Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Let the Memories Begin?

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.


  1. great piece Dave, enjoyed it.
    I remember illicitly watching the world cup 94 games on a portable b&w tv in bed with manual tuning so the picture was scrolling constantly up and over the top again. could only read the scoreline.
    Although it sounds somewhat romantic, anything has to be better than that.
    I blame the ball!

  2. OTM about US1994... I was 11 then but have same feelings about the whole colouristic aura of the TV broadcasts - it was moving and I would also think about architecture of the stadiums (esp. pitches, which were much bigger than European) and... even how the goals looked like (the nets all white snow) made this tournament look so unreal. the size of the pitches made easier good and fast players - Romania, Holland, Sweden, Brazil - to create more chances for goals. hence so good goal average 2,89 and so many epic games.
    maybe you might to want check my comment about WC1994 here:

    cheers from Poland. can I ask you what are you going to do here?

  3. During USA 94, within our class the good footballers would play the not so good footballers (naturally me included). We were Brazil, they Italy. It's hard to remember whether so many of those moments - Escobar's own goal, Goikoetxea's cross-cum-goal, Saeed Al-Owairan's wonder goal - were seen live.

    Some moments stick in my mind though. My brother and I built our joint fantasy team around Roberto Baggio, so had to spend thriftily in other positions. Our jubilation at Ireland's victory over Italy was increased tenfold due to it being Ray Houghton who supplied the winner. Being allowed to stay up for the final, THAT penalty is hard to forget. Robert Baggio was our idol during the tournament, it was hard to imagine he'd miss, but alas he did - and in such fashion that it is the defining moment of his career.

    France 98 is certainly an important tournament for our generation, being the first chance to actively support England in the World Cup, with matches at more sociable hours, and coming as it did after Euro 96. We were in the middle of the Channel during the England-Romania game, on the way back from a day trip to Belgium, so we were all crowded around one boy's portable TV with dodgy reception. (Side note: I have just remembered this was during the height of the yo-yo revival). I find it interesting that few people remember that Desailly got sent off in the final that year.

    Following World Cups had the same effect on me. Jaded by Euro 2000, and experiencing a teen-fuelled rejection of blind patriotism as illogical, I've since felt detached while watching England play. And while I may particularly remember where I was during specific matches, I don't remember any emotions, unlike Germany in 96 and Argentina in 98.

  4. hello henry: It's easy to romanticise analog technology, but it could be a fucker as well. I remember watching a Five Nations game when I was about 6 and exactly the same thing happening. Portable TVs always seemed like the future, but it's only really with the iPhone that it's viable. Although a chap spent almost all of a game at Molineux a few years ago watching the Champions League on his phone.

    Piotr: Interesting to see that you have similar thoughts to me, particularly with regards to the light. The settings on the TV can have of course affect this: England's game had a rather pallid quality because my housemate had been using the TV for his Xbox, and he adjusts the brightness and contrast accordingly.

    I'll be in Poland (Lublin, to be exact) for the annual European Utopian Studies Society Conference. Should be a nicely cosmopolitan crowd there too!

    Ed: There were traces of patriotism remaining at Euro 2000. I got rather drunk watching the Germany game at my local cricket club and on getting home told dad it was "the happiest day of my life". But I wasn't kidding myself- I remember thinking I was nowhere near as happy as I should be, and never really cared again. I'll probably blog on the slightly ironic stance I now adopt towards England soon.

  5. Steven Delahunty18 June 2010 at 13:35

    Love that you name dropped John Summers. Wonder where he is these days? Actually, Southport would be a pretty safe bet. He gave me dogs abuse for not having a mobile phone a few years later.

  6. Haha, I can well imagine. I'm still ashamed at not sticking up for you that time he jumped on your bike wheel when we were playing tennis.

    Working part time at a secondary school now, it's quite funny to see the same debates rehearsed. "We should finish lessons early to watch England", say the kids. "No, it's your education. And what about the people who don't like football?", says the head. Of course, what you don't realise as a pupil is that most of the teachers are on the kids' side. Although they can watch it on their laptops if they're savvy enough to get round the local authority's internet filter. Which most are.