the best midfielders in the world: Luca Modric. However, England can get past him and them – well – as long as England’s improving form continues, and especially if their luck holds and they don’t get dicky tummies (“Montezuma’s revenge” food poisoning infamously struck some of England’s players down in the World Cup in Mexico 1986). One thing though, while England have mastered scoring goals from set pieces, and have improved their passing, they will probably need a few more open play kicked goals as well to progress. As it is, if Harry Kane does win the “golden boot” award as FIFA World Cup top goal scorer (he currently leads by two), it would be nice for him to have a few kicked open play ones in addition to his headers and penalties!  But let us not get greedy. So long as England score more than the other team(s), that is what counts! Come on England!

Update on 11 July:  France have got past Belgium in their semi-final 1-0.  France look like a strong team with wonderkid Mbappe et al., as does the Luca Modric-captained Croatia who play England tonight in their semi-final.  At this point your correspondent would normally have had England trying to dig a tunnel out of the changing rooms in Escape to Victory (1978) movie-style to avoid defeat to Germany on penalties.  But Germany is long gone and Croatia is the opponent this time.  England has had the much easier draw so far (thanks to their cunning “B-team loss” in the group stage versus Belgium), but the diverse multi-faceted friendly England “A-team” are improving each game and look like they are enjoying it.  Let us hope that they reach the final and reach their peak performance there!  Come on England!

Further Update on 11 July: Poor old England lose to Croatia 2-1 after a goal in extra time.  Gallant lads they were and good at set pieces…but they needed a few outfield goals.  Better luck next time!  Still, Harry Kane is very likely to win the golden boot (one of your correspondent’s tips) – well – unless there are some hattricks or more by French players Griezmann or Mbappe in the final between France and Croatia.  So your tipster should make a bit of money…but not enough to cover recent losses on his African outsider tips and some other duff bets on World Cup matches and on some very slow horses at Ascot.

Final Update on 16 July 2018: It is congratulations to France as its football team won the FIFA World Cup final against Croatia 4-2 in Moscow, which included a goal from a new star on the world footballing stage, 19-year-old wonderkid Mbeppe, and a goal by striker Antroine Griezmann, and one by midfielder Paul Pogba (their other goal was an own goal). England’s Harry Kane did indeed win the Golden Boot as top goal scorer of the championship. The three lions on his shirt will be proud.

Post Script: Match ball apparently turns Commander-in-Chief to Appeaser-in-Chief

The World Cup Final match Adidas Telstar 18 football was given by Russia’s President Putin to US President Trump at their Helsinki rendezvous.  It did not bring President Donald Trump any luck. As he sided with Putin against his own intelligence agencies and denied Russian electoral meddling, President Trump was subsequently dubbed “Traitor Trump” even by his own supporters.