Sixteen months ago I was invited to join Operation Bomber. This is neither a security forces operation nor a tribute to the bearded builder in Auf Wiedersehen Pet, but it will be planned as meticulously as the first and will have all the hallmarks of an episode of the second.
Operation Bomber is the trip some of my friends - who I travel to European football matches with - have planned for this summer's World Cup in Germany. Its announcement prompted a flurry of e-mails across the world and, within four days, an itinerary involving numerous airports, ferries, cars, mini-buses and cheap hotels had been arranged. They'll deal with getting tickets for the games later.
The trip is named after what the RAF's Lancasters did for German property redevelopment. The plan is to get as bombed as possible in an environment where everyone else will be doing exactly the same, hopeful that news of whatever they get up to will never reach home. There will be no violence, as these are normal men with decent lives and no desire to die bleeding in a back alley from a stab wound. They will, however, inflict great damage on themselves through the German brewing industry.
During the trip I guarantee that in addition to huge quantities of alcohol being consumed, Don Estelle shorts
will be worn, too many men will share the same bedroom, one will be chained to a tree and robbed by a woman claiming to offer sex, others will climb across balconies to try to get back into rooms they've lost keys to, hangovers will be mandatory, and motorways will be driven up the wrong way. If all the imbeciles in the world were called up to re-enact the Italian Job, it would look like Operation Bomber. And those involved will love it. Those around them will also love it because at the heart of Operation Bomber is a good humoured call to prayer at the altar of World Football.
Oh yes, the football. At some point during Operation Bomber the lads will crowd into a stadium to watch Kenya vs Luxembourg, or some such nonentity of a game, having convinced themselves it is adequate replacement for the England-Germany tickets that never materialised, and that, besides, the culture clash provides a fantastic carnival atmosphere.
A year ago, when the invitation to join Operation Bomber arrived, I was a married man with a family and four jobs on the go, and it seemed a terrifying prospect. Now I'm no longer married, the jaunt doesn't seem so alien. The lads of Operation Bomber and I, indeed every male football fan, would no more miss the World Cup than our wives and loved ones would miss their best friend's wedding. It's a given. (I'll pause a minute here to broaden the church: there are many women out there who feel just as strongly. Excuse my old- school sexism but it's easier to pigeonhole.) The World Cup is the greatest male call to arms on the planet, an event that, for Europeans at least - OK, make that the English - is a cross between Glastonbury, the Second World War and a medieval pageant.
Part of its appeal is that you have to wait four years for it to come around. That's long enough to forget what happened last time and to start to believe you can win it again. This is currently best signified by the Sham 69 re-issue of "Hurry Up Harry" with lyrics doctored to announce "Hurry Up England / C'mon, we're gonna win the cup." Such bloke-ish fanfare is guaranteed to make sensitive types wince and the crowd cheer along in gung-ho delight. All they need to do is re-record it with the medical updates for Rooney, Owen and anyone else who gets fl crippled between now and kick-off.
The World Cup gives you everything your genes expect of you: competition, community, travel. Most obviously it I provides us with ritual: the downing of tools, the jostling for a space in a pub, the interruption of an otherwise laid-back holiday with screams of hope and anguish. …