The World Cup is upon us, and in our fantasy world of anything-can-happen . .

The Gollancz blog is delighted to welcome Zafir and Elric who have stoppd by for a special guest interview.

The World Cup is upon us, and in our fantasy world of anything-can-happen we’d like to preview two of the teams tipped to reach this year’s final. Our pre-match analysis special is brought to you by fantasy football legend Elric Cantona. With both teams fielding dragons, our other guest is the dragon-queen Zafir from the Memory of Flames Eleven, a team currently rated around 281,000 in the Amazon world rankings who nevertheless squeaked in through the play-offs through a series of highly controversial refereeing decisions. I’m sure everyone remembers Elric Cantona’s infamous incident jumping into the crowd to steal the soul of a fan who shouted abuse at him, while Zafir is currently appealing an indefinite post-match suspension for violent conduct following her team’s victory over the Shannara Eleven in which six of the Shannara players simply disappeared off the field of play behind the referee’s back.

Zafir (shrugs): Dragons get hungry.

So anyway, let’s move straight on to the opening match, widely tipped to be a dress rehearsal for the final. Elric, who’s your pick to win tonight.

Elric: My pick for tonight is my pick to lift the trophy a month from now. The current world champions, heavily tipped to reach the final again at the very least and the bookie’s favourite to win for a record tenth consecutive tournament. The Middle Earth Eleven. Their 3-3-4 formation is unorthodox and I don’t know how they get away with no height up front, but you can’t say it hasn’t worked for them, and no one seems to have an answer for it. The defensive side of the team largely picks itself. The dragon Smaug in goal. Do we know how to pronounce that yet? SmOWg? SmAWg?

Zafir: Smug?

Elric: Thorin and Gimli and Gandalf “You shall not pass” the White as the three centre-backs and Sauron as the holding midfield player. I think Sauron is key to this team’s defensive record. He’s such a destructive player. Mind you, he’s got to be careful. Four red cards in seven appearances. He doesn’t want to pick up another and an early suspension right at the start of the tournament.

Zafir: I always liked Sauron. You have to respect a player who casts such a shadow over any game. He’s so dominant and he doesn’t shirk putting in the challenges, even if he gets it wrong now and then.

Elric: Zafir, You play Middle Earth in your second group match. If you play your usual position at the point a midfield diamond, you’ll be man to man with Sauron.

Zafir: (raises eyebrow)

Elric: Um . . . woman and dragon to . . . I’m not sure. Anthropomorphisationof moral decay.

Zafir: (pulls gold ring from pocket) We’ll reach an accommodation, I’m sure.

Elric: Anyway, left and right midfield I predict Legolas and Aragorn. Both attacking players who take every opportunity to go forward but not known for their defensive ability. Then the front four we’ve come to expect, barring any late injury: Merry and Pippin on the wings, Sam and Frodo in the centre. It’ll be interesting to see how they do tonight against a robust defence; though you can’t deny their record, the four front men do like to cluster . . .

Zafir: To be honest, Diamond Eye and I were hoping to take advantage of that when we play them. One gulp . . .

Elric (shrugs) . . .  But they’re good at going out wide and trying to get in behind. There’s not much creativity in the middle of the park, but they’ve shown they’re hard to break down set up this way. That central spine of Smaug, Gandalf and Sauron is  almost impassible. They never try to control the centre of the pitch, but it works for them. An impenetrable defence and then long balls to the front four and hope for the best. It’s a absurd strategy when you stop to think about it, but that attacking line of hobbits just seems to have the knack of unlocking any defence. Zee, what do you think of having a dragon for a goalkeeper?

ZafirZee? Well, Ric, I’d say a few things about that. For a start, it doesn’t make much difference whether Gandalf “you shall not pass and nor shall I, I shall just lump ridiculously unlikely balls right up the pitch at the hobbits all the time and hope for the best” the White and Sauron “I can only see you if you’re wearing a magic ring” are on the top of their game or at each other’s throats, what helps their defensive record at the moment is having a keeper that’s bigger than the entire goal mouth. All I can say is they’d better have plenty of spare balls with Mr “I am fire, I am death” on the pitch. They really need to introduce goal-line technology to help the linesmen too. I’m sure it’s very hard to tell how much of the ball has actually crossed the line when it’s in bits.

Elric: You can’t fault him from dead ball situations either. His positioning for corner and free kicks is exemplary.

Zafir: He fills the whole penalty box! You know, one thing I’ve never liked about the way Middle Earth set up. Look at bench. Arwen, Galadriel, Tauriel, Aeowyn. They’ve got great players there but they never use them.

Elric: And Gollum. Let’s not forget Gollum. My pick to score the winning goal tonight.

Zafir: Right. And yes, their super-sub. You can bet that with fifteen minutes to go he’ll come on for Frodo or Sam. And he’ll probably score, but if I was anyone else on that bench I’d go home. The rest of them might as well sit there and compare nail-polish advice for all the use the manager ever makes of them. Talented players completely wasted.

Elric: What do you make of the new signing?

Zafir: Tauriel? Legolas with tits. A like for like sub with just as much talent and frankly more character but does she ever feature in the starting eleven?

Elric: They don’t like to change their set-up, do they? What do you make of their opposition tonight?

Zafir: Westeros United? Whoever settled on calling them “united” certainly had a sense of irony. Since you’ve picked team Middle Earth I suppose I have to extol their virtues, although frankly they’re not the team they used to be.

Elric: Still immense though.

Zafir: Westeros will flood the midfield. I predict basically a 3-5-1-1 formation with Varys the Spider in goal . . .

Elric: He’s an odd looking fellow isn’t he?

 Zafir: Always there when they need him though. Three Lannisters in central defence. Cersei, Tywin, Jaime . . .

Elric: Brave of Tywin to stand between Cersei and Jaime.

Zafir: Midfield five Jon Snow, Littlefinger, Stannis . . .

Elric: Stannis?

Zafir: Holding player sitting in front of the defence. Are you going to interrupt every single one of my sentences, now that you’ve asked me for my opinion, or shall I stop now? I expect Littlefinger to play on the right wing. He’s good for popping up all over the place where you leas expect him. Jon Snow and Brienne central midfield . . .

Elric: Brienne?

Zafir (glares)

Elric: Sorry.

Zafir: Yes, Brienne. Left wing I really have no idea. They have so many options but none of them stand out. I was going to go for Oberyn Martell – he seemed a natural fit for that position, but it sounds like that skull injury is going to keep him out. Gutting for the newcomer, really, coming into a team that’s really in need of some fresh blood. As it is, maybe Theon Greyjoy. Or Reek, or whatever he’s calling himself. He’d an outside chance but I’m going for Arya. Tyrion Lannister up front with Danaerys in the hole behind him.

Elric: Tyrion?

Zafir (shrugs) I think the Westeros team have a real problem at the moment. They haven’t got a real driving force any more. You think of Westeros of the last few years and you think of Ned Stark and Rob Stark, play-makers who gave that forward momentum to the whole team. They’ve lost that edge now. I know how much they paid for Danaerys and how everyone expects her to be the new superstar, and I agree she had potential, but so far she just doesn’t seem to have found her form. They’ve got such a large squad on the bench and yet the quality simply isn’t there, frankly. Personally I thought Stannis was going to take on the role of dominating the midfield but that just hasn’t happened either. Danaerys drifts about the pitch but she never seems to make a decisive impact. They should play Tywin further forward. He likes to hold the back three together and they need that, but he could drive the whole team. They won’t, though. So yes, Tyrion up front because he’s like a hobbit and hobbits always seem to score goals somehow.

Elric: The way the teams are set you’d expect Westeros to dominate the midfield. What do you think of Danaerys? You both style yourselves dragon-queens, you both play in a similar position.

 Zafir: I like her.  We see eye to eye on a few things off the pitch too, though I’ll teach her a thing or too on it when we meet. Her problem, frankly, is that her dragons aren’t big enough yet and she just doesn’t have that ruthless edge – although give the woman time. In fact give her time and she could be monumental, but right now? Look, if I were in her position, looking at the rest of the squad around me, I’d be worried. There’s an awful lot of pressure on Danaerys to carry this team and it’s only getting worse. So far we don’t really know if she can cut it.

Elric: Result?

Zafir: Westeros are going to own the midfield but I fear they just don’t have the star quality to create anything that’s going to penetrate the Middle Earth defence. They’re going to have a lot of the possession and it’s going to be dull. Middle Earth have an abysmal  tendency to grandstand these days – sure, they look great and they play some lovely moves, but a lot of it’s pointless and goes on for far too long and and not much of it actually achieves anything. They lack depth and they could do with being a lot more direct, but I’m going for 1-0 to Middle Earth nevertheless, with Gollum scoring from the bench in the last ten minutes.

Elric: That Middle Earth dragon likes to talk, and Tyrion can talk anyone out of anything, so I’m going for Westeros to take an early lead. But I don’t think he’s going to last to half time, never mind the full ninety minutes, and when they lose him I just don’t see who they’ve got who can create chances. The whole team is so injury prone I see them down to nine men by the end even using substitutions. We’ve all heard the rumours, too, that it’s not a happy dressing room over in Westeros, while the Middle Earth attack know each other so well. It’s going to be an uneasy first half for Middle Earth but they’ll make the game their own in the second. 1-1 at half time, 3-1 Middle Earth at the end of the ninety.


When not guesting as a football pundit, Zafir appears in numerous fantasy novels by Stephen Deas beginning with The Adamantine Palace and most recently as the starring character in Dragon Queen. She also stars in theforthcoming Splintered Gods, out next week from Gollancz. Elric Cantona flits across the multiverse, the eternal pundit. You can get a sneak peek of Splintered Gods below in our exclusive extract.

Middle Earth vs. Westeros kicks off at 11pm (GMT) on 14th June at the same time as a certain other match. Zafir and Elric will be tweeting live match commentary from an hour before kick-off via @stephendeas

The Splintered Gods by Stephen Deas Extract by Orion Publishing Group