When I've talked to people about the World Cup, they often object to is the idea that the repeating patterns in the tournament mean anything. So what, for instance, if there haven't been any new winners who weren't hosts since 1958? Yet even if this sequence is ended on Sunday - and after today's result there's now a two in three chance that it will be - it doesn't invalidate the remarkable consistency up until now, over thirteen tournaments and 52 years. (One pattern has definitely been ended this World Cup: for the first time there will be a European winner outside Europe.) Even now, in a comparatively anomalous World Cup - which, however, could still be won by Germany of course - the semi-finalists included two former winners and one two-time finalist. If Spain make the final, they will be the first new non-host finalist since Holland first made it in 1974.
We've talked here a great deal about the importance of "belief". But the kind of "belief" that must be involved is of an uncanny type; it isn't a question of individual psychology, nor even of collective psychology in any simple way - we're not dealing with something like crowd behaviour, after all, where spatial and temporal proximity can account for influence. No: what we have to account for are persistences over long periods of time, in conditions where the causal mechanisms are obscure.
Tabloid-vernacular discussion of football will often invoke "ghosts", "hoodoos" and "bogey teams". Now, commonsense might want to dismiss such phenomena as mere happenstance (it just so happens that, year in, year out, Team X loses to Team Y), yet - as is often the case with commonsense - such a dismissal risks being far more absurd than trying to explain how they have happened.
One dimension here must be self-fulfilling prophecy, which Ben has discussed most recently in terms of Brazil. In his crucial 1942 essay "Voodoo Death", Walter Cannon showed how self-fulfilling beliefs can literally kill. Cannon studied victims of shock and of voodoo sorcery, discovering that, in both cases, the victims were caused to panic themselves to death. One of the values of Cannon's work is that, far from being some vacuous New Age nonsense about the "power of the mind", it goes into precise detail about the physiology of belief, the way beliefs are instantiated in the autonomic nervous system. At the same time, these self-destructive states cannot be triggered unless the individual in question already has certain background beliefs - it is only someone who believes in the power of sorcery who will die when a sorcerer points a bone at them, for instance. But it's not possible not to "believe" in Brazil's success ; it's a matter of brute factual record. And this history of success is not some neutral record which can be consigned into the past once the match starts - it forms part of the "psychological" texture of the match itself.
If it's a final between Spain and Holland then there are ghosts on both sides. But Spain might feel that, having gone two rounds further than they've previously managed, they've already laid the ghosts of their past failings, and now all bets are off. Holland's spectres, meanwhile, can only be confronted in the final. Holland's grinding progress through the tournament recalls that of Brazil in 94. As Loki pointed out on twitter, that Brazil team was "haunted by ghosts of a brillliantly skillful, but ultimately failed past", the 82 side, just as this Dutch side is stalked by the spectres of 1974. Will the Dutch exorcise that ghost even if they win the tournament?(One thing that occurred to me tonight: is football nostalgia like music nostalgia, forever stalled in the 60s and 70s? Beyond their own team's fans, there doesn't seem to be much nostalgia for any of the World Cup winners of the 80s or 90s, and except, perhaps, for the France of 98, it's hard to imagine such nostalgia developing in the future.)