The World Cup first made its mark on me in 1974. I was nine years old and listening to England’s final qualifying game on my mum’s big solid state radio. Like every schoolkid in England, I believed that England always qualified for World Cup finals. Jan Tomaszewki got in the way – literally and metaphorically – and England were out. I cried with shock. How could this be? Much of the media reaction was the same.
Perhaps England going out opened up my mind a little, because I still devoured any information I could about the finals. I’d picked up the fact that the Dutch team were a bit special. Total Football, Johan Cruyff, Wim van Henegan, Johan Neeskens – that Dutch team caught the imagination even in a less connected world.
By 1978 England were still rubbish, failing to qualify again. This was the first World Cup I remember watching a lot of. My abiding memory is of the ticker tape. Argentina played thrilling football but were strange and mysterious. But soon, two Argentine players would become very familiar, and I would be spending Friday evenings shredding newspapers to make ticker tape to take to White Hart Lane to greet them.
By 1982 I was a seasoned match-goer, all of 17 years old. My hero was Glenn Hoddle, but England were in the process of squandering his talents. The Falklands conflict meant Spain was not well-disposed to the English, and the English hooligans were happy enough to be hated and to hate back. It felt a slightly squalid World Cup, with Gentile’s hatchet job on the emerging superstar Diego Maradona in the group stage another illustration of the ugly side of the game. But there was a cultured side to the Italians too, with Paolo Rossi the standout player. The World Cup still thrilled and excited with its mixture of the unexpected and the exotic, but my late teenage self was also being lured by girls, gigs and politics.
In 1986 I was at college. We watched Lineker emerge, the Spurs contingent derided manager Bobby Robson for continuing to waste Hoddle, we raged and then wondered at the Hand of God and that second goal by Maradona. It was Maradona’s tournament in every possible way.
At Italia 90, for the first time in years, there was an England team that we liked, and which seemed to have a chance of doing something. The second summer of love was well under way, meaning the hostile atmosphere around the national side had calmed somewhat. And the tournament was in Italy, a football nation through and through. A big group of us watched every match together. And after the games, we went out on the lash with everyone else in London, packing the pubs and drinking and singing and laughing and arguing late into the balmy summer nights. And then a perfect summer was extinguished one night in Turin.
By 1994 it was back to reality. England were hopeless and didn’t qualify. The World Cup was in America. By now we were students of the international game. I spent plenty of time amidst the flying Guinness and wild celebrations in the pubs of Camden Town – but I enjoyed watching with a certain detachment. Except for the final – a prolonged boreathon between Brazil and Italy.
At Italia 90, for the first time in years, there was an England team that we liked, and which seemed to have a chance of doing something... And then a perfect summer was extinguished one night in Turin.
In 1998, I went to my first, and still only, World Cup. Me and two mates drove across France, stopping off to watch games in bars on TV as we went. We talked football with French café owners and, on the south coast, played football on the beach late into the evening with two coach-loads of Chile fans. In Marseille, we saw the best and worst of England abroad – vomit and broken glass in the streets but 40,000 mostly good-natured England fans packing the 60,000 capacity stadium. The official allocation was 5,000. We went on to Toulouse to watch Italy play Chile in a stadium packed with Chileans.
Sampling a World Cup at first hand, the tournament rather than just following your team, is an experience no football fan should miss. England went out to Argentina, prompting a national outpouring of dickheadery. But the French, who won, were fantastic.
The World Cup in Japan and South Korea in 2002 was a strange concept to English eyes. By now we were used to England being talked up and not delivering, and on this front, at least, England delivered, eventually going down to a Brazil side that briefly looked as if it might have remembered its heritage. They emerged worthy winners of the tournament, and Japan opened our eyes a bit to how football was seen in Asia. But by now, football was a globally analysed, globally recorded and transmitted game. The mystery was gone.
The dullness of the 2006 World Cup in Germany was alleviated only by sampling some pretty decent beer, as a small but dedicated band of football heads juggled work and domestic responsibilities with kick off times. We didn’t really expect much from England any more and, in that respect, they didn’t let us down. The game’s traditional powers reasserted themselves, England still couldn’t score penalties and Italy won because they could.
The 2010 tournament was the first I watched with my kids. They had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the international game, thanks to FIFA on the PlayStation, that put my pretensions to be a student of the international game into perspective. It was the first African World Cup, but England maintained traditional values by being pathetically bad.
Even a World Cup in Brazil can’t quite conjure up the magic and the enthusiasm the tournament once did. Perhaps that’s a product of becoming jaded by age, or the general sense of discontent with modern football, or the very real political and economic controversies around this most peculiar of multinational businesses. But, despite everything, I’ve still got all the match dates in my diary, and nights out are already being planned with them in mind.
This is an abridged version of an article that appears in the World Cup special edition of The Football Pink, which costs £2.50 plus postage and can be bought direct from the website.
Martin Cloake is a journalist and author who writes about football, the football business and football culture when he’s not doing the day job writing about other stuff. That other stuff has included finance, politics, music, celebrity and real life stories – and fruit and veg. His most challenging commission was delivering a 5,000-word epic on potatoes. Sadly, this is no longer available. But his books, in ebook and paperback form, plus some rather handsome hardbacks, are available direct from his website.