Taking inspiration from a blog article by Richard Johnson, here’s something similar from me - namely a look back at the World Cups in my life so far and the way they intertwined with life itself.
Aside from the hazy image of tickertape streaming down onto an Argentinean football pitch – one that the BBC rightly included in its opening title sequence for World Cup Grandstand – I remember virtually nothing of the 1978 World Cup. I was only six at the time, so for me Spain ’82 is where it all began.
I was in my final year at junior school, nearly eleven, and utterly besotted by football. I’d been collecting Panini sticker albums since 1980 and my nose was rarely out of football reference books and magazines. This, however, was my first World Cup and I couldn’t have asked for more inspiration to set in train this exciting interest in the beautiful game.
For a start, England flew out of the traps with a wonderful 3-1 win over France (and what about that goal for Bryan Robson after 27 seconds!) shortly to be followed by further progress to the second round. Brazil played the sort of football that was so good, I’d be trying (and failing) to emulate it for the next 25 years or more. Italy, however, started very poorly... I wonder whatever happened to them?
I remember raving about David Narey’s wonder-goal for Scotland against Brazil and hearing that Hungary had beaten El Salvador 10-1. I can remember sitting in the back of my Dad’s car after he’d dropped my Mum off at the local bingo hall one evening and hearing about Gerry Armstrong’s (ultimately winning) goal against Spain on the radio. I also recall returning home from the park (having played football with some friends of mine) and hearing the commentary from dozens of TVs blaring out of the open windows of nearby houses. It was as if everyone was watching the World Cup.
Each game was accompanied by a cacophony of blaring horns from the crowd which, though it sounded strange to British ears, only added to the amazing atmosphere of the event. And they think vuvuzelas are a new idea...
It was a great World Cup and one which co-incided with an innocent and carefree time in my life. The summer sun was beating down for much of the time and the abundance of wall-to-wall soccer – to play and watch – kept me very happy. Great days...
By 1986, I was nearing the end of my time at comprehensive school. There was still a year to go before I’d eventually stroll out through those gates and into adult life, but well before that there was a new World Cup in an old destination to be enjoyed.
Mexico had been the scene of many a vivid football memory in 1970, but now was a chance for my generation to watch stars such as Diego Maradona, Michael Laudrup and Emilio Butragueno take their inspiration from the land of the Aztecs.
Sadly for us watching the action back in Blighty, the land of the Aztecs was several hours behind British Summer Time, so in order to have the privilege of watching Bobby Robson’s men drawing 0-0 with Morocco, we’d all have to stop up until 11.30 at night. Nice. But stop up we did – right to the last vital group game where Gary Lineker exploded onto the scene (plaster cast and all) with a wonderful hat-trick against Poland.
I can’t recall whether anyone rated England’s chances of winning the World Cup in 1986, but one thing I do remember was asking my good friend Martin Lewis who he thought the champions would be before the tournament had started. Being an astute sort of fellow, he avoided giving the obvious answer like I had (Brazil), instead replying with the supreme self-confidence “Uruguay”. I was somewhat taken aback by his prediction and assumed he’d gained some insider knowledge from the less-available-than-it-is-now World Soccer. I was soon laughing up my sleeve at him, of course: Uruguay succeeded only in collecting more yellow and red cards than anyone before or since prior to hot-footing it home on the plane (if that isn’t a contradiction in terms).
I remember it being a good World Cup, and that was chiefly based on the fact that we seemed to be playing football a lot more often at school. We’d arrive extra early in the morning to have a decent kick-around in the playground with a tennis ball, then we’d enjoy every available minute of our three breaks during the day doing exactly the same. We really did live and breathe football back then.
Such was the advance of technology that we were now seeing fancy graphics and captions appearing on our screens. Action replays now flew onto the screen like a frisbeed paving slab coloured appropriately for whichever teams were playing. Matches began with a run-through of the teams, each name illuminating in turn with an accompanying video clip of the relevant player silently mouthing his name into camera (if you were lucky). Funny the things you remember...
At home, I had the Panini Mexico ’86 sticker album, a sticker wallchart for the second World Cup running (lots of flags and spaces to fill in the scores, as I recall), but my bedroom wall was also adorned with something very odd... well it is from an adult point of view at least.
My Dad worked in a paint factory for many years, and if there was one thing he could get his hands on for nothing every once in a while, it was large rolls of thin brown card. It was with this card that I brilliantly drew to scale the Mexico 86 logo lettering which I then cut out and coloured with green and red paint. Once dry, I blue-tacked it high up on my wall above my wallchart and there it stayed for the duration of the tournament.
At two metres or so wide, it dominated my tiny little room giving it the look of a miniature BBC World Cup Grandstand studio, albeit one with a bed in it. I remember being quite proud of the skill I’d shown in making the thing, but I shudder to think what my parents thought at the time. I’ll never know now...
Anyway, what a tournament – three home nations were involved, and from them England battled their way through to the quarter finals where Maradona was waiting to prick their bubble. In the end, not even West Germany could turn them over - Argentina were the eventual champions. Great football, great memories and a great World Cup.
Hopes were high that more of the same would follow in Italy four years later, but sadly the magic was in lesser supply. It all started brightly enough with an opening ceremony that featured a fashion parade of all things (whatever happened to a bunch of kids walking around the stadium carrying the flags of all competing nations?) and then the explosive encounter between reigning champions Argentina and Cameroon.
I watched that opening game from the chalet of a holiday camp at the time. I can’t remember where it was – probably somewhere near Great Yarmouth at a guess - but this was probably my last visit of many to a holiday camp at the ripe old age of 18. My Mum and Dad seemed to quite like them as we visited several down the years, but by now I was finding them seriously tedious. (Holiday camps, that is – not my parents.)
At least the site of several Cameroonians kicking big lumps out of the Argentineans (and scoring a vital goal against them) brought a spark of life to my holiday in 1990, and the games that followed continued to be quite enjoyable too.
After a while though, it became clear that the tournament wasn’t quite generating the same sort of excitement as Mexico ’86. The goals flowed less freely, the fouls and sendings off piled up and there weren’t quite as many high points as we’d seen four years earlier.
Outside of the World Cup though, I was nine months into my working life, going through a year-long IT trainee scheme. Everything was ticking along nicely, I was earning a reasonable working wage and I had a new bunch of colleagues to discuss football with. One of them, I seem to recall, thought the Roger Milla that scored for Cameroon was the same Roger Miller who once sang ‘England Swings’ and ‘King of the Road’. He was a Bristol City supporter if I remember correctly... I’ll leave you to make the appropriate judgement...
Back at the tournament, Brazil were going off the boil, England were bumbling their way through to the semi-finals against the odds and the West Germans were being, well... efficiently German. Sadly for England they were in a different league and so the Final saw Franz Beckenbauer’s team pitted up against Argentina once again. Two red cards and a few yellows later, West Germany were crowned champions but a bad-tempered competition had left a bad taste in the mouth. Frank Rijkaard will vouch for that.
This would be the last time I’d watch a World Cup with my Dad. He wasn’t much of a football supporter, but he showed an occasional interest whenever there was a good match on. For USA ’94, I decided to book off the first two weeks from work so I could see the First Round games - a cunning plan given that many of the games would be shown on TV after midnight in the UK.
It worked like a dream... for a few days at least. Dad and I stayed up late to witness the first few days’ action and all was well... but then the tiredness kicked in. By the middle of the first week, my brain was on American time and a change of sleeping patterns had left me experiencing something akin to jetlag. I soon returned to my regular sleep times and normality was soon restored.
It was a strange World Cup in 1994. International football being played in a country that barely acknowledged its existence at the time, long grass, gridiron stadia... not what we were used to at all. As for that opening ceremony... don’t even get me started on that. One more mention of Diana Ross and I’ll go spare...
There was no British involvement this time so only the hardened fans this side of the Atlantic were showing much interest. Those that did watch, however, saw new names playing on the world stage – Greece, Nigeria, Bolivia, Saudi Arabia – all of whom added an abnormal twist to the competition, but also much interest and a degree of mystery too.
By this time, I was becoming a confident IT Support officer enjoying work and life in general. My colleagues at the time were a funny bunch of characters, always ready to have a laugh and show that ‘all work and no play’ was the last thing they’d subscribe to.
It was during this World Cup that one of my colleagues, only a couple of years old than me as a 22-year-old, suggested we all grew goatee beards as many of the players had done. On a Friday afternoon, we vowed to abstain from shaving over the coming weekend and come in on Monday sporting our new facial furniture.
I wonder if you can guess the identity of the only member of our eight-man team that didn’t fall for this immature little scheme? Yes, I was alone in returning to work with a crap goatee beard while everyone else looked smart and clean-shaven. It was a long and slightly embarrassing day that passed before I could finally make use of my Gillette Sensor.
As USA ’94 moved into its latter stages, a few surprising names emerged as possible winners. Bulgaria, Sweden, the Netherlands... but it was Brazil who finally ended their 24-year wait to lift the trophy again by beating Italy in the Final on penalties. Possibly the strangest World Cup was over, and a four-year journey towards French sensibility was just beginning...
France ‘98 onwards
As childhood memories faded ever more into the past, so life became more serious, the innocent pleasure of having no responsibilities making way for an existence where it seemed I was responsible for everything. The World Cup, however, came around as regular as clockwork to punctuate my adult life.
Only a couple of months after USA ’94 ended, my Dad suffered a brain haemorrhage and eventually needed 24-hour care in a nearby nursing home. The impact and emotional upheaval was considerable and from that point on I devoted myself to supporting my Mum, who by then was in her early 60’s. It felt like the right thing to do given the efforts my parents had made to bring me up as a child. Though I had plenty of opportunities to go out with friends in my spare time, I usually declined every time in order to repay their sacrifice.
In France, meanwhile, we witnessed a great tournament – well organised, lots of great goals and scored by great players too. Michael Owen, anyone? It was also the start of a new era in which France were genuine world-beaters, thereby providing a much needed breath of fresh air to the proceedings.
I can remember watching the opening game of the 2002 World Cup at my workplace. In my lunch hour I went in search of the only TV that was available in order to watch Senegal v France – and it happened to be in a noisy air-conditioned computer room. Still, no matter: it was a shock to see Senegal winning in the same way it was a shock to see Cameroon beat Argentina in 1990, and it set the tone for another one of those World Cups in which anything seemed possible.
At home, things remained the same. Mum was still very much the focus of my attention as my spare time seemed split between giving her the company she craved and visiting Dad at the nursing home. By now it seemed I was missing out on a lot of opportunities as a young thirty-something, but in general life was OK if not altogether a barrel of laughs.
When Germany 2006 rolled around, however, I was already well into a period of major change. The year before, Dad had sadly passed away, but with uncanny timing someone new came into my life around the same time - my future wife Melanie. We’d started dating in 2005 and by 2006 were living together... probably just as well as our daughter Bella was born just a couple of weeks after the World Cup Final that year.
As for the World Cup itself, that was a reason for great excitement too. For some reason it seemed to have everything in abundance – goals, incident, a great atmosphere, a wonderful selection of teams taking part... I couldn’t fault it. The World Cup was, in my view, better than ever and Germany could take great credit for having hosted such a ground-breaking event. Shame about that head butt, though...
And as for the 2010 World Cup... well I’m not sure it’s lived up to the brilliance of 2006, but South Africa have added heaps of passion and a unique sense of joy to the occasion. We’ve perhaps been a little starved of quality goals, quality performances and players showing their own individual qualities, but as someone once said, the World Cup’s the World Cup. You’d still love it no matter how good it was.
And me? Well life goes on, of course. I’ll be 40 next year and my daughter will be 4 towards the end of this month. Last year wasn’t great: I was made redundant in January after 19 years at the same organisation and six months later Mum sadly suffered a severe stroke. Once again my life was turned upside down as, like my Dad before her, Mum found herself in a nursing home needing 24-hour care.
It was a cruel twist of fate that was difficult to accept – but all is not lost. I’m still happily married to Mel, I still have a wonderful sister who in turn has a wonderful family of her own, and I’m working once again which, as you can imagine, has restored my self-esteem no end.
Finally then, is the World Cup an ongoing story of players striving for success and overcoming disappointment and adversity? Yes it is. Why do we like it so much? Because it’s like life, really. You adopt a way of playing the game and by that you either win or lose. Wish me luck for the second half...