The 2018 World Cup: The End Of This Chapter
It’s an accidental phenomenon brought on by its four year cycle, but one of the more curious aspects of the World Cup is the way in which memories of previous tournaments can transport you back to a different point in time. In 1982, rapt to the slightly over-saturated colours provided by Spanish television and the telephone line commentary which sounded as though it was coming from another planet, I watched my first World Cup final on a fourteen inch Ferguson television set which was precariously balanced on a tea chest as a result of my family having moved house the precious day. Thirty-six years on, I may have watched the 2018 World Cup final on a forty-nine inch flat screen television, but I was again surrounded by dust and cardboard boxes as a result of a house move two days earlier. The technology has changed, but some things never change, whether by accident or design.
Memories of a World Cup finals, then, have a tendency to induce a Proustian rush. 1986? The same portable television set as four years earlier, now installed in my none-more-1980s grey, white and red decorated teenagers’ bedroom, with the picture cutting out as Mexico City fought to cope with the aftermath of a devastating earthquake which had struck the city nine months earlier. 1994? On my summer break from university, staying up until goodness knows when to watch matches from the USA. 1998? At home, signed off from work, and at the point of a nervous breakdown. 2002? Feeling somewhat recovered from the unpleasantness of four years earlier and getting up incredibly early in the morning to watch matches from Japan and South Korea with bleary eyes. 2006? My first World Cup finals writing for this place, having just moved from London to Brighton, and with a new job conveniently lined up to start the day after the final. And so on and so forth, to the present day. The World Cup finals tend to provide us with these tiny snapshots of our pasts, whether we want them or not.
So, where did this leave me in 2018? Two thoughts initially struck me on this subject, as the tournament started to draw to a close. Firstly, having seen a deluge of tweets on the subject of working with hangovers on the day following an England win, the thought occurred to me that this has been the first World Cup during which I haven’t drunk any alcohol since 1986. I started to drastically cut back my booze intake about five years ago, not for any particular reasons of moral rectitude but because I came to understand that I no longer enjoyed the sensation of actually being drunk that much any more, and having had children has really just added an extra layer of responsibility to that feeling. Secondly, upon seeing the filmed footage of various town squares and beaches heaving with people watching matches, the realisation dawned upon me that I watched the 2018 World Cup finals almost entirely alone. Other than the second half of the group match between Portugal and Spain, every single minute of the World Cup that I saw came either at work on my phone with my headphones clamped on or alone, at home, on the living room sofa.
I don’t live alone, of course, but my boy are thirty-four months and nine months old respectively. The older one will happily kick a ball around the garden or the park, but has no understanding whatsoever of the fact that this particular game is one that billions of people watch for pleasure, whilst the younger one’s primary interests in life remain eating, sleeping, crying, eating again, and surveying any room in which he happens to be situated before heading immediately for the single most dangerous thing therein. Evening kick-offs may have come just before their bedtime, but there was no danger of this getting in the way of many matches. Indeed, the nearest that I got to being completely distracted during an evening match throughout the entire tournament was missing the first fifteen minutes of the second half of the Croatia vs England semi-final because I was dealing with the aftermath of what can only honestly be described as a “poop-splosion” on the part of my older boy towards the end of the half-time break. Well, fair enough, Dylan. Roy Keane has that effect on me, too.
It’s reasonable to say that my mental health has been fragile again, recently. We remain a sole income household, and I have to work not-insignificant amounts of overtime on order to merely keep our financial heads above water. As such, my mornings usually start with getting up at half-past six in the morning, managing the vagaries of my older boy until going out to work for eight o’clock. Ordinarily, I would work until half past six in the evening before going home, putting him to bed while the first half of the evening match was playing, recording a podcast as soon as the match had finished, then writing up the day’s events for the next morning here and finally getting peace, quiet, and food some time after eleven o’clock. It’s exhausting (and presumably ruinously bad for one’s health) but sporadically rewarding, this schedule, but it does at least explain my somewhat worn tone of voice during our podcasts. It’s also anxiety-filling and stressful. But we got there. We recorded twenty-four podcasts, and every match played was documented to some extent or other. And it feels like an accomplishment. Thanks, to those of you that have offered your support and kind comments over the last four weeks, and a very special thanks to those who guested with us during the tournament.
On the footballing side, there was much to recommend this World Cup, but the tendency to try to place this tournament into the historical narrative while it was being played did remain perplexing to me. Considerable talk centred around how few goalless draws there were whilst overlooking the fact that there were some extremely drab one-nil wins and one-all draws in their place. Similarly, I never had much time for the argument that goals from set-pieces or penalty kicks are somehow inferior to those scored from open play. This is, of course, an aesthetic argument from which there can be no definitive solution other than to point at the final score. Until FIFA institute a panel of judges to mark each goal for performance, composition and interpretation, it’s an argument that the aesthetes cannot really win. The truth of the matter is that a goalless draw can be an engrossing game, of course, and the checking and cross-checking of previous records can have a hint of desperation about it, as though we’re all looking for some form of validation that what we’ve invested so much of ourselves into is worth this level of investment.
The highlights, though, were as transcendent as had been offered to us by previous tournaments. From the top of my head: Ahmed Musa controlling the ball as though he had a magnet implanted in the outside of his right foot before half-volleying the ball past the Iceland goalkeeper to open the score for Nigeria in their group match. Belgium sweeping the ball from one end of the pitch to the other for Nacer Chadli to perform the final act in Belgium’s comeback from two goals down to beat Japan in their second round match at the very death. Blinking in disbelief at the fact that England had run up a five goal half-time lead in their group match against the admittedly hapless Panama, or their penalty shootout win in the second round against Colombia. Croatia sweeping past Argentina as the Argentinian team collapsed before our very eyes, seemingly in the grip of some form of collective meltdown. South Korea walking the ball into the German goal to put the holders out of the tournament at the group stage, their worst ever performance in a World Cup finals. Spain getting swept out of the competition on penalty kicks by Russia in the second round. Benjamin Pavard’s goal for France against Argentina, the first 4-3 result in ninety minutes in the entire history of the tournament. It feels at times as though there’s almost too much to have to try to remember.
With this being 2018, however, the pungent stench of social media hangs heavy in the air. There is much to be enjoyed through the medium of Twitter during a major football tournament. I have plenty of people that would describe as friends whom I would never have had the opportunity to even speak to had it not been for this means of communication. The flip-side to this, however, is the constant onslaught of bad faith, opinions masquerading as definitive fact and sheer bellendery that Football Twitter is capable of summing forth during such a tournament. The points at which I closed my laptop lid, sucked some air through my teeth, and wandered off to get away from it all became almost daily as the tournament progressed, to a point at which the actual media content of any description that I was prepared to consume was so little as to be practically non-existent. It’s my own fault, of course. I never learn, even though the number of people who seem happy enough – whether inadvertently or not – to make everyone’s day incrementally that tiny bit worse seems to have no upper limit, whether through retweeting the very worst of humanity into my timeline, tedious club-related “banter” (you’d think we might get a few weeks off from this sort of thing during a World Cup, but apparently not), or that very modern feeling that no-one wants anybody else to ever enjoy anything and wants to share this with you.
During the months building up to this tournament there was considerable talk about boycotting these finals, and there were certainly plenty of people who chose to do so. We discussed this some time prior to the start of this tournament and our coverage was certainly stripped down, but one question itched at me throughout the matches: might this turn out to be the last World Cup worthy of the name? The next tournament will be held in the middle of the domestic season in the middle of an environment so hostile as to make the moving of it all from summer to winter a necessity, and it will feature an unwieldly-sounding forty-eight nations. A full boycott may or may not be more difficult to swerve in three and a half years time, but for those of us who make that decision, eight years is a long time to go without a World Cup finals. It’s impossible to say for certain whether this tournament will be an unmitigated disaster or not from this distance – many said that this summer’s would be, and they were mostly wrong – but what we know for certain is that it will be stage-managed with a charm offensive the likes of which the game has never seen before. As of right now, the only comment that I can make with any confidence is, “we shall see.”
Time, however, moves on, and this is as true for me as it is for anybody or anything else. With this in mind, it’s time to make an announcement. Since May 2006, Twohundredpercent has grown into something that I would never have imagined, but it’s time for me to reorganise my life. I still love writing, but the truth of the matter is that I can no longer justify spending as long as I do on it to myself. Viewing figures for this website have dropped by around 75% over the last five or six years. There are possible reasons as to why this might be – ranging from a lack of interest in what we’re producing to more general theories that people simply don’t have the attention span for anything like long form writing any more – but it all leads to an inevitable conclusion, that I can’t build a case for spending five or six hours researching and writing something that only a few dozen people are going to read. We overstretched ourselves with an e-magazine and podcast a couple of years ago, but the podcast has been reasonably well supported and reintroducing it for the World Cup has convinced me that this is the path we should follow, moving forward.
So, we’re currently working out the final details, but from the start of the new season Twohundredpercent will be moving to being primarily a podcast website. It’ll likely be released into the wild twice a week, and it’s likely that the two per week will have very different styles, but as soon as we know more we’ll let you know. I love writing too much to give it up completely, so I intend to write one long-form piece to be published every seven days, Mark Murphy will still be with us – we presume – and we’ll always be happy to host guest writers of any particular hue, but the website is to be redesigned to reflect this shift in our priorities. When I started writing here in the first place, it was with the 2006 World Cup finals in the front of my mind – indeed, I put literally no thought into whether I’d want to continue it after that year’s final – so it’s probably appropriate that it wraps up here in this sense, at this time. This place has given me more than I ever would have imagined it could, but it’s time to move on, just as it’s time for everybody to move on from our summer jolly to the new club season, which is waiting in the wings in all its horror and glory.