The onset of another World Cup always makes me a little queasy. This is partly because I feel the need for a rest from football once the domestic season has ended. For me, football is a welcome & essential distraction from the misery of winter, a vastly less vital presence in summer. The World Cup arrives like a box of Hotel Chocolat’s finest being waved under your nose at 9 O’clock in the evening on Christmas Day. Magnificent but I’m full up. Oh alright. Just the one. That was nice. I’ll have another. On both occasions righteousness may lose out to gluttony but the queasiness never quite departs. This is partly due to the prospect of endless plays of Three Lions, which gets on my tits as successfully as it keeps Frank Skinner’s bank balance nicely topped up. At least it ensures the cheeky smile remains on his face, along with that remarkably unfurrowed sixty year old brow. During Euro 96 a friend was harangued, then kicked, then accused of being ‘a fucking jock’ for not joining in with a chorus of Three Lions. England weren’t even playing that day. Its appeal has palled ever since, blameless though the wretched song itself was in the incident. It may also be partly down to the prospect of 4 weeks of wondering how many minutes into a game Glenn Hoddle can last before using the word cute or mispronouncing Chelsea’s Brazilian midfielder as Willun when everyone else in the world, most of whom are not paid handsomely to get these things right, know him as Willian. Then there is the predictable debate about the confused state of our national identity, fast approaching critical proportions in the post 2016 referendum hell we now find ourselves in. Flying a St George’s flag outside your window during the World Cup does not make someone a boneheaded Tommy Robinson follower, but the bullying mentality towards people who don’t like football can also be quite unbearable. As England beat Sweden this year, Martin Keown, always a reliable standard-bearer for an intoxicating sporting brand of arrogance & stupidity, sneered that there were probably people out there reading a book instead of watching the game & they should get a life. Those that were reading at the time weren’t listening to a monstrous bellend like you Mr Keown, & that sounds like a plan for enriching anyone’s life. Apart from being a cretinous, witless attempt at preaching to the converted, Keown, as ever, missed the point entirely. One of the more tedious elements of the World Cup madness is having to listen constantly to the opinions of just about anybody on just about every aspect of the tournament. People who are not interested & don’t pretend to be should not be scorned, but cherished. The background noise is deafening enough as it is.
Many people who generally remain impervious to the charms of football are still drawn in by the magic of the World Cup however. These lovely people in the picture above may look as if they have just been shown the Dele Alli sex tape, but this is not so. I’ll venture that most of them had not strolled often, if ever, into a football ground before this picture, & that this state of affairs has persevered ever since. This is an educated guess as I know most of them. To them the World Cup was an entertaining back drop to a summer night in the pub, & there is nothing wrong with that. The picture dates from 2010 & there is a pretty good chance that nobody captured here remembers the match, let alone the incident, that inspired such animation. They are reacting to the moment Ghana missed a last-minute extra time penalty against Uruguay, after the second-rate vampire & future honorary Scouser Luis Suarez introduced himself to our wider consciousness by punching a goal-bound shot over the bar. Suarez got sent off but Uruguay went through. On penalties. Yet again sport at the top-level had given the lie to the adage that cheats never prosper, but the fact that this scene will have been mirrored all around the world is testimony to the grip the tournament can have on people, irrespective of whether they have a direct, vested interest in the protagonists on show.
I was 4 years old when England won the World Cup, so my memories of the day itself are not of Geoff Hurst’s hat trick, Bobby Moore wiping his hand before shaking that of Her Majesty, or the Russian linesman instructing the referee to give the third goal. Not even Nobby dancing. Some people may well have been on the pitch, but I was probably up in my tiny bedroom playing with my teddy bear. My memories are confined to the morning of the game, & are as mundane as it gets. It rained. And, stood in the rain, outside the shop at the end of our road, was a boy called Neil Keylock. A small boy. With a big, big voice. ‘WORLD CUP FINAL TODAY’ he proclaimed to anyone within earshot, probably three old women, Mr Sainsbury, who used to puncture our balls if they went into his garden & threatened his beloved plants (‘Cost me sevenpence each they did. Now bugger off!’) & at least one of Mrs Simpson’s twenty plus identical mongrels that perennially roamed the street growling at me & depositing plentiful supplies of dog shit everywhere. And yes, sometimes it was white. Neil, a year older than me, would later put his booming vocals to good use in junior school, when selecting his dinner in the assembly hall. The etiquette was to ask for small, medium or large portions of the culinary joy on offer, be it mutton, liver, soggy cabbage, gravy, lumpy mashed potato, swede, prunes, rice pudding with a dollop of jam, or, if we were lucky, a splendid rock hard chocolate tart with chocolate flavoured custard. No wonder my generation never bought a World Cup home. Neil always eschewed the first two of the standard sizing options & created one of his own. I never heard him ask for anything but ‘LARGE PLEASE!’ or ‘EXTRA LARGE PLEASE!’ & believe me, I always heard him. If Motorhead had been rehearsing next door they would have popped their head round the door & asked if he could keep the noise down. So when others hark back to their memories of the Jules Rimet Trophy gleaming away in Bobby Moore’s recently cleaned hands, I always think of Neil Keylock, his splendid voice, school dinners, & being nothing if not truly English, the inclement morning weather. What joy for those who can remember watching the match on the day itself mind. An EXTRA LARGE slice of joy if you please.
Everyone thinks that the first World Cup they can remember watching was the best one ever. They certainly don’t come any better than the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. What better time to be an 8-year-old discovering football. England was a far more insular country & large portions of the world a far more exotic & unknown prospect than is now the case. There were no foreign stars in the domestic game back then, & no wall to wall television watching options of games from round the globe, so the brilliance of some of the players from other nations were far more of a revelation than they would be now. To discover Rivelino, Gerson, Tostao, Jairzinho, & Carlos Alberto beside the wonderful Pele in the brilliant, triumphant Brazilian team of 1970 was beyond normal levels of excitement. Morning highlights would be shown as we prepared for school, presented by Frank Bough, then an apparent bastion of middle class middle England, now harshly remembered largely for alleged cross dressing & coke snorting with hookers in Mayfair S&M torture chambers during his breakfast television days in the following decade. Poor old Frank. He gave me his autograph at Edgbaston during a John Player League cricket match once so I still like him. Apparently drug free & dressed as a man I must add. Early on in the tournament Ladislav Petras of Czechoslavakia scored against Brazil & crossed himself in celebration, the first time any of us had seen a player do that, & aped by every school boy who scored on the school field at lunchtime for the rest of the summer. Pele came close to scoring from the halfway line in that match. None of us came close to repeating that. Germany had the ultimate goal poacher in the great Gerd Muller & the footballing Rolls Royce that was Franz Beckanbauer, who famously played on with his arm in a sling as they lost 4-3 to Italy in the semi finals. The Italians had Facchetti, Rivera & Luigi Riva. Peru brought the fabulous Teofilo Cubillas & Hector Chumpitaz, that decade’s winner of the Roger Miller ‘how old is he really?’ award. England had terrific players too. Moore, Charlton, Ball, & the great Gordon Banks, supplier of the highlight of that, indeed any, World Cup, via his extraordinary save from Pele’s lethal downward header as Brazil beat us 1-0 in the group stages. ‘What a save’ said my dad from his armchair, doubtless alongside countless millions of others, a split second before David Coleman’s commentary, delayed slightly by satellite transmission, repeated the very same words.
Sadly, there is rarely that much pleasure without pain, as Frank Bough could doubtless tell us. The World Cup that thrilled us so much also set the template for disappointment, pain & fear, as just before England’s Quarter Final against West Germany the great Banks succumbed to Montezuma’s Revenge (basically a more exotic sounding Mexican version of what you & I would call the shits) & was replaced by Chelsea legend Peter ‘The Cat’ Bonetti. His last meaningful action had seen him play a blinder at Wembley in the FA Cup Final, before battling bravely through the pain barrier after being crocked by dirty Leeds representative Mick Jones in the replay at Old Trafford. Hours before the Germany game kicked off our television broke down & we all decamped next door to watch the game. England sauntered into a 2 goal lead but then Bonetti misjudged a relatively innocuous looking effort from Beckanbauer, a speculative Seeler back-header looped into the corner of the net, & a nation’s hopes evaporated as fast as the entire English defence to leave Bonetti face to face with the deadly Muller for the by now inevitable extra time German winner. The Cat’s England team mates have largely continued to desert him ever since, shamefully happy to let him shoulder the entire blame for the defeat, the late Alan Ball being a noble & notable exception. On a side issue, the latter also handed us all a quandary that has haunted me for years, by publishing an autobiography titled It’s All About A Ball. The best title of a sports biography or the worst? Dear, fabulous Peter Bonetti had to carry the burden of the nation’s despair following that afternoon in Leon for the rest of his career. Before the match had ended, unable to bear the torture that was unfolding before us, I ran out the back door of my neighbours, jumped over the garden wall in an impressively catlike way, albeit a cat in pyjamas, & ran up to my tiny bedroom. As far as the England football team was concerned I would have been better staying there for the next 20 years. In the last 20 years many small boys have apparently carried this out, spawning the unwelcome emergence of the keyboard warrior. Three years later our television broke down again, shortly before England played a crucial World Cup qualifier away in Poland. Radio Rentals came to the rescue with a replacement set this time, but England lost disastrously again, Bobby Moore’s dreadful error letting in the lethal Lubanski for a killer goal before Alan Ball was sent off. In fact, England were not to qualify for 12 years after Mexico. The 1978 qualifying stages foundered after a tame 2-0 submission to Italy, although at least one person got something out of the day. QPR’s wayward striker Stan Bowles, discovering he got a fee for wearing the boots by the company sponsoring the national side, decided to wear one of their boots & one belonging to his usual sponsors, pocketing two fees in the process. He had a stinker by the way. We actually exited the tournament in 1982 without losing a match, due to there being 2 group stages in that tournament, Ron Greenwood’s boys drawing both games 0-0 in the second phase. At least we had a run for our money that time, long enough for the only local pub in Cottingham to allow us students through its doors to add This Time We’ll Get It Right by the England squad to its worthy jukebox alongside more durable staples such as Frankie Valli’s Northern soul classic The Night & Led Zep’s Trampled Underfoot. ‘We’re on our way, we are Ron’s 22, hear the roar of the red,white & blue.’ Happy memories. Maradona’s Hand Of God infamously did for us 4 years later, & even the memories of the splendid efforts of the team in 1990 seem somehow to have slightly faded against the backdrop of fan violence, Gazza’s open top coach comedy breasts, & Gary Lineker literally shitting his pants during the dreadful 1-1 draw with the Republic Of Ireland. By the time we failed to qualify in 1994 I had largely given up on the England team, & when qualification once again became the norm, the large influx of foreign players into Stamford Bridge allowed me to indulge my unhealthily burgeoning parochial side, cheering a Tor Andre Flo goal for Norway against Brazil in 1998 as loudly as most did Michael Owen’s memorable effort against Argentina. Despite our absence the 1994 tournament in America did have its moments, especially THAT penalty. No, not Roberto Baggio’s howler in the final shootout, which handed Brazil the trophy & me £24 (via a workplace sweepstake – I didn’t spend it all at once) but the one taken by soul diva Diana Ross in the extraordinary opening ceremony, scuffed so badly that onlooker Micky Mouse allegedly tried to renounce his US citizenship. Ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no goalposts wide enough.
So what, as the hangover subsides, are we to make of the 2018 World Cup? There was plenty of Eeyore like pessimism at the outset, certainly from yours truly, based on its backdrop being that of a corrupt nation hosting it following a typically crooked selection process from FIFA, as decrepit & bent an organization that has ever existed in the history of professional sport. I was dreading it but inevitably ended up happily bingeing on a month of football that offered more than its fair share of thrills, spills, triumph, disaster, laughter, tears, &, for England, anyway, the traditional anti climax. Despite the unusually low-key & understated approach that greeted England at the start, sponsored & approved by the intelligent & admirable Gareth Southgate, our sun drenched nation still managed to get lured into a state of delusional mid summer hysteria after a few wins over modest opposition. Fellow Chelsea fans who regularly bemoan the dreaded international breaks that regularly disrupt the domestic club season were suddenly appearing on social media in England shirts & clearly getting caught up in the general hysteria. Some Chelsea fans even berated others for pursuing an anti-Spurs agenda throughout. I shuffle uneasily on both feet at this juncture. I can acknowledge the brilliant displays of Kieran Trippier, & only the worst kind of churl would deny the pedigree of Harry Kane. But 5 Spurs players sniffing around the starting line up, alongside Kyle Walker, a relatively recent refugee from Satan’s North London living room, was just too much. Dele Alli tests my patriotic resolve most. I loathe Dele Alli, with his spineless leg breaking challenges, diving, 8-year-old boy’s face & 5-year-old girl’s celebratory dance routines. It doesn’t help that like the despicable Sergio Aguero, who has twice tried to end the career of David Luiz, Alli has it over Chelsea at present, seemingly able to score against us at will. Aguero is a truly great striker, but Alli can score double hat tricks home & away for eternity against Chelsea & I would still rather eat my own teeth than ever see him in a blue shirt. When he scores against Sweden I am simply unable to celebrate the goal. This says more about me I guess, but I cannot help but pray that the closest this jerk ever gets to World Cup greatness is allegedly (I don’t read the tabloids, an acquaintance told me about the sex tape, honest) having a passable replica of the great Jairzhino’s splendid 1974 afro stuffed down the front of his pants. Someone should tell him that Jairzhino had performed far better with a shorter cut 4 years earlier. Feel free to insert your own Brazilian joke here.
By the time England lost to Belgium Reserves in a match rendered memorable only by the transparent wish of both teams not to win the match & thus the group, Brazil & France prowling round the corner for the victors, I was beginning to feel like the only person at a 1967 Pink Floyd gig not to have taken acid. Immediately after this game ITV treated us to an evening version of the breakfast show hosted by Susanna Reid & the repulsive Piers Morgan. Stephen Fry was once asked to define the word countryside on one of those smug, Radio 4 panel games. ‘Killing Piers Morgan’ he replied. All hail the usually insufferable Mr Fry, who redeemed himself & indeed Radio 4 smug panel games forever with this one moment of comic genius, even if he did steal it from Willie Rushton. The guests included Danny Dyer, Pamela Anderson & hapless Gooner Jeremy Corbyn. Against all expectations Dyer & Pammy won the day handsomely, the former with a glorious tirade about the farce of Brexit (a process handsomely aided by the pathetic leadership of the overshadowed Corbyn) the latter by rising above Morgan’s insidious innuendos about her sex life. By the time the programme ends I suspect I am now on acid too. Summer madness has descended on all of us. There is nothing to do but give in to it.
Any critical observations of the team are deemed treason by the time I meekly ventured the opinion that it would be a damning indictment of world football were this game but limited England team to emerge triumphant at the close of the competition. This followed the abysmal last hour of the Colombia game, a tired team failing to test keeper David Ospina once from open play, or even to string two passes together for long stretches. I enjoyed seeing England winning World Cup matches for a change, but it was tedious being dismissed as a snowflake for gently querying the growing assumption that it was coming home. This was not always stated in a self deprecatory way, no matter what Gary Lineker claimed from his vantage point in Russia. Funny how the rest of us plebs back home couldn’t possibly gauge the national mood as well as him despite actually being in the country at the time.
Ultimately, of course, it turned out it wasn’t coming home, & for a while it seemed that the tournament’s best player, Chelsea’s magisterial Eden Hazard, might not return to these shores either. Back to life, back to reality. My thoughts have been with myself during this difficult time. The best team won this time, for sure, with the next best teams finishing second & third. Sounds trite but it doesn’t always work out this way. The main victor aside of France was the endlessly sinister Putin, who allayed widespread doubts about the tournament hosts by presenting the world with a very successful, entertaining & seemingly peaceable month of football. The Russian psychos who marred the 2016 Euros were conspicuous by their absence, & most of our Herberts stayed at home, presumably less sure of displaying their hackneyed, Stella Artois soaked machismo when the potential of a lengthy stint in one of Vladimir’s jails beckoned. I still don’t think Russia should have been given the World Cup & handed Putin the opportunity to display some undoubted PR genius but this is irrelevant now. They did get it & the football shone like the sun. Best ever? It was consistently entertaining, with lots of great games & goals but I wouldn’t have thought so, if only for want of a truly great team, the unreal Ronaldo & Messi both exiting limply due to the inadequacies of those alongside them, only emphasising the extraordinary achievement of Maradona almost single-handedly (ahem) carrying Argentina to two successive World Cup Finals in 1986 & 1990.
Diego also outstripped all competitors for the maddest person at this year’s tournament, his surely chemically induced displays of stadium eccentricity leaving behind pretenders like Roy Keane, whose displays of wilful perversity in the ITV studio became increasingly tired as the competition progressed. Keane is like a sober, unfunny Father Jack Hackett, the loner in the pub whose eye everyone avoids. This time, however, his colleagues seemed to suss him as the only person in the room determined not to enjoy himself, & he became almost as much a figure of fun as Maradona, who may be a hate filled, coked up mess but at least does it all with gusto as he hurtles ungently towards that good night. It is sad that mad Roy, one of the best footballers I have ever seen, has lapsed into self parody so badly at such a relatively young age. Keane can lecture Ian Wright about his immaturity & berate unprofessional play at every turn, but he is also the man who walked out on his own country on the brink of the 2002 World Cup telling his manager to shove it up his bollocks, an anatomically impossible demand lacking not only in professionalism & maturity, but also grammatical accuracy. He didn’t care enough to play in the tournament then so why should anyone care what he thinks about those that do? It would have been more honest had he stayed at home & walked his labrador like he did after his little tantrum in 2002. Keane was at least less spiteful than the petty, SNP twots who dragged out a debate in the House Of Commons so that their English counterparts missed the opening stages of the match against Tunisia. Doubtless they sniggered wildly when England eventually departed the tournament, having won more World Cup final matches in 3 weeks than Scotland have managed in their entire history. Might we politely remind them that in 1978 the Scotland team held a triumphant victory parade around Hampden Park before the World Cup had even begun, following a match against England, which they lost incidentally. Less it’s coming home than we haven’t even got on the plane yet. When they got to Argentina, they discovered, to their evident dismay, that actually playing some matches before picking up the trophy was required. Come hither our old Peruvian friends from 1970, some older than others. Written off as has-beens & mediocrities being led to the inevitable Scottish slaughter, the sublime Cubillas, ably assisted by a now 52-year-old Hector Chumpitaz, tore their vainglorious Caledonian opponents to shreds in the opening match. There should be a statue of Teofilo erected in Westminster for that. Scottish Nationalist MP’s might find this objectionable. So was denying rank and file Parliamentary workers, earning a fraction of an MP’s salary, the chance to watch their country in the World Cup over a summer pint. Never fear smug, small-minded ones, we could always have a debate about it. Perhaps on Hogmanay. Or Burns night.
The next World Cup is in Qatar. I’m dreading it already. It isn’t even happening in Summer, thanks to Sepp Blatter & his band of FIFA embezzlers, leaving the domestic season savagely disrupted in the middle of winter, all my nightmares coming true to satisfy the greed & ego of rich old men. I’ll be proved wrong, & it will probably overwhelm us all once again, eclipsing The Olympics, Ryder Cup, Ashes, Wimbledon, Formula 1 or any other sporting event you care to mention, ultimately for one reason & one reason alone. It’s football, and football is best. Who knows, maybe the miracle will happen & we will bring it home this time. Just one small request from this old cynic. Dele Alli not to get the winner please.