A life measured out in World Cups.
To paraphrase Nick Hornby (and T.S. Eliot), I have measured out my life in World Cups. Every four years, a marker: This is who I was when I watched this one. Birthdays, work, relationships, even Arsenal seasons tend to get mixed up—was that Petit or Gilberto, 24 or 25, Sarah or Sara?—but World Cups come as regular as rain and provide a more accurate prism.
I hurried home from school, but I was too late: England 1, France 0—Bryan Robson after 27 seconds. It was the World Cup, and while I was not sure I understood what that meant, I was very excited; it was all anyone on the playground could talk about. We were excited to see Brazil. Was Pelé going to play? I watched Brazil-Italy with my friend Mark Turin. He supported Italy and wanted me to do the same. Mark Turin was Dutch; it was a surname thing. Paolo Rossi, Jesus. I was thrilled to have shifted my allegiances. David Narey scored a screamer for Scotland against Brazil, and in reply Brazil scored four of them. Maradona got sent off against Brazil; Keegan botched a header in the final minutes against Spain; Marco Tardelli (my new favorite player) scored in the final. I didn’t see the “tackle,” Schumacher nearly decapitating Battiston, but I remember the outrage. I was eight years old.
At 12, I had a lot more football savvy. There was a time-zone problem. I would have to be in bed when England played. I listened to the first two games on the radio, under the covers. Two draws. The make-or-break game was on a Friday, and I was allowed to stay up late to watch Gary Lineker send England through. Was that the game where Ray Wilkins got sent off and a new tactical shape was born? After the first round, most games were played earlier.
Scotland-Uruguay, the grimmest game I’d ever seen. France-Brazil in the quarterfinals: Michel Platini went for a scissor kick (all the rage that year), missed, and as he was falling wrapped his lower leg over his upper leg, made contact with the ball and put it a yard over the bar. The greatest game I’ve ever seen—Laudrup’s against Uruguay, which I insisted was better than Maradona’s second against England. John Barnes’s second cross, the one Lineker failed to connect with. France lost to Germany in the semis with the help of Schumacher and the refs for the second time in a row. I sort of remember the final, but it was Germany-Argentina and, pace Bill Shankly, “I hope you both lose.”
“Love’s got the world in motion,” as New Order put it, “and I can’t believe it’s true.” Fucking hell, best four weeks of my life. Apparently a terrible World Cup, but not to me: I was 16 and I watched with my mates and girls and lager. Roger fucking Milla; Hagi and his dye job; David O’Leary’s penalty to send Ireland through. That foul on Caniggia. England’s awful first-round match against Ireland and then Mark Wright against Egypt and David Platt against Belgium and Gary Lineker against Cameroon. I didn’t get Gazzamania; he played for Tottenham, and as a hardcore Gooner, I was forbidden to like him. I did like Lineker, though. I think it had to do with Everton. Careca, Schillaci, Baggio, Valderrama, Maldini. The fight between Völler and Rijkaard. Gullit and Van Basten. Fat Diego screaming into the camera. That grim, grim final; Andreas Brehme’s dour penalty kick. But what about the big night, the semifinal, England- Germany? I was at a Rolling Stones concert. After England went out, Jagger sang, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”
I search my memory banks, and I remember the Leonardo elbow. I even went to a game, but nothing sticks. Saudi Arabia-Morocco at the Meadowlands; 0-0, and I didn’t even know how to make myself care. I’d just fled England for America and was busy divesting myself of all my former selves. I could probably tell you more about the Knicks that year.
France 1998 was my reintroduction. I wasn’t clear on who Zidane was. I called my brother to ask him why the fuck Beckham wasn’t playing. I was doing summer theater in rural Indiana. Every day, I’d go to the local bar at 2 p.m. and ask them to put on the World Cup. The bartender would grumpily oblige—cue mutterings of discontent from the locals. Over time they got interested, and I’ve nev- er been prouder of the beautiful game than when I walked in one evening and one local— wearing, I like to think, a John Deere cap and working a chaw—asked me if I’d seen some game that afternoon. I watched England lose to Argentina late. I’d recorded it on video (can you imagine?) and afterward, I stood in the car park and cried. Psychoanalytically, I’m still not quite clear why. After the final, my mum sent me a copy of the Daily Mirror: “arsenal win the world cup” was the headline.
South Korea/Japan 2002
I was working in a restaurant in SoHo; my best friend there was an Argentine waiter. England beat Argentina, and I taught the bus-boys, “We done the fucking Argies.” They said it to him every chance they got. I stayed up all night watching football. I was at a bar in Tribeca when Beckham jumped out of a tackle and Seaman got done on a free kick. I had a “Be the Reds” Korea T-shirt. Football had entered its hipster period.
I was depressed and single. I watched ev- ery game, but my heart wasn’t in it. There was a crushing sense of futility to the whole thing. England-Portugal summed up my life, boring and unwatchable. Only Zidane’s ex- istential head butt cheered me up. Me and Zinedine, the only two who truly understood just how pointless it all was.
South Africa 2010
Four years later, everything was different. The vuvuzela reigned supreme, and my wife was pregnant. It was my last feckless summer. I watched a lot of games in airport bars: Holland-Brazil in Boston, Uruguay-Ghana in Durham, and England-Germany in Washing- ton, D.C. I was covering the tournament for the Paris Review. What had started out as a kid’s obsession, I was now an authority on. I didn’t become a racecar driver or join the army, and Trevor Davies was no longer my best friend, but football is still here. All of a sudden, after 30 years, I found out how much I knew, how much growing up I’d done.
Brazil 2014 is gearing up. I’m excited. Are Spain over? Will Messi emulate Maradona? Can Germany ever win again? Will England make it far enough to get knocked out on penalties? How is it possible Andrea Pirlo is younger than me? There are two kids now, a mortgage, gray hair starting to come in. A month on the sofa seems unlikely. When I asked my wife if she thought I’d still be able to watch every game, she said, “I don’t see why not.” I’m pretty sure she’s right; she’s got history on her side.
A feature article from Issue 02. Order your subscription from our Shop.