So here we nearly are. Yes in just twelve days’ time, the FIFA World Cup 2014 unfolds in Brazil.
Yes, four years have passed (unbelievably) since the South Africa tournament in 2010. Coincidentally the same period roughly since Milllwall’s ‘Triumph at Wembley’, how time flies. Both seem only yesterday – and this serves to reinforce a personal theory of mine that your life is measured in football. With Millwall of course, the landmarks are fewer and further between, so the comparisons are harder to link. But the World Cup (especially) provides a four-yearly measure both of the evolution of the worldwide monster that is modern football, but also of my life and its major events.
The World Cup famously began in Uruguay in 1930. Minus the then dominant Home Nations. The brainchild of FIFA President Jules Rimet, the tournament had evolved by the year of my birth in 1960 very roughly into the modern football world championships that we know today. For the first two World Cups of my life in Chile 1962 and England 1966, I have no memory whatsoever.
Clearly at the age of two, the Chilean tournament meant nothing to me. Andy Pandy and Little Ted being more important figures in my life. The same applies to the sole English win in 1966 – of which I cannot remember a thing. At five years old, my main attention was focused on my first reading book called ‘Here We Go’ at Castlecombe School , Mottingham. Yes I have the vaguest sense of seeing a kids’ cartoon depiction of Bobby Moore on the shoulders of Geoff Hurst and Ray Wilson, the Jules Rimet Trophy aloft – but that really is it for England’s finest hour since 1940 for me. Sorry, I feel i should remember more.
By the time that the classic Mexico 1970 tournament came along, my interest in football was starting to increase. The kids in my class were all ‘supporters’ of the big clubs of the day: Leeds, Manchester United and Liverpool (basically anyone who won stuff and got on the telly) – and I was no exception.
The main problem as I recall with Mexico ’70, was that perhaps one of the most colourful football events in soccer history had to be watched in glorious black and white in our council house. We didn’t get a colour TV until 1972 and my first memory of this new viewing sensation was not Pele’s famous shimmy, Gordon Banks’ miracle save nor Carlos Alberto’s shot, but a presenter called Michael Barrett on the early evening BBC 1 local news round-up called ‘Nationwide’.
The first real World Cup finals that I took an active interest in and can remember most vividly was the West German competition of 1974. A Millwall supporter now and aged 13 heading to 14 when the finals took place (of course without England), the brilliance of the German television images, the orange shirts of the incredible Johann Cruyff driven Dutch side and the penalty in the first minute final all serve to make this my own personal favourite tournament.
By now attending Cooper’s Secondary School in Chislehurst, I was starting to tread the ‘outsider’ path of life that has never truly left me. All of my council estate mates from school went to Kemnal Manor. But because i was deemed ‘bright’, I was sent to Cooper’s. Only a few kids from the Mottingham Estate achieved this so called honour – and I was one. So an unhealthy sense of being the odd one out in a sea of middle class suburban kids found its outlet in admiring anything that wasn’t conventional. From punk rock through to Millwall, I have ever aftwerwards always wanted to be your underdog …
Marginally just behind 1974, the Argentine 1978 tournament comes in a very close second in my list of all-time favourite World Cups. By now working as a low-level Civil Servant handling the department’s cleaning service overtime claims, my life stretched away before me. All with the sure knowledge that, if I did my time as a Clerical Assistant, then in a few years I could become a Clerical Officer and one day (perhaps), make it to Executive Officer level. Wow. Forget about anything higher though, as you needed a ‘degree’ for that. So know your place matey boy.
The world championships played out in the Latin American winter seemed to provide a glimpse of a higher life. One where long-haired mustachioed men entered arenas to ticker-tape receptions and a maelstrom of noise. Vividly colourful, Argentina 1978 was, as we now know, a military dictatorship’s wet dream as the home nation marched (or bribed) its way into a final, once more against the Dutch. Possibly the greatest World Cup final? Holland went achingly close to tearing up the script by hitting the post in injury time at 1-1. Of course goals from Kempes and Luque won it 3-1 in the end for Argentina.
By the time Spain 1982 came along, I found myself ‘going steady’ and set on the path of marriage, mortgage and kids that would surely follow. Football, both at The Den and on TV was having to take second place to the god-awful mundanity of ‘saving for a deposit’ and the dullness of my life vision at that point. As an aside, our nation also found itself at war with the 1978 World champions Argentina whom I had admired. All over the illegal seizure of the Falkland Islands that same year. So in perhaps one of the oddest football tournaments ever, England entered with troops fighting in the South Atlantic and Ron Greenwood was stuck with the task of ensuring that, if we couldn’t win the thing, that we didn’t humiliate ourselves either. In war, morale is something real. And given the benefit of hindsight, I wonder whether that didn’t serve to drive his defensive approach.
Originally scheduled to be played in Colombia, that nation was forced for economic reasons to withdraw in Mexico’s favour for the 1986 event. England managing to produce an insipid group stage that in fairness deserved as much success as Millwall did last season. As it was, a 0-0 draw and a decisive 3-0 victory over Poland propelled us into the knock-out phase – and a landmark quarter-final against Argentina. This just four short years after the conclusion of the Falklands conflict, which of course was a decisive British victory. The combination of Maradona’s ‘hand of God’ and his sublime skill undid us. But the English did come achingly close to equalising late in the game as memory serves.
By 1990 the world of marriage, mortgages and babies had taken their toll – and divorce loomed in my life. The Italia ’90 tournament was in many ways the first ‘modern’ World Cup in the sense of fully modernised stadia, iconic classical music theme and as close as England may ever come to repeating the 1966 win. Another turgid group phase and at times fortunate progression to the semi-final stage to face another cataclysmic match with the (now unified) Germans. A 1-1 draw in real time, Gazza’s tears and Waddle hitting the post, leading up to the now infamous 3-4 penalty shoot out loss. Probably this was the last World Cup that I truly enjoyed. After this, everything seemed to get ever more corporate, ever more disparate – and ever more bland. Maybe I was disillusioned generally.
The 1990s were a strange time in my personal life. In many ways I did my living during my thirties, where my twenties were more weighed down with responsibility. So the 1994 World Cup in the USA passed me by. Completely. I was probably away in Corfu, Ibiza or some sun-soaked idyll at the time. I can’t add anything of any note about the tournament apart from Diana Ross trying to take a penalty. Which summed the whole artificiality of it all up.
So best move on to 1998. Less of France ’98 passed me by than the USA tournament. By now I was heading back toward the comforts of settled marital life – but hadn’t quite made it yet. Consequently my overwhelming memory of the 1998 FIFA World Cup stems from the first knock-out round of 16 against Argentina. A fighting 10 man 2-2 draw against our newest old enemies Argentina, followed by the now inevitable penalty shoot out defeat. All drunkenly viewed on the big screen at the King Edward VII pub in the yet to be revitalised Stratford (don’t ask how I finished up there, I really couldn’t tell you).
The 2002 Japan-Korea World Cup was played with morning kick-off times on UK television. An unearthly hour to be packing out boozers, but that is what happened all across the country. By now mortgaged up to the eyeballs courtesy of Northern Rock, I caught England’s quarter-final 1-2 defeat to Brazil on some work-provided screens over pastries and juice, before making a late 9.30am start to the day. Football should not involve such sanitised ingredients. And any sense of disappointment went out of the office window by lunchtime.
By 2006 my life was (finally) taking its modern, happy form. I had met my wife, things were coming together generally and the German World Cup ran to a timetable even more efficient than the Berlin U-Bahn. Once more quarter-finalists, this time against Portugal, England out in yet another disappointing display to lose out in the ensuing penalty shoot-out. If I am honest, the modern football world was starting to mean less and less to me, as my personal life became settled. Increasingly I found it hard to care about the multi-millionaires purporting to play with the three lions on their shirt. Thanks to the Premier League for that. Why not, it gets the blame for everything else?
What’s that? You want a happy ending to my life story? Why of course, we got married, found true happiness and are living together happily ever after to this day.