FIFA World Cup 2018: Appreciate the sport not the rivalry
I‘ve always been a contrarian. Even at nine years-old during the gloriously hot summer of 1982, I refused to join the classmates of my primary school as they proclaimed their love for the elegant, effortless entertainers of Brazil in that year’s World Cup. By then, I’d already learned that football meant mud and effort and noise and grim attrition, and that technicolour back-heels, bicycle kicks and 30-yard screamers were some kind of flamboyant mockery of the sport – too easy to admire, too divorced from the darker, more earthy arts I’d become accustomed to.
I can still feel the despondence in my stomach when, having been sent to bed with David Narey’s stunning goal still separating the sides, I woke to the news that Brazil had thrashed Scotland 4-1. I was desperately sorry for Scotland, the country of three of my grandparents, but mainly for myself and the endless playground recreations of Zico’s free-kick past Alan Rough awaiting me. So when Tele Santana’s team of lean-limbed virtuosos lined up against Italy in the last game of the second group stage, requiring only a draw to progress to the semi-final, I remained in a minority of one siding with the unconvincing, unlovable Italians.
I got my wish, of course. Italy won 3-2 thanks to a Paulo Rossi hat-trick and some pleasingly over-confident Brazilian showmanship, and I had my moment of glory, my morning of revenge.
However, I wasn’t long into adolescence when I realised just how wrong I’d been. Presented with a Brazil side that was one of the most alluring international teams in history, ranking alongside Puskas’ Hungary, Cruyff’s Netherlands and Pelé and Carlos Alberto’s own magisterial Brazil squad, I chose the anti-team. I had rooted for cold calculation over carefree confidence. For ends over means. For Borg over McEnroe, Lauda over Villeneuve.
As every World Cup dawns, I wish I could go back and watch those matches anew, and in particular relish every Socrates touch, through ball and finish with a glee my juvenile partisanship originally denied me. I knew more about football in 1986, and was able to better appreciate his vision and calm authority as Brazil flattered to deceive in Mexico’s midday sun, but his best days were behind him – the opportunity, his and mine, had gone.
Socrates, then, became a hero in retrospect. As did, for different reasons, Diego Maradona, whose genius could hardly be appreciated in success-starved England in 1986. But they’re both lessons I’ve tried to take into any major sporting tournament since. While it might be impossible to forget the inter-club bickering and the national flags each team is playing for – football is the most tribal of sports after all – it’s criminal to dismiss talent at its peak because you want the other team to win.
Take it from someone who is old enough to have watched nine World Cups: don’t get hung up on the Ronaldo-Messi debate. Don’t hope Kevin De Bruyne breaks his leg because he tortured your team for Man City last season. Don’t pray Paul Pogba plays like he has for most of the last 12 months just because, well, it would be incredibly amusing. Nope, this is the moment in which we should be enjoying the best in the world when we have the chance. Why else would you even watch the World Cup?