All the world's a football pitch

Thursday, 5th July, 2018 8:20pm

All the world's a football pitch

The Italian team which overcame Argentina during the 1982 World Cup. Photo: Photo: el grafico/Wikipedia / CC-BY-SA-3.0

Like many people, I can measure out my life in World Cups.

1978: a distant and vague recollection; one of my very earliest memories. Having been allowed to stay up to witness the sporting spectacular of a World Cup final, I can still vividly remember that little child's awe. The pitch pockmarked with confetti, and the Argentine blue and white flags everywhere; the exuberant celebrations as the home side fulfilled the dreams of a nation.
And Mario Kempes, the long-haired assassin of a striker, who combined a powerful athleticism with a silken touch.
Little did I know that the fiesta feeling obscured the brutality of a military regime that cynically exploited the World Cup feelgood factor – and that the tens of thousands of missing victims might in another way have been represented by the innumerable confetti pieces wafting lost through the stadium air.

1982: a 10-year-old growing up in rural Tipperary – at a time of two television channels, and for whom the Panini sticker album represented a passport to an exotic world far, far away.
It helped, of course, that my team, the team I had chosen as a little boy from the 24 qualifiers, managed to secure the trophy, after defeating Argentina, Brazil and West Germany in the latter stages.
Naturally I was no footballing guru; I was probably simply drawn to the Italian kit, an eye-watering, shimmering azure, like a clear sky reflecting on Lake Garda; and their impossibly exotic names, all ending in 'i', that dripped like honey from the tongue; Antognoni, Conti, Tardelli, Rossi, and of course, my own favourite, Antonio Cabrini, a swashbuckling attacking left back with the looks of a film star.
'82 is still my favourite World Cup; the one to which I surrendered unconditionally.
The Brazil of Zico, Eder, Falcao and Socrates is regarded as the greatest team never to win a World Cup. They were of a different kind, the names that stilled our childish play.
Socrates was a footballing philosopher, who strolled around a pitch carefree and exuberant as if playboying down the beachfront in Rio. The same Socrates who depending on which urban myth you wish to perpetuate, was either scandalously neglected by UCD's football authorities, played Gaelic Football in the Sigerson Cup with UCD, or lined out for the Royal College of Surgeons in the Leinster Senior League. All these myths are alive and well in internet forums; all certainly untrue.
There was the cartoon villainy of German keeper Harald Schumacher's full-frontal assault on the French Patrick Battiston, which went unpunished, as thrilling Gallic elan was seen off in a dramatic semi-final by German grit and pragmatism.
And it ended with a form of serendipity, with my younger brother born on the day of the final itself. I had convinced myself that I had somehow successfully inveigled my mother to name the new arrival after the first Italian goalscorer of that final.
When Cabrini stepped up to take a first-half penalty for Italy, it appeared as if coincidence and fate were to unite in a magical way.
Instead, he became the first player to miss a World Cup final penalty. Paolo Rossi did manage to put the Italians in front soon after. Thankfully, though, my mother disregarded the pleas of her impressionable son and ensured my brother didn't have to toil under the label Paolo Carey!

'86: A lot of the childish innocence had gone; And coinciding, as it did, partially, with that inconvenience of an Inter Cert, this World Cup wasn't all-embracing like 1982.
But by the knock out stages, the exams were done and football took centre stage in this 14/15 year-old's summer. 
Just in time to see Maradona slalom through the English defence for a goal that will be forever remembered, preceded by that first goal that will never be forgotten. The feet of a legend following the hand of God. 
And then the little magician dragged his teammates over the line in the final for another Argentine triumph.

'90: Italia '90. Who could forget Italia '90? This was definitely not one of the tournament's blue riband renewals – with defences on top and sterile football in fashion.
But, it had Ireland – and this time, it was a nation that surrendered itself unconditionally to a World Cup.
I was 18 years old. In third level education but still finding a private spot at home to shed tears of joy as David O'Leary and Packie Bonner's moment in the Genovese sun secured qualification from the group stages.
Ireland's limitations finally caught up with them, just like the tournament itself, which fizzled out with one of the most appalling football international clashes which unfortunately also doubled as a World Cup final.

By 1994, for me, the big details of life had caught up with the World Cup. 
For Ireland fans too, the country's second tilt at glory never had the same energy and enthusiasm as the first. Even the players seemed to struggle to recapture that joyful brio of Italia '90.
There was of course Houghton's moment in the Giant's Stadium – but this time the high point was the start and Ireland never reached those New York heights again. When Bonner, for the second World Cup in a row, mishandled a long-range effort, Ireland were on their way home.
The tournament did at leastkeep to script and provide more entertainment through imposing further penalty shoot-out misery on England.

'98: For once this World Cup was a side order of life, and not the main event. 
Ironically, my own lukewarm enthusiasm was reflected in a tournament that never caught fire and where the better sides struggled and toiled to break down well-organised outfits.
The triumph of Les Bleus, a multi-racial side that reflected the cultural melting pot of the host nation, seemed to at least provide a socio-political backdrop to the tournament.
And in Zidane, there was a standout player to relish. Bergkamp stopped time itself with a gravity-defying goal and Croatia announced its arrival as a football nation. Moments that glitter like quartz crystals in a muddy river bed.

2002 and football had taken back its rightful place along the front row of my life.
2002 for Irish people was Saipan, Keane too canny for Kahn; Duff's nod to Japanese customs and somehow allowing Spain off the hook.
If 1990 represented unabashed triumphalism, with that homecoming indicating the general feeling, 2002 was regret. Coulda, shoulda. A possible tilt at South Korea in the quarter final. But more than anything else, 2002 was Saipan, Irish football's civil war.
And just as the years fly by more speedily as you grow older, the World Cups too begin to lose their individuality.

2006, 2010, 2014. They seem to have come and gone in a twinkle of stepovers or probably more accurately in a series of penalty shoot outs.
Zidane's moment of madness with Materazzi, Iniesta's extra time goal for Spain – franking the reign of a new style of football; Gotze's winner for Germany, which injected a more assertive, athletic element to Spain's template.

And now 2018. A tournament that has opened impressively and that does what all World Cups do, draw you into their midst and seduce you with stories and dramas; the 45-year-old Egyptian goalkeeper, the Messi/Ronaldo show, the Spanish implosion and the fall of the German empire.
2018, in my 40s, and like a fine wine maturing quietly over the years, football now uncorked has revealed its magic to me again. 
Albert Camus, a famous French philosopher, who played as a goalkeeper in Paris, once said: “All that I know most surely about morality and obligations I owe to football.” 
And eleven World Cups have provided a real education. The moral of the story? 
The virtuous don't necessarily succeed, but nor always do the cynical. The 'best' teams sometimes lose, but the best team always wins! Passion will get you so far, but never all the way. Look after the big moments, and the small details look after themselves. But remember it's the tiny moments that swing matches.
What is certain, what I can vouch for is that there will always be drama, there will be always moments that unite the world in ecstasy and agony, in celebration and in wonderment, there will always be football. The world's game. My game.


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