World Cup Memories
by Alun Thomas
As the World Cup prepares to kick off Friday morning our time on June 9th, I prepared for the upcoming month-long feast of football by drunkenly watching tapes of tournaments past, ranging from the 1966 finals in England to the 2002 cup held in South Korea and Japan. I thought it best not to contemplate the upcoming festival and the possible outcome as the two teams I will be concentrating on, England and the United States, wonÕt be there at the tournamentÕs end; the USA surely being bundled out at the group stages and England inevitably losing a heartbreaking penalty shootout in either the second round or quarter finals. Rather I opted to wallow in the past and relive the World Cups of my childhood and youth, which for most of us are the days we remember most fondly, when things were fresh and new, instead of the stale and overdone things they soon become in adulthood. Somehow the World Cup hasnÕt quite gotten that bad but it should never have been expanded to 32 teams, as it was in 1998, leading to the inclusion of too many minnows and poor games.
The first World Cup I recall was the 1982 version held in Spain. That was a key tournament as it marked my native New ZealandÕs first — and last — appearance to date at a World Cup. Never had a side played so many games to reach the finals, and in the qualifying stages the All Whites disposed of Fiji by a then record score of 13-0. Typically, the Kiwis were drawn in the hardest group, with Scotland, the USSR and Brazil. In their first game New Zealand quickly went down 3-0 to a Scottish side blessed with stars like Kenny Dalglish, Grahame Souness and Gordon Strachan. Against the odds in true Kiwi style, the All Whites battled back to 3-2 through goals by Steve Sumner and Steve Woodin, easily the greatest moment in a history of few in our football past. New Zealand ended up losing 5-2, however, before pluckily being disposed of 3-0 by the Soviets and 4-0 by one of the most gifted Brazilian sides ever. It was a magical period that has never been repeated in the countryÕs history. It captured the imagination of a nation inundated by rugby, a sport weakened at that time by a controversial tour by South Africa which led to national unrest.
It didnÕt last. By 1986 the glory days of 1982 had faded and new Zealand failed to qualify for Mexico Õ86. Living in a country ahead of the world in all timezones meant early starts for games and awaking at three or four in the morning was a normal exercise. When youÕre ten years old that doesnÕt bother you — the thrill of seeing Diego Maradona in his prime is enough to awaken the most jaded spectator. Maradona ruled that cup, one of the greatest to my mind, leading Argentina to victory. There was something spellbinding about watching the games played in the Mexican heat. The imagery left an impression that remained as I watched my battered video tape of all the goals from that year. I wanted to go back and relive it. At least I was there.
I wasnÕt for Italia 90. Sixteen years later the scars still havenÕt healed and never will. In 1990 a new TV station called TV3 had acquired the rights to the cup in New Zealand but just days before the kick-off abandoned their coverage, citing costs. Therefore the cup was picked up by upstart cable company Sky Sports who only provided service to one city in New Zealand, Auckland. Anyone outside was doomed, which meant myself and my family. I canÕt forgive TV1, the main station in the country, for passing the cup over to Sky, leaving the rest of us without any live games until quarter finals. By then it was too late and I missed the whole cup practically. It was a scandalous situation and I only saw highlights of Italia 90 through retrospective videos which I watched thousands of times over. The World Cup is the biggest sporting event in the world and should be available to all. I feel sorry for those in the US without ESPN or ESPN2 who will show all but 12 games.
I made up for this indignity by watching every game of USA 94, but without England qualifying it was quite an empty experience. I find it odd how England is the side many support in the cup as when it comes to rugby or cricket I hope New Zealand beats them every time. Then I remember New Zealand doesnÕt have a truly competitive team so it makes sense. The USA, to their credit, put on a fantastic tournament — the last of the 24-team versions. By 1998 I had moved to the USA where they cared about ŌsoccerÕ even less, and somehow I managed to view every game before having to find a job. It was unusual watching the games during summer in daytime instead of the dead of winter in the small hours but even then I knew something had been lost. Maybe it was the increase to 32 sides; maybe I was slightly older and not quite as enthralled. Perhaps the ghost of 1990 was lingering.
In 2002 I found myself having to wake at the early hours, similar to days past, and for the first time I actually chose sleep over games. I decided life could go on if I missed Costa Rica versus China. There were no classic games in 2002 and I found it a dreary affair, tired teams with no playmakers, a lack of individual skill, few goals in the latter stages and just a general lack of imagination. Everything that could be done already had been done in years past, and the stars of then and today donÕt appear to have the charisma and charm of the players I grew up with. The skill yes, but the ability to create highlights like a Pelˇ, Maradona, Cruyff, Zico, Platini or Matthaeus? Perhaps BrazilÕs Ronaldinho, but few else. When Brazil beat Germany 2-0 in the final in 2002, I slept through the entire final almost. I hadnÕt missed anything.
Hopefully in Germany there will be a renaissance of footballing flair and legendary games, but the trend of the last few World Cups suggests not. In the current age the cup has become a financial and corporate monster which dwarfs the Olympics. Games are all sold out, even AngolaÕs match against Iran. Who would watch that if it wasnÕt a World Cup match? I look back to the days when games were sparsely attended, when the cup had a rough charm, something that ended with the 1990 event when empty stands were routine. Sitting here nude and in a crumpled heap, watching highlights of that World Cup, thatÕs to me when it all ended. Instead the event has become bloated, with too many inferior teams. ThereÕs too much hype to live up to. When there are no expectations, thatÕs when you get results.