You can, they say, measure out your life in world cups. This now frightens me quite a lot as I have 7 under my belt. I’m now 34.
In 1990 I was 9 going on ten. For Ireland it was perhaps the best world cup ever. But for me it was not only that. It was a party and festival of football. Far off teams from far off countries. Johnny Giles explaining it all in his perm. How disappointed I ultimately was with the final – an utterly cynical spectacle. So indeed were many of the knockout games. It seemed a violation of the spirit of the game. The death of idealism somehow. And the weirdest thing is that my nine year old self could feel this as a betrayal and yet know also that in the scheme of things it didn’t matter.
But in 1994 there was still a sense of fractured idealism that had to be recovered. 1990 had seen the fewest ever goals. Everybody myself included willed it to be ‘the best tournament since 1970’. It wasn’t really but Brazil did win it, their first triumph since that fabled team of Pele and co. They even played Italy in the final, as in 1970.
But whereas the 1970 team had swept away the azzurri 4-1, Brazil of 1994 vintage stuttered to a 0-0 draw followed by penalties. Again at the end a strange sense of betrayal for me. As if the reality that you wanted to believe in wasn’t real at all. There was only sterility and negativity out there. And genocide in Rwanda which broke out around the time the World Cup was ending. The news that reported the World Cup Final led with thousands of bodies floating down rivers in the heart of Africa.
Writing this it’s interesting that I felt and to some degree still feel, with a deeply irrational conviction that the ills of the world, even of human nature could be set at nought if only the best teams, playing free flowing football could win and win in style and without bad grace. Why do I think this? What does it mean?
By contrast, 1998 seemed strangely dead. For the first week the main story was continuous rioting by English fans in Marseilles. No Ireland, which removed a degree of emotional involvement. But also many of the games seemed anaemic, many of the stadiums half empty. Brazil had great players at this time – Ronaldo, Rivaldo etc but strolled into the final with such little effort that they hardly seemed to deserve it. France also had a great team –Zidane, Deschamps, Desailly and co. Zidane then and later was probably the best all round player I’ve ever seen.
They did have a more epic run to the final – including a surging come back against Croatia (and Suker one of my favourite players of that era). And the final itself had a kind of epic feel about it, with the Marseillais crashing out and the French tricolour everywhere. Zidane’s two goals decided it but what I most remember is Petti’s breakaway goal which had that gorgeous quality of the inevitable that the best counter- attacking goals have.
2002 was a real low point. Brazil had some excellent players but never needed to really play well to win the tournament, though I was glad they did. The final was really a stroll, though I was pleased for Ronaldo who scored two goals. Ireland had the Roy Keane affair and spirited game against Spain early in the morning, going out on penalties, after which, here in Ireland, the heavens opened. The odd thing is that none of these things are my abiding memory, which is just of the poor football and the extremely irritating success of poor but hard working teams such as South Korea, Turkey and God help us, the USA. There was no glorious football, no sublime triumph of the excellent. No titanic matches. It was not the first time I realised it but the clearest example of my distaste for the plucky underdog.
2006 had at least one classic game – Germany and Italy but the final was a dour affair, to be mainly remembered for Zidane’s sad swansong. And then penalties. Italy, as far as I was concerned, were champions in name only. The same, strange cheated feeling as back when I was 9. Betrayal almost. The cheats like Matterazzi would always win. The talented, the creative would lose.
It is notable that as the numbers of participants has gone up, the quality of world cups has fallen sharply. Since 2002, the better teams have indeed generally come out on top. In 2010 Spain started slowly, but playing remorseless possession football ploughed their way through to the final. Their victory in a bad tempered final did soften the old feeling of betrayal, Iniesta’s excellent winner in particular but it did feel as if they were only temporarily staving off the forces of darkness. None of this stopped me watching almost every game, as usual of course.
And 2014? Well, there was good and bad. One of the main plus points was that it was in a real football heartland, Brazil and thousands of South Americans followed their team there. The atmosphere was somewhat less contrived than in South Africa, where armed police kept the locals a safe distance away from the stadiums.
The football? Again it had its upsides. Germany had a team of genuine quality. Messi produced just enough moments of magic to keep us interested. There was the drama of Spain’s decline and Brazil’s rather fortunate run to the semi-finals and dramatic implosion against Germany. And yet. Brazil – the country that somehow used to be the guardian of football’s soul – has lost that title forever. Their 7-1 rout at Germany’s hands was slightly sad to see but no one could say it was undeserved.
And again, there was just a lack of ‘epicness’ about it all.
The naïve joy of the World Cup seems to have gone a little, dissipated by too many games of inferior but well organised teams set up to defend. And, in fairness, too much cynical and world weary lethargy from the stronger nations. But maybe I’m just getting old.