My life in World Cups

by Steve

The first World Cup I was around for was in 1982, however I was too young at the time to remember it now. However, once I was old enough to get into football I soon picked up the key elements – Harald Schumacher’s horrendous foul on Patrick Battiston, Marco Tardelli’s goal celebration in the final, Algeria being the big surprise of the tournament, West Germany and Austria conspiring to play out a result that benefited both teams, a second group stage…

These are all events that are part of the language and fabric of football. You learn about all of these things if you aren’t old enough to remember them. You reference them, internalise them. The same with all World Cups. Sometimes it is those little moments and details that stick with you more than who ended up winning.

I remember the 1986 World Cup. My main memory is the quarter-final between England and Argentina, a game that seemed to define football for me for years afterwards. The game itself was a real treat for me as I was allowed to have the family TV in my room for the game. It was very exciting, and felt like a huge event for that reason alone.

It was an early case of England feeling hard done-by, after the infamous ‘Hand of God’, yet was also an example of England using a sense of injustice or bad luck to draw attention away from the fact they had been outplayed, not least conceding one of the best goals ever. Now I can look back at both goals and wonder what the England defence was doing giving Maradona so much room for most goals, what Shilton was playing at for both goals. It is also worth remembering that John Barnes did have good games in an England shirt, and his cameo in this game was one of them.

But at the time it was all about the injustice of it, and then trying to recreate moments from the game in the playground.

1990 was the World Cup for me, and probably was for most football fans my age. It is funny how it is treasured so much by people of a certain age, how it led to a resurgence in football’s popularity in England, perhaps led to the Premier League and the monster that football is now, yet from an objective point-of-view the fgames weren’t really that good. There was a lot of fouling, a lot of back-passes and generally an air of negativity.

Yet this was also England’s best performance at a World Cup since winning it in 1966. It was the first time England would lose on penalties, robbing them of a place in the final and giving the country an inferiority complex/feeling of being cursed by bad luck/etc ever since. As the finals were in Italy all the kick-offs were at a sensible time. We weren’t used to so much football being on telly all the time. Today you can watch some sort of game on TV most days of the year. In 1990 you could probably watch one or two games a week, plus some highlights. To have a World Cup with so many games was a genuine feast. We gorged on football.

1994 was odd. It was in the USA, so there were a lot of games in the middle of the night, and I couldn’t really stay up that late with school the next day. Plus England had failed to qualify. I guess this was the first time I could properly enjoy football for what it was, without getting caught up in more partizan concerns (as an aside I loved Euro 2008 more than most tournaments as England had failed to qualify there too, so could just enjoy the football without the risk of another inevitable disappointment). The 1994 finals were fun as unfancied teams like Sweden, Bulgaria and Romania did really well. The final saw two great sides in Italy and Brazil play out a boring draw and have the first penalty shoot-out in a World Cup final. It was a World Cup to admire, rather than love.

1998 was a lot of fun. My last exam on my last ever day at school finished at the exact same time as the first game of the World Cup kicked off. We ran out of school and made it to a pub in about 15 minutes. I think they were the only moments I missed of the entire tournament. I was free to completely immerse myself in the tournament, as happy watching the least important games as I was the final. It firmed up my belief that the real fun is to had in the first round games, where there are lots of odd match-ups, there is a good chance of an upset or two, and most teams are still full of hope and expectation. Plus there are at least three games every single day. Bliss.

England went out on penalties again, the injustice compounded by David Beckham’s sending off earlier in the game. England really were mastering the art of losing in an epic and dramatic fashion.

2002 was another odd one as with the finals held in Japan and South Korea all the kick-offs were really early in the day. I was working a summer job between terms at university and so would listen to the match commentary on my way into work, and as my job mainly consisted of opening post and filing, could keep my earphones in at work too. South Korea defeating Italy was the big shock, and was even more unbelievable as I was relying on the audio, the not-seeing was kind of the not-believing. I managed to catch odd games here and there on my lunch break, there was a cafe nearby that showed the games and I’d take my time over my jacket potato so it didn’t look too much like I was just loitering there.

England didn’t go out on penalties, they just lost to Brazil, and that felt a lot less painful. The game was really early in the morning, but the pub near work was showing it. I negotiated a late start so I could see the game there. As I sipped my Coke there were loads of guys necking booze like there was no tomorrow. I popped back to the pub after work and some of those guys were still there. I didn’t stay long.

2006. I remember being in a pub in Canterbury on a beautiful summer’s day watching England’s opening game against Paraguay. Across the road was a lovely church preparing for a wedding. Most of the male guests scurried across to the pub to try to catch some of the game without either getting caught, or missing the ceremony.

England eventually went out on penalties again, after another silly sending off, again.

I was watching the game in a pub full of people who didn’t really seem that bothered by football, who were packing out the bar on another lovely day, despite not really wanting to watch the match and there being a perfectly good garden outside. They were there to say they were there, for them it was a social occasion, not an opportunity to watch a sporting occasion. Football in pubs can be trying at the best of times, but it is no fun when you’re surrounded by people who don’t get football. I was getting a bit too animated at times, and I think they were getting annoyed with me and a few others who were getting, how shall I put this, emotionally invested in the game. I was getting annoyed with them, annoyed with the game, then annoyed with the result. I stormed out, threw my beer on the pavement (at least it was a plastic glass) and marched off into the sunset. Not my finest hour.

I promised myself not to get so worked up by football in future. I haven’t always managed that.

2010 and I remember watching some games in my basement of my work. The IT team had set up a projector for some of the key games and it was kind of fun, although a little strange watching an England game without a beer in my hand, and keeping my behaviour (and language) in check so my colleagues didn’t think I was a monster. New Zealand were the most fun team in the tournament, going out despite not losing a game. Outsiders springing a surprise or two are always enjoyable, unless you’re on the receiving end of the upset I guess. England got torn apart by Germany to go out of the tournament, which was again better than penalties. I watched that game at home with my wife, although she wasn’t my wife then. It was a lot better than being in a pub. Spain were a joy to watch.

2014. There are some really good previews out there, so I won’t try anything of that nature. My predictions are likely to be terrible, or obvious, but here goes. England will probably do OK, at least better than expected. I anticipate a quarter-final defeat, just as the country has switched from indifference to anticipation, just as the St George’s flags start reappearing. Chile and Belgium will be fun to watch. There will be the odd big-name casualty in the first round, maybe Holland, or Italy. And after a lot of drama, excitement and the odd 0-0 draw, Brazil will beat Argentina in the final.

Even the current FIFA scandal and the lack of preparedness of the hosts isn’t tempering my excitement. In some ways it is like Christmas after finding out Father Christmas doesn’t exist. You might be pretty disappointed, upset even, but you still really enjoy Christmas Day. I think I’ll still really enjoy the World Cup. Even the bad ones are good.