Four more years: A life in World Cups

As a near life-long football fan, the world cup always comes round as a sort of speeded-up 7 Up documentary, forcing me to remember where I was in space and time every four years. I turn 50 in the coming weeks and I have memories of each of the last 10 world cups, each bookmarking my life at regular intervals. All going well I’ll be in a cafe or bar somewhere in Rangoon on my 50th enjoying this year’s version with local football fans. With any luck I’ll find out the Burmese word for offside.

I’ve been alive for 12 world cups but England 1966 and all that passed me by as a two-year-old. And as much I desperately want to remember Pele and 1970, I have no recollection of the day Brazil beat Italy playing football from the gods. My first memory of any football match is at my grandmother’s house in 1971 watching black and white TV as Liverpool lost to Arsenal in the 1971 Cup Final. This defeat turned a young Irish lad with no Scouse connections into a lifelong Liverpool fan. It didn’t hurt that Liverpool were successful in the years that followed.

In 1974 I was ten years old and looking forward to watching my first world cup in Germany. I was still in Waterford, Ireland but our new colour television put me touch with the action. My abiding memories are of a rainy German summer and Der Bomber Gerd Muller. The day of the final was a Sunday and it was a beautiful Irish summer’s day. All my family headed to the beach at Woodstown but I was dropped off at my uncle’s house where we watched the final together. I wanted West Germany to beat the Dutch despite the brilliance of Johan Cruyff. English ref Jack Taylor awarded Cruyff a penalty in the first minute. It was an electrifying start to an electrifying game. The Germans came back and Der Bomber scored the winner. I probably went to the beach the following Sunday, rain or shine.

In 1978, I was 14 and old enough to stay up late for the games from South America. Der Bomber had retired and Cruyff refused to play in Argentina for political reasons I did not understand. The Dutch did well without him but Mario Kempes imprinted his name in my consciousness with two goals in the final. Argentina had their first ever win and I understood they were a proper football nation, whatever their politics.

Much had changed by 1982. Aged 18 I’d left Waterford and was earning money in Dublin. Free to my own barely adult devices I discovered booze and drugs (women were harder to come by) and Dublin’s dual night-life. I would spend the first half at some pub till they kicked you out before midnight and the second half was finding a party to kick on. Despite no TV in my share-house, I watched almost all of this Spanish world cup. I left work early to sit in the pub next door and catch the late afternoon games over a pint of Carlsberg (I didn’t touch Guinness until after I left Dublin). I was particularly taken with England’s 3-1 over France. It was the first time I saw England playing in the world cup finals and I was a rare Irishman who favoured them because they were usually packed with Liverpool players. France was their high water mark and they went out without losing, outsmarted by the Germans, not for the first or last time, the Germans beating Spain when England couldn’t. A workmanlike Northern Ireland had qualified which annoyed me as a southerner while great players like Giles and Brady missed out. I was further riled when Billy Bingham’s men did well also beating Spain as England couldn’t. 1982 produced two all-time classic games. Zico, Falcao and Socrates were wonderful players but Brazil somehow lost to Italy in the game of Paolo Rossi’s career. The French midfield was just as pleasing as Brazil’s but they were hunted down by the remorseless Germans in that most memorable of semi-finals. I watched from a Dublin pub, as Italy beat Germany in a tense decider thanks to more Rossi brilliance.

In June 1986 I was 22 and had moved again, this time to London. Unlike Ireland, London’s pubs had the world inside them. I met many people from many nations that month. Because the tournament was in Mexico, there were plenty of late night games and London, even more than Dublin, liked to shut up shop before midnight. There was a buzz about England again until it ran into Diego Maradona. Whether he was scoring goals with the hands or feet of god, he was an irrestible presence and the best player on the field by some distance (at least until John Barnes came on to almost rescue the game). The French beat Brazil but capitulated feebly to the West Germans again who seemed just makeweights to Maradona in the final. But on a warm summer’s day in London I watched the best world cup final of my life. The Germans came back from 2-0 down with Lothar Mattheus marking Maradona out of the game. Well almost, one breathtaking shimmy, a pass and it’s 3-2 to Argentina. The little maestro didn’t score in the final but no one was in doubt who owned the trophy.

Four years later my life was turned upside down in more ways than one. I was 26 and engaged to be married in Melbourne, Australia. I had a three month leave pass to travel back to Ireland and see the 1990 world cup in Italy. It was Ireland’s first world cup and my blessed mother had scored me tickets for all of Ireland’s group games. It remains the only world cup I’ve attended. Ireland were drawn to play in Sardinia and Sicily and first up was England. It was the same match-up two years earlier in Euro 88 which I also attended. That 1988 game which Ireland somehow won 1-0 remains the most draining football experiences of my life. But Germany was easy to get to compared to the south coast of Sardinia. It took three boats and several trains to get from Waterford to Cagliari. I stayed a lovely day in Olbia in the north and remember travelling down the spine of Sardinia with another Aussie-Irish ex-pat. We talked of Sydney and Melbourne on the way down. To my horror I found my ticket was for the English end of the stadium and I somehow conned a happy-looking English fan at the Irish end to swap. This time they played out a draw, which was deserved and left us crowing “You’ll never beat the Irish”. As the tournament developed the Irish couldn’t beat you either. Draws in hot Palermo (and dry, with few bars open any match day) against Egypt and Netherlands put us through. The Dutch paid for this by losing the coin toss sending them to a death match with Germany while Ireland got the easier draw in Genoa versus Romania. The Romanians still had Hagi but had lost Caucescu – I remember their fans tore the hated symbol of his regime from the flag, but they had few fans there. 30,000 Paddies made it feel like a home game and for once we found some bar open to celebrate after Ireland hung on to win on penalties. The quarter-final against Italy in Rome is the most intense game I ever witnessed and it felt like relief to lose. The Germans beat the English as usual and then won the tournament. I watched the dull decider against Argentina in a hostel in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in southern Germany where locals clapped their team politely to victory. I went home to Melbourne, Australia to marry.

In 1994 I was a married father of a two-year-old daughter and I watched USA94 from my Melbourne home. I snuck out of bed early one Saturday and had the TV on low to watch Ireland play Italy again to open their second world cup. My Australian wife didn’t understand European football but she recognised the joy on my face as I told her Ireland had won, their first ever win over the Italians. The loss was Italy’s lowest ebb, they would reach the final while it was Ireland’s high point. Ireland squeezed through the second round before being easily beaten by the Dutch. The Dutch lost to Brazil who started the tournament brilliantly and slowly got worse. They were still just good enough to beat Italy in possibly the poorest final I remember. I went back to sleep after keeping difficult hours watching my first world cup in Australia.

It was all change again for me in 1998. I was divorced but followed my ex-wife and two young daughters to Brisbane. This was my first winter in Brisbane and I was finding a very hospitable climate. The time difference for European football was 9 hours and in these pre-Internet days I would get up for the late game at 5 or 6am and watch it with the sound off, while fast-forwarding through the earlier game I’d taped. I had usually caught up before the end of the second game so could watch the last bit with the sound on. Ireland were missing this time but 1998 was all about Michael Owen before England imploded again. Hosts France with 10 brilliant midfield and defenders were slowly catching fire. Brazil were like Argentina in 1990, poor but still respected enough as holders to make the final. I got up at 4.30am to see them be taken apart by two Zinedine Zidane headers (not the last time his head would feature prominently in a final) and Arsenal’s midfield.

I was getting used to this world cup in Brisbane thing by 2002 though it helped this one was in Japan/South Korea. Japorea was only two hours behind Brisbane so I could watch matches at drinking time for the first time since 1986. Ireland were back and doing dramatic draws again. Their comebacks against Cameroon and Germany launched long boozy evenings. Again it was a case of you’ll never beat the Irish, they went out on penalties to Spain, undefeated. With the adrenalin rush of Ireland gone, it was time to enjoy the tournament. England’s Michael Owen was world class again and so was Beckham who got revenge against Argentina. But neither couldn’t beat Brazil. Ronaldo had the silliest haircut on the planet but there was none better at football and teammates Ronaldinho and Rivaldo were number two and three. I watched the final at the end of a big weekend at friends’ house in the Sunshine Coast hinterland at Kin Kin. None of my friends followed football but I enjoyed the game in what remains the only time Brazil have played Germany in the world cup. Brazil dismantled the Germans as Ronaldo put his 1998 demons behind him, if not his stupid hairstyle. I went to bed and got up four hours later on Monday morning to listen to the dawn chorus of Australian birdlife for the two-hour drive back to Brisbane and work.

Germany in 2006 threw in a new variable. I was still in Brisbane watching matches in the middle of the night. But there was a good reason to do this publicly rather than in front of my own TV. Ireland were missing again (and they have yet to return) but their place ever since has been taken by Australia. As much as I hate the nickname “Socceroos”, Australia’s football team has scarred me forever. I was at the MCG in 1997 when Australia were 2-0 up against Iran and heading to France. Then that idiot broke the crossbar – I still haven’t forgiven him – Iran came back to 2-2. The Aloisi penalty against Uruguay to secure qualification in 2005 was an outpouring of Aussie football emotion pent up over decades of failure. The pub was packed for Australia’s opener against Japan and it was doom and gloom with 8 minutes to go with Japan 1-0 up. Then Tim Cahill took over and Aloisi chipped in again. I was covered in beer and dancing with strangers as the pub descended into mayhem in a 3-1 win. Brazil was the inevitable defeat but Kewell did his bit against Croatia to put Guus Hiddink’s side through to play Italy. The Aussies were good but Fabio Grosso was brilliant to draw the foul from Lucas Neill for the penalty. Italy did not look back. Zidane was past his best but somehow dragged France past Spain and Brazil. I went to a mate’s house for a 4.30am early start for the Italy v France decider. They couldn’t be separated but Zidane eliminated himself from the shoot-out with the most public head butt in history. Italy deserved the penalty win. I was grumpy, the extra time and penalties deprived me of a sleep-in before work.

Four years on in 2010, the tournament was heading to a new continent and I was in a new town too. While footballers dealt with a mild South African winter, I was in Roma on the western Queensland plain where overnight temperatures in June regularly went below zero. I was now an ambitious journalist having quit a life-time of IT a year earlier. With long hours to put in my paper and very cold nights I saw hardly any games. It didn’t help SBS had lost the rights to most matches and I had no access to Pay TV. I did have the Internet and I caught up with most matches, or at least the goals in the morning after. Australia were there but were poor compared to 2006 and made an early exit. I watched England lose to Germany yet again. Germany cruised to a 2 goal lead before England scored. Then Lampard hit the underside of the crossbar and was ruled incorrectly no goal. At 2-2 it was anyone’s game, but at 2-1 and this injustice, England were psychologically gone. I went to bed and was unsurprised to wake up to a 4-1 result. Germany looked like the most exciting team in the tournament but they were worn down by Spain’s tiki taka. Their final versus the Netherlands seemed promising but I wasn’t up for it – literally. On a cold Monday morning after a late night working to deadline on Sunday, I slept it out and missed it all. I caught up with Spain’s dour 1-0 win on the Internet. I wondered if my love affair with the world cup was over.

Yet a few days out from another tournament in 2014 and I am again excited. Partially it’s because I’ll spend the first couple of weeks of it watching games in Thailand, Cambodia and Burma. Then I’m back in Brisbane but still on holidays so will head north to warmer climes and Indigenous issues. Will they be watching the world cup in Palm Island or Yarrabah? I’m sure like Rangoon I’ll find somewhere. Despite the worst efforts of corrupt FIFA, the world cup remains a primal cultural experience, and one that is wonderfully global. Bring on Brazil, and likely, their sixth title.


The reign in Spain is mainly plain

And so a World Cup that began as African, and then turned South American before becoming European ended up as Spanish in a tense but always absorbing final overnight in Johannesburg. Nelson Mandela delighted fans by turning up but not as much as Barcelona midfielder Andres Iniestra did by scoring the game’s only goal deep into extra time consigning the Dutch to their third final defeat.

One punter on Twitter said after the game a Dutch victory would have been a Scorsese award: given purely for their work in the 1970s – this is a little unfair on Martin Scorsese whose more recent films Gangs of New York and The Departed are on a par with anything he did in his earlier career but the point is well made nonetheless.

Holland (never the more geographical correct Netherlands) were the great side of the 1970s with Johan Cruyff at the certain of most of their brilliance. But they never won anything at national level being undone by their own arrogance in 1974, 1976 and 1978 losing to the hosts and winners of the tournament each time. 1978 was a particularly tragedy when Cruyff decided for political reasons not to go to Argentina. What better rebuff to the junta generals would have been him to lift the trophy in front of them.

The defeat of the current Dutch crop is no tragedy, being nowhere near the total football side of the 1970s. The current vintage is a good if workmanlike team epitomised by the starring role of Liverpool’s much maligned workhorse Dirk Kuyt. They beat Brazil which was perhaps the biggest shock of the entire World Cup. But otherwise they were like Brazil’s 2006 conquerors France, tough to beat and lucky but not worldbeaters themselves.

And in terms of sporting disappointment, they are only the second best of the month compared to unknown Frenchman Nicolas Mahut who lost his Wimbledon tennis match to equally obscure American John Isner in a record breaking three-day 11-hour contest 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7-9), 7-6 (7-3), 70-68. I can’t begin to imagine how Mahut felt at the end of that final 183rd game after the shared almost a thousand points between them.

But even Wimbledon reminds us of the World Cup with a Spaniard Rafael Nadal carrying off his second crown. His fellow countrymen – and they are countrymen, despites their catalogue of Catalans – one nilled their way to the World Cup final and repeated the dose one last time to deservedly take the crown. I congratulate them on their first title, a magnificent achievement especially outside their own continent.

As convincing European Champions in 2008 they went in as the favourite side from the northern hemisphere, but few people though they could get past Brazil or Argentina to win outside their own continent. More still (myself included, I must admit) wrote them off after their opening shock loss to the unrated Switzerland. The defeat was occasion for great angst in Madrid and Barcelona yet two games later they were back on track having won the group while the Swiss packed their bags for home.

The group win was crucial. It meant they avoided Brazil in the round of 16. Instead they won a tense Iberian derby before squeezing past a Paraguay side that was just delighted to be in the quarter finals. Germany was a different kettle of pescado having thrashed Australia, England and then Argentina but Spain passed them to death to deservedly win before repeating the dose against the Dutch.

Perhaps it is appropriate that the most Africanised country in Europe (and the one closest geographically) should triumph in Africa though the players probably won’t feel that way. But this victory may do what 50 years of oppression under Franco could not: seal a farrago of nationalities into a nation. Though it was a Castilian Iker Casillas who lifted the trophy (and in the process joining Dino Zoff in the pantheon of goalkeeping greats), it was a Catalan backbone that sealed the win. And the celebrations would have been just as great in Basque Bilbao and Galician La Coruna as they were in Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and Seville. Viva Espana.

I’m hearing only bad news from Radio Africa

When Cameroon were unluckily beaten by England in the quarter final of the 1990 World Cup in Italy it seemed only a matter of time before an African side won the World Cup. What no one predicted was that Cameroon’s 1990 performance would be remain an African high water mark, equalled only by Senegal who also went out in quarter-final extra time in 2002.

Things have gone backwards since then. With one round of the group matches left to go in the first ever African World Cup, it remains a distinct possibility no African side will make it through to the last 16. South Africa, Ivory Coast and Nigeria are almost certainly out already. Algeria has some hope in the group of sleep but will probably lose to USA. That leaves Ghana who top their group currently ahead of Germany and Serbia. However their lacklustre performance against a poor ten man Australian side suggests they will probably lose to Germany and allow Serbia to grab the other place with a win or draw against Australia. The one African innovation in this World Cup is not the football but the vuvuzela which has split sporting fans. Some love it for its ability to get the fans involved but more hate it for its incessant one-pitched drone which drowns out every other noise in the stadium. Problems with the vuvuzela were identified at the 2009 Confederation Cup which acts as a world cup dress rehearsal. FIFA boss Sepp Blatter didn’t want to ban the vuvuzela saying “we should not try to Europeanise an African World Cup.”As with most things Blatter, this was hypocritical bullshit. It had nothing to do with anti-colonialism and everything to do with office politics. There is no long history of the vuvuzela’s use in Africa or elsewhere. The plastic trumpet first emerged in Mexico in the 1970s and was seen at the Argentina 1978 World Cup. They didn’t become popular in South Africa until 20 years later. With its high sound level and closeness to the frequency of human speech, Blatter probably hates them as much as anyone not playing them. But the FIFA president was not prepared to risk African votes deserting him during the 2011 presidential election.While Blatter is buying votes, the tournament is gathering pace. The first week saw a succession of negative games and 1-0 scorelines. Desperately poor and uneven refereeing didn’t help. The code’s refusal to use technology to help the refs leaves it looking a laughing stock compared to the range of facilities available to rugby, cricket and tennis officials.

This is especially ludicrous now referees and assistants are wired up. It would not take long to talk to a fourth or fifth official in the stands with access to replays, goal-line incidents and offside decisions. The oft-quoted excuse it would “interrupt the flow of the game” beggars belief especially when considering how many interruptions exist as players fall over under the slightest provocation.

A European team has never won the competition outside its home continent and this statistic is likely to continue in South Africa. Germany looked strong against Australia only to fold against Serbia. Meanwhile Italy, France and England all lack a cutting edge. Favourites Spain inexplicably lost to Switzerland and may find it impossible to recover. The Dutch look the best of the Europeans so far but don’t have the aura of trophy winners.

The same cannot be said of Brazil and Argentina. Both sides have aura in abundance and won their games easily. With the right amount of fortune they should end up playing each other in the first all-South American final since 1950 (or 1930 if you are being picky and say there was no actual final in 1950) and the first ever final between these two old foes. It would be hilarious to watch Diego Maradona pick up another world cup trophy, despite all his flaws and madness. I suspect Brazil have too much guile to make that happen, but Argentina and its on-field genius Lionel Messi have my heart as we head into the next few fascinating weeks.