Wednesday 21 August 2019

A life measured in World Cup finals

Ray Houghton scores against Italy at USA 94: ‘For five days, after our 1-0 win over Italy, Ireland believed we were going to win the World Cup’
Ray Houghton scores against Italy at USA 94: ‘For five days, after our 1-0 win over Italy, Ireland believed we were going to win the World Cup’
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

1974: Initiation

It begins with Cruyff and Holland. Maybe a kid's first World Cup finals permanently creates their idea of what's excellent in football. The first cut is the deepest. So there will always be something uniquely magical for me about the memory of long-haired men in orange jerseys destroying the opposition in West Germany.

Holland hooked me on football. The acrobatic volley their leader executed to kill off Brazil in the semi-final transfixed me in a way no goal has since. I knew Cruyff was the best player in the world and Holland the best team.

In the final they faced West Germany. Though Holland were the better team, they lost. And though Cruyff was the best player in the world, he played badly. Soon after learning how wonderful sport was, I was getting a lesson in how unfair and unpredictable it could be. I cried.

1978: Jubilation

My first memory of my second World Cup is of the waterfalls of confetti which poured down from the stands when Argentina took the pitch like some physical manifestation of the nation's desire for victory. There was something uniquely feverish about the home support. It seemed to propel their players forward, rendering them unstoppable despite their flaws.

There was something equally outlandish about their star, Mario Kempes, who irresistibly called to mind those old swashbuckling movies ever present on the Sunday afternoon TV screens of my childhood. His goals were the equivalent of swordfights where Errol Flynn overcame impossible odds while swinging from a chandelier. Kempes, long hair flowing, collected the ball and went right at the defence before scoring the kind of goals kids dream at night about scoring in schoolyards the next day.

1982: Frustration

It was my father's way of pulling rank in football arguments. "You never saw the 1970 Brazil team." For 20 glorious days his comeuppance seemed at hand. Socrates threw two outrageous shapes before burying the ball from outside the box against the USSR. Falcao did a samba shimmy to make room for Eder, who hit the ball so hard the goalkeeper didn't move till it was past him, to score the winner in the same game.

Zico bent a ball outrageously into the net against Scotland before flying sideways to score against New Zealand. Junior galloped through to finish off Argentina and danced in delight. The oul fella was on the verge of admitting this team might be the equals of their illustrious forebears.

Then Italy beat them. My father gleefully agreed with Eamon Dunphy, who said that defending was part of football too and Brazil deserved to lose. What I remembered wasn't Paolo Rossi's hat-trick, but Claudio Gentile almost pulling the shirt off Zico's back. More unfairness. I didn't cry this time. Well, not much.

1986: Individualism

This was my lost World Cup. There was family turmoil, there was the Leaving, there was competitive athletics and there was the discovery that football wasn't the only Beautiful Game out there. Lots of it passed me by. I missed Russia's 6-0 win over Belgium because I was winning a road race and both semi-finals because I was thumbing to discos in far-flung country halls. I even slept through a bit of the final because of the previous night's exertions.

I did see Maradona's goals against England. But, with college and work and women and adulthood on the horizon, I did wonder if myself and football might soon part company. Little did I know.

1990: Nationalism

They seemed to be having a great time back in Ireland. But it was pretty OK in England too where a hundred Paddies lined up for a piss against the front wall of an huge Irish pub-cum-nightclub in South London before the penalty shoot-out against Romania began.

That night in the local, our English friends congratulated us heartily and told us how nervous they'd been on our behalf. They meant every word. A week later they watched us do jigs of joy as Roger Milla put Cameroon 2-1 up against their team. They weren't even cross, just hurt. I felt lousy about it. Though I'd probably do the same again. It's not just football that's unfair.

1994: Delusion

Here's something future generations will never believe. For five days, after our 1-0 win over Italy, Ireland believed we were going to win the World Cup. By half-time in the match against Mexico, we realised we wouldn't. By the time we exited, both team and country seemed bitter and exhausted, like someone who hasn't paced themselves properly on a big night out.

Brazil won it, but my emotional highpoint was Bulgaria beating Germany, Hristo Stoichkov getting a free past a wall that looked as imposing as the one torn down in Berlin four years earlier, and Yordan Letchkov's bald head bulleting in the winner. Letchkov later served two years in jail for municipal corruption. Capitalism has its problems too.

Nigeria should have knocked out Italy but lost in extra-time after a late Roberto Baggio equaliser. My extensive research among taxi drivers shows this goal is to a generation of Nigerian football fans what John Atyeo's for England in 1957 was to Irishmen of a certain vintage.

1998: Détente

It's funny what games you remember from tournaments. Iran versus the USA sticks in my mind more than even the final. All the stuff about it being the political grudge match to end them all was defused to a certain extent when the players exchanged flowers and gifts before the kick-off. Yet I've always wondered how Iran's best player, Mehdi Mahdavikia, felt when he broke clear from half-way with Iran 1-0 up and seven minutes left. Lots of time there for him to think about pressure but he ploughed on and buried a shot past Kasey Keller.

Nowhere is demonised more than Iran. Yet that year I'd been watching the movies of Abbas Kiarostami, the world's finest film director at the time. I'd rarely seen anything so human or so moving. They made me realise that I too had bought into the one-dimensional portrait of his country.

As I watched the players and supporters celebrate their victory, I hoped people all over the world would identify with that jubilation and realise the Iranians weren't all that different from themselves. Because sometimes sport, as well as art, can do that for us.

2002: Infants

A confession. The Saipan saga kind of passed me by. My first child was born the day Roy Keane went home. So I was busy when the incident happened and very sleepy during the recriminations.

By the time I'd recovered my bearings Ireland had been knocked out and my attention switched to South Korea. My brother lived in Seoul then and like everyone else in the country was carried away by the team's fantastic journey. On they ploughed, past Italy, past Spain and all the way to the semi-final where they were knocked out by eternal spoilsports Germany. These days he and his Korean wife live in Germany but when I ring him before the finals to ask, "how are your lads going to go?" he knows who I'm on about.

And though I've never been to South Korea, they've been my team in every finals since the one when Emily was born and Roy went walkabout. They're my other bit o' red.

2006: Insanity

Managers, we're always told, can't go on to the pitch and win it for the players. My abiding memory of these finals was of the manager who lost it by taking the wrong players off the pitch.

Argentina were the best thing about this World Cup and in their 6-0 win over Serbia scored a team goal to rank with the Carlos Alberto coup de grace in the 1970 final. In the quarters they were 1-0 up on Germany and well on top when manager Jose Pekerman replaced Jose Roman Riquelme and Hernan Crespo with inferior players.

He also decided to leave a young player with a huge reputation on the bench. The kid's name? Lionel Messi. Germany scraped a draw and won on penalties. Italy beat France in the final on penalties. They were probably the worst team to ever win the World Cup. It was all inconclusive and unsatisfying. Pekerman will be managing Colombia at this year's finals. He's done a great job there.

2010: Boring

"Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so," wrote the American poet John Berryman. You can feel like that about football sometimes. Particularly at the awful 2010 tournament where the results which won Spain the cup, 1-0, 1-0, 1-0, 1-0, sounded like a particularly uninspired terrace chant. Tiki-taka was not without its tedious aspects.

Even worse was the litany of complaints about vuvuzelas as every bore in Europe demanded South African supporters be prevented from using them because foreign TV viewers were annoyed. I wondered if all the time I devoted to watching the World Cup was worth it.

2014: Scoring

Suddenly all was wonderful again. Goals flowed in and it felt as though not only the game but the jaded veteran spectator had been invigorated. In 1974 I'd learned that sport can be unfair and unpredictable and started hating Germany. In '74, '82, '86, '02 and '06 they'd knocked out some of my favourite teams. Yet now they were standard-bearers for a new adventurous spirit. You had to go back to the Brazil team in 1970, as my father tended to do, for the last team to score more goals in the finals.

In the final itself the South American flair of the Germans eventually overcame the Teutonic discipline and organisation of the Argentinians. And I finally managed to get my daughters interested in the World Cup. "Quick, quick, have a look at this." "That's brilliant, Dad. Isabel, look. He bites him right into the shoulder." Maybe that'll be their Cruyff moment.

2018: At The End Of The Day

In 1978 my father, who'd suffered from arthritis since his teens, had a hip replacement operation. Afterwards in hospital a blood clot almost killed him. Yet he signed himself out ahead of time and cajoled a nurse to give him a lift back home to Gurteen.

Why? Because the opening match of the World Cup was on and he knew I'd want to watch it with him. The game was awful, Poland and West Germany drew 0-0 and hardly mustered a shot between them. But I'll remember it till the day I die. My father is dead a while now but if there is an afterlife his neighbours will grow familiar with the Brazil 1970 lecture over the next few weeks.

I have measured out my life in World Cup finals. It's personal.


All your tournament questions answered: just don’t expect all the information to be correct

Who’ll Win It?

Germany. They’re backboned by members of the team which won it last time with six starters from the 2014 final likely to be in Jogi Low’s starting 11 this time. Things are breaking their way too with Manuel Neuer and Marco Reus returning from long injury lay-offs. Their most notable absentee from four years ago, Philipp Lahm, has been replaced by Joshua Kimmich who’s almost as good. They had a 100 per cent record in qualifying and showed their immense strength in depth when winning last year’s Confederations Cup with what was effectively a B team. France and Belgium may be their most dangerous rivals given the poor record of South American sides in Europe but Germany look too strong for either of them.

Who’ll Be Better Than You Think?

Portugal, for starters. They were good enough to win the European Championships two years ago, winning a final in France against France without Cristiano Ronaldo. Entirely discounted at the moment, they’ll be enormously obdurate at the back, dangerous on the break and tough opposition for the very best of teams. Poland only lost on penalties to Portugal in the European quarter-finals, breezed through the qualifiers and have the tournament’s best striker in Robert Lewandowski. They’ll be significant dark horses, as will Colombia who got to the quarter-finals last time and look stronger now.

Who’ll Be Worse?

Who do you think? Even after two awful major finals performances in a row England are once more setting sail on a wave of optimism. Yet the squad is bereft of world class talent with even Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Raheem Sterling unproven at this level. Croatia are always mentioned as dark horses and usually disappoint. I fancy Iceland to knock them out in the group stages. Uruguay only scraped through and look less ominous than usual.

What About Russia?

If Russia make any kind of run in this competition it’ll be very striking proof of the power conferred by home advantage. They were miles off the pace in the European Championships and the Confederations Cup and finished their pre-tournament friendlies with a run of seven games without a win. Still, home teams often rise to the occasion and it’s unlikely referees will be too harsh on them.

What About The Minnows?

Pele’s prediction that an African team would soon win the World Cup, once regarded as prophecy, is now generally quoted in a spirit of bitter mockery. It’s unlikely that any team from the continent will make even a Ghana 2010 or Senegal 2002 size impact, though Egypt should be the best of them if Mo Salah is fit. Australia have risen to the challenge of the finals in the past and have the canny Bert Van Marwijk, who steered Holland to the decider in 2010, at the helm. 

The best of the unlikely lads may be Costa Rica. Their run to the quarter-final last time was treated as a flash in the pan, but they easily qualified, beating the US home and away. They are, however, in a Group of Death with Brazil, Switzerland and Serbia.

Who’ll be Top Scorer?

Ronaldo may fill his boots against Morocco and Iran, and Romelu Lukaku might gorge himself against Panama and Tunisia. However, given that Germany have been the highest scorers in the last two tournaments and look set to go on a long run, keep an eye out for Timo Werner. The RB Leipzig youngster will fill the main striker’s role for the champions, was top scorer in the Confederations Cup and might be very famous by the time the tournament ends.

Anything Good To Watch Early On?

Spain and Portugal in Sochi on Friday will give us a chance to see how two of the leading contenders are shaping up. Seeing Iceland put it up to Messi and his sometimes flaky team-mates the following day in Moscow should be a treat.

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