Monday 17 December 2018

The beautiful Tournament: writer Dermot Bolger on his vivid World Cup memories

As the World Cup steps up a gear with its first weekend of matches, Dermot Bolger recalls how, ever since Pelé's wondrous footwork first captivated him as a child, football's greatest contest has given him a lifetime of vivid memories

Brazilian Pelé dribbles past Italian defender Tarcisio Burgnich in the 1970 World Cup final in Mexico City. STAFF/AFP/Getty Images
Brazilian Pelé dribbles past Italian defender Tarcisio Burgnich in the 1970 World Cup final in Mexico City. STAFF/AFP/Getty Images
Mario Goetze of Germany scores the winning goal against Argentina in the 2014 final. Photo: Matthias Hangst/Getty Images
On the ball: Packie Bonner saves Daniel Timofte's shot during the penalty shoot-out against Romania in the1990 World Cup. Photo: Sportsfile...ABC
World class: Rivaldo relishes Brazil's win in 2002

Our hired television was a black and white set back then, so why do I only remember seeing those televised images of the 1970 World Cup Final in vivid technicolour? Firstly Pelé's superbly headed opening goal for Brazil from a cross by Rivelino: his face transfused into a sunburst of joy amid his celebrations. Then Roberto Boninsegna almost bursting out of his skin with ecstasy when wheeling away after scoring an equaliser for Italy. Then the supreme, languid beauty of Brazil's final goal to complete their rout in the 86th minute: seven Brazilians involved in a move which started in their own box, incorporating Clodoaldo's balletic swiftness in brushing past four Italians, and Pelé's ability to almost stop time before rolling a ball with languorous ease into the space where he instinctively knew Carlos Alberto would appear to blast home a goal of supreme beauty.

I think I remember seeing the match in colour because, even if our television was black and white, the images seemed so monumental to my 10-year-old imagination that in my mind the screen automatically showed the vibrant colours of Brazil's golden yellow jerseys with green trimmings and their blue shorts.

One aspect that made the spectacle of that 1970 World Cup Final so magical was the fact that, with the exception of the FA Cup Final (and only if a peculiar-shaped aerial on your roof helped you to get the BBC signal), we rarely saw live soccer on television. It may seem hard for young people today - when RTÉ show interminable coverage of dreary dead-rubber Champions League group matches - but back then what made the World Cup a wonder was that football was a rationed retreat. Today it is ever-present but as Patrick Kavanagh wrote: "Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder."

But I remember the wonder, at eight years of age, when a cub leader brought us into a hall, with an air of great secrecy, to rig up a projector and show us footage of one of the greatest games ever played: Real Madrid beating Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 in the 1960 European Cup Final. The fact that this game had occurred eight years previously did not take away our sense of wonder as we ran out into the streets of Finglas afterwards, not shouting out the names of Best and Denis Law but of Alfredo Di Stéfano and Ferenc Puskás, with all of us believing that soccer was truly the beautiful game.

On the ball: Packie Bonner saves Daniel Timofte's shot during the penalty shoot-out against Romania in the1990 World Cup. Photo: Sportsfile...ABC
On the ball: Packie Bonner saves Daniel Timofte's shot during the penalty shoot-out against Romania in the1990 World Cup. Photo: Sportsfile...ABC

And if soccer truly was the beautiful game, then Brazil were its high priests, a team we only saw every four years in successive World Cups, where - whether they won or lost - they seemed to play the game with a panache and artistry that elevated it into a realm beyond politics or commerce, so that we felt we were watching grown men play with the carefree abandon of kids playing on the Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro.

I lost most childhood illusions very quickly but Brazil continued to hold this mystique for me until the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea. There, in Brazil's opening game, Rivaldo - a footballer of supreme skill and a Ballon d'Or winner - introduced a new art to Brazilian football: the art of outrageous cheating.

With Brazil leading Turkey 2-1, thanks to a controversial 87th-minute penalty - a Turkish player, impatient with Rivaldo's deliberate slowness in taking a last-minute corner, assisted him by kicking the ball in the direction of Rivaldo, who stood at the corner flag. The ball certainly reached Rivaldo with unnecessary force and struck his knee. But Rivaldo proceeded to collapse, clutching his face as if felled by a bullet to the head, and lay writhing in fake agony until he managed to get the bemused Turkish player sent off.

Brazil won that game but lost any respect or hold on my imagination. In past World Cups, the golden yellow shirt represented something special when worn by Pelé and, later, by the far more interesting figure of Sócrates - a man who managed to combine being a brilliant World Cup captain with also being a medical doctor, an intellectual, a heavy smoker and a radical political campaigner for social justice. But during those few seconds when the cheating Rivaldo faked his facial injury, the Brazil jersey became for me just another advertising space owned by Nike: a company who signed such a massive sponsorship deal with Brazil in 1996 that - rightly or wrongly - many felt they cost Brazil the 1998 World Cup Final by allegedly insisting on their marketing poster boy, Ronaldo, playing in the final despite him being ill. (In recent years the player has said that the decision to play was his alone.)

I might have felt an even greater sense of betrayal at Rivaldo's theatrics during the 2002 World Cup were it not for the fact that - like the rest of Ireland - I was too busy coping with a collective national hysteria and sense of betrayal, due to events in Saipan, which resulted in the Irish team flying onwards to Japan while Roy Keane, like a piece of lost luggage, managed to get himself diverted onto a plane for London.

That was the third World Cup Finals which the Republic of Ireland reached, but the only one to actively divide a nation. When we first qualified for the Finals in Italia '90, George Hamilton's famous words, "A nation holds its breath", summed up how the collective drama of the penalty shoot-out against Romania, when a nation did inhale as one and then exhaled in hysteric celebratory unison. To paraphrase Joyce's The Dead: joy was general all over Ireland, falling deliriously upon the Bog of Allen and, further westwards, into the mutinous Shannon waves. Four years later, at the 1994 World Cup in America, when Ray Houghton found the Italian net in Giants Stadium, there was such a reprise of this collective national euphoria that scientists using seismometers to predict earthquakes detected Richter scale readings in numerous Dublin pubs.

Mario Goetze of Germany scores the winning goal against Argentina in the 2014 final. Photo: Matthias Hangst/Getty Images
Mario Goetze of Germany scores the winning goal against Argentina in the 2014 final. Photo: Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

Therefore the contrast could not have been any starker eight years later when, in the fraught days between the Saipan meltdown and Ireland's opening game against Cameroon, a minor version of the Irish Civil War broke out, with the nation polarised over two strong and unyielding personalities. Looking back now, some events surrounding that World Cup have the comedy of a Fellini film. Did tradesman on a West of Ireland building site down tools in protest? Yes. Did staff at the Station House in Clifden call for a national strike to have Roy Keane reinstated? Yes. During the frantic media chase in which a raft of journalists pursued Roy Keane to Saipan Airport, did all the motorists obey the island's strict 30mph speed limit? Yes.

No moment better encapsulated the madness of that World Cup than an incident involving the poet Conor O'Callaghan, who was driving to Dundalk with his family when, on a narrow corkscrew road, they were almost killed by a souped-up sports car, which squeezed past them, hit a ditch and turned over. The driver emerged unhurt but began attacking his upturned car with a golf club, while locals appeared with mugs of tea and the local guard was summoned. Despite the upturned car and near fatalities, there was only one topic of conversation among those gathered on the road: Roy Keane being sent home from the World Cup. The locals were solidly on Mick McCarthy's side and O'Callaghan found that his sole ally in taking Roy Keane's side was the drunk driver who had just narrowly avoided dismembering his entire family. This proved to be too much for the guard, a respecter of authority, who ended the argument curtly by addressing the driver: "No tax, no insurance, reeking of drink and a car in the ditch… I think you would be well advised to keep your opinions on Roy Keane to yourself."

Since then, Ireland has not had a World Cup Finals to unite or divide us. Instead there has been a long litany of playoff misery - none more soul-destroying and controversial than when Thierry Henry cheated us out of a place in the 2010 World Cup Finals with a handball so blatant that even astronauts in the space station orbiting overhead began screaming at their monitors.

Our five-nil loss to Denmark last autumn put paid to hopes of reaching the current World Cup in Russia. While I felt genuine sorrow for great servants of the Irish game like Jonathan Walters, who will never play in a World Cup Finals; and while it would indeed be wonderful for us as a nation to be there, one part of me feels a sense of relief that many Irish supporters I travelled with in the past will not be exposed to what may prove to be a more hostile -­ or at least less lenient ­- ­­ environment than Italy, Orlando or Japan.

Two summers ago, I stood in Pigalle in Paris when thousands of good-humoured Irish fans brought comic surrealism to the streets. Even the French police laughed when a local, bewildered middle-aged man in a string vest discovered that Irish fans had elevated him to papal status, greeting his every appearance on his tiny balcony with cheers generally only heard in St Peter's Square. I enjoyed the friendly mayhem as we made our way to the Stade de France for a European Nations Cup match against Sweden that was so joyous it took away the bad memories of Henry's misdeeds in that stadium.

But watching Irish fans happily interact with the French police, I did fear what might happen if this boisterous green army tried to bring their unique jovial anarchy to Moscow or Kaliningrad. We will never know because we are not there, and the notion of a World Cup in Qatar would be so farcical (if it was not so tragic, due to numerous deaths of workers building those white elephant stadiums) that it is hard to see a jolly green army setting sail for there in four years' time.

Maybe this just makes me more cynical than the 10-year-old boy I was in 1970, when I found myself enraptured by the magic of Pelé and Carlos Alberto. But I'll still watch this year's matches as the tournament nears its climax, because every World Cup throws up unexpected stories and underdogs to capture the imagination.

And no matter who wins the final on July 15, I know that there will be moments of individual brilliance that will enrapture another generation of 10-year-old boys and girls - the future Robbie Keanes and Stephanie Roches, who will race to their local park, calling out names of new heroes - as equally caught up in their first World Cup as I was when watching mine on a black and white television set which seemed to magically turn into colour.

After its initial sold-out run, Dermot Bolger's acclaimed stage version of Joyce's 'Ulysses' is running at the Abbey Theatre until July 21;

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