I feel as if this World Cup is passing me by.
I've watched plenty, and debated plenty, and filled in my wallchart diligently (sans error, thus far). But it feels like nothing's going in. "Of course it's not", said a friend, "there's been nothing to go in".
That's not quite what I was getting at, though. What I worry about is not so much that the football's not going but that the feeling of this World Cup isn't going in. I'm not getting a sense of the aesthetic universe that goes with the football (as I type, Jurgen Klinsmann has- in his strange Teuto-Californian drawl- just spoken of something similar, saying that there's something about a World Cup that "goes beyond a 4-4-2 or a 4-5-1 or whatever").
It's probably because of my age. USA'94 is the first World Cup I spent any time watching and that and the '98 tournament that are lodged in my mind as some of the strongest memories from childhood. I remember far more about the football from 2002 and 2006, but they don't seem so special- there's no magic to the memories.
I was 9 during USA '94. I remember precious little of the football. I think I remember Aldridge going mad at a FIFA Official but it could well be a false memory brought on by seeing it so many times since. And I'm fairly certain I remember Maradona's celebration against Greece- though I couldn't tell you if I was watching live or saw it on a highlights show. I vaguely recall someone being sent off, but I couldn't tell you who it was or what it was for.
I do, however, remember the strange quality of the light that illuminated so many of the games- an intense, anemic glow that saturated everything; sucking in colour and making it all look decidedly unreal. The 16 years since might have exaggerated this memory- and watching footage of it on YouTube does little do deny or affirm it- but it's certainly how I remember experiencing it.
What really sticks in my mind, though, is the Bulgaria v Germany quarter-final. I watched it because my friends at school were telling me how it would be great if Bulgaria won, and when we played football in the playground at lunch my class got to be Bulgaria whilst 4M2 had to be Germany. Without having any idea why (just as I'd had no idea why my peers were all shouting for Denmark in the Euro '92 final two years previously), I was desperate for Bulgaria to win.
And so they did. I remember being pleased Bulgaria won but am fairly certain I only know Letchkov's header for watching it since. Rather, what I remember from the match itself is that suddenly the colour had returned (thinking about it now, this probably has something to do with the match being played in New York's more moderate climate) and the wonderful patterns on the playing surface. It was incredible, and I remember thinking how much fun it would be to play on a pitch that looked like that.
I wasn't allowed to watch the final: it went on too late, so it was videoed and I got up early the next morning to watch it, something I frequently had to do with night-time TV (why getting up early and losing sleep was worse than going to bed late and losing sleep I didn't understand then and don't now, an act of parenting that I always thought would explain itself when I grew up but which still seems petty, although it does mean I have a good selection of games on VCR: the '94 European Cup Final, the '95 Cup Winners' Cup Final)- but I found the game rather dull so fast-forwarded through most of it. After a while I became so bored I asked dad what the final score was, and when he said it had been 0-0 and won on a penalty shoot out I didn't bother with the rest.
France '98 wouldn't be dull though. England were going to win it! Euro '96 had got me into the national team, and I had carefully tippexed and red biroed a St.George's cross on my calculator in anticipation of our impending victory (something, I'm semi-pleased to note, kids still do now). John Summers brought his mum's pager into school and passed a note around English class saying that we were beating Tunisia 1-0, and then told the bus home that Scholes had added a second. We were definitely going to win. Something Kevin Keegan thought against Romania, only for Dan Petrescu to break clear and make him look a bit daft. Hoddle defied critics by playing Anderton and Beckham against Columbia and they both scored. How clever we all thought he was, although no-one wanted to be Darren Anderton on the school field the next day.
And then we were out.
My clearest memory of that game is fighting off the tears during ITV's slow motion montage following our exit (set to Green Day's Time of Your Life), and climbing folornly into bed in my England pyjamas, muttering that I didn't want to go on the next day's school trip to Alton Towers.
What also sticks in my mind from that tournament is the opening titles- perhaps because I could play the Jean Michel Jarre and Faure pieces used by ITV and the BBC, and so experienced a sudden surge in popularity during music lessons. If I hear either piece of music now, I'm temporarily transported into a state of heightened emotion: all boyish excitement and nerves- an intensity of feeling that always escapes voluntarily recalled memories. In writing this piece I watched those titles t for the first time in the 12 years since. Objectively, they're both a little naff now (though the ITV one in particular has some nice touches), but they still moved me as I recalled all the excitement they once roused.
No World Cup since has anything to match. I remember far more about the football in 2002: having a free period at college and being able to watch France lose the opening game; Beckham's redemptive penalty; Rivaldo's dive; Seaman's cock-up...but not a lot else sticks in the mind. I just watched the titles to the BBC and ITV coverage of 2002 on YouTube, but neither raised a glimmer of recognition, let alone evoked an emotional response (unless a brief Orientalist critique of ITV's counts). 2006 was fun- I was at uni, could legally drink and watched every game in the company of great friends- but the wonder had gone. In neither tournament did I care about England; in neither tournament did I learn about new countries, or new players- I knew too much and there was nothing to discover.
Perhaps rather naively, I longed for that boyhood feeling to return with this World Cup. I'm enjoying it greatly, and am looking forward to watching some games with supporters of other teams (doing a PhD means I have colleagues from Chile, the USA, Mexico...); as well as being abroad for the semi-final and finals (in Poland, so it's a shame they've not qualified)- but the idea that by watching all the games diligently I'd recapture the excitement of my youth has proved too much. It's rather blending in with 2002 and 2006.
Yet it could be that the thing I remember the most from this World Cup isn't registering consciously. I didn't decide to take in the titles in 1998; they lodged themselves in my mind involuntarily. Maybe something's worming its way into my brain right now, and one day it'll open a door for me to look back upon these next few weeks as a period of World Cup utopia.