I’m at the wrong age. This struck home when I had an idea for an article for this web-site about the 23-man line-up which could be constituted from the rejects of the other nations’ squads. But before I could tap in “Maradona’s a loony tune for leaving Esteban Cambiasso out”, I discovered that the, ulp, Daily Mail had already delivered on the plan. So, here’s me, in the prime of 44, already a reactionary. I was the wrong age in World Cup terms too, as a child of the seventies who watched Brazil and Jairzinho in the World Cup – but not the 1970 vintage, all “sheer delightful football” even when Pele was missing open goals. No, I got the 1974 “vintage” with rugby tackling centre-halves, Jairzinho with a microphone haircut which would have had him thrown out of the Stylistics for garishness and Rivelino straight from the set of a spaghetti western.
I remember nothing of the second-half of the 1974 final, or anything very much of Holland’s total football throughout the tournament. For some reason, microphone hair-cuts lingered longer in the memory – Germany’s Paul Breitner, for instance, scoring a 35-yarder against Chile. At half-time in the final, though, I went into our back garden and tried to score a goal just like Germany’s Gerd Muller had, twisting in seven-and-a-half different directions before dribbling a shot into the net. I’ve always walked a bit funny, I’m told. But I don’t think I did until that afternoon.
Scotland were “Britain” for three weeks as England were in their 1970s break from important tournaments. I was bored numb during Scotland’s second half against Zaire, where they sat back on a 2-0 lead while some monotonous English toff droned on in commentary (Ramsey, I think his name was). But I was as excited as I’ve ever been over a 0-0 draw when Scotland held Brazil five days and would have won if someone (Bremner?) hadn’t missed from a yard out. I didn’t know then, of course, that Brazil were rugby-tackling centre-halves, Stylistics stunt doubles and Lee Van Cleef.
I was properly into football when Argentina ’78 came round. However, a lot of the big games were midnight affairs, so I had to content myself with the games which started just after school. These, though, included a France/Hungary game with a flood of goals and one of the sides having to wear the local team’s green-and-white striped shirts because the two teams had brought the same kit. They also included Welsh referee Clive Thomas, the Graham Poll of his day, disallowing Brazil’s winner against Sweden because he blew the final whistle after a corner was taken but before the ball was headed in.
Argentina ’78 produced a lot of iconic images. The ticker-tape at Argentina’s games, Holland’s Arie Haan scoring from ever-increasing distances, Hans Krankl’s volleyed winner for Austria against West Germany which was celebrated like it avenged Anschluss, Peru’s mad goalkeeper Ramon Quiroga – booked for a foul on the halfway line. But the image of a stern-faced Thomas pointing to his watch, surrounded by indignant Brazilians (Rivelino forming a posse in the background), is as iconic as any of them, petty officiousness for a global audience, Thomas living his dream.
1982 was my first whole tournament. And I can still hear ITV pundit, ex-Norwich manager John Bond nearly crying out the words, “the World Cup is over for me now” after Italy beat Brazil 3-2 in still the most exciting international I’ve ever seen. These Brazilians were real. There was a 2-1 thrashing of the Soviet Union and a 4-1 against Scotland, who were as good in ’82 as they thought they were in ’78, but were nowhere near good enough for Zico, Socrates, Eder, Falcao or Junior – though centre-forward Serginho was a horse’s arse, think Zlatan Ibrahimovic laying waste to another Barcelona passing move.
The rest of the tournament was second best. England scored after 16 seconds of their first World Cup finals match for 12 years, but got gradually worse after that. They were unbeaten and only conceded once but no-one recalls that. The injured Kevin Keegan and Trevor Brooking, their best players, were only fit enough for twenty minutes of the last game; Keegan’s face the memorable picture, as he missed a late sitter and sunk to his knees. England’s biggest success in ’82 was, improbably, Jimmy Greaves, whose ITV debut was impressively witty. We didn’t know then, of course, that we’d seen his whole act, and that “Saint and Greavsie” awaited us. But he was funny for a bit. Everyone remembers Marco Tardelli’s celebration of his goal in the final. But Falcao was similarly manic after scoring Brazil’s fabulous second against Italy. Tardelli should never have been there.
Mexico ’86 was a curate’s egg of a tournament, with an England campaign to match. Long shots flew through the rarefied air, with Belgium and the Soviet Union the unlikely participants in the match of this tournament, 4-3 to the Soviets, with every goal – I seem to recall – bursting the net from Arie Haan-range. Denmark were wonderful, their 6-1 destruction of a destructive Uruguay pure footballing justice. Sadly Scotland couldn’t dispense the same after Steve Nicol was kicked into the Gulf Stream in the second minute of their match against the South American psychotics.
Instead, the highlight of Scotland’s tournament was Gordon Strachan trying to leapfrog the unfeasibly large advertising hoardings, as per the standard goal celebration of the tournament. Strachan couldn’t, as they say, get his leg over. But his cheeky, impish sense of fun has been an unerring source of popularity ever since, as I’m sure you’ll all agree. Although I was a firm Republic of Ireland fan by 1986, I was never made to feel as English as when watching the knock-out stages of the Mexico tournament in Ireland. The “hand of God” wasn’t an issue to my Irish cousins. They pointed out, correctly, that it was just something for England to “hang their hat on” after being outplayed by Argentina – “who’s that old git in the centre circle?” asked a cousin, laughing at Peter Reid.
The real quarter-final injustice was elsewhere. France’s 1-1 draw with Brazil was “magic carpet football” thanks to the sophistication of the passing on a perfect pitch. But France won on penalties after their third penalty hit the post and rebounded into the net off whichever bystander had won the raffle to play in goal for Brazil that afternoon. The penalty was missed as soon as the ball travelled backwards. But no-one, player, spectator, official or pundit (on Irish TV, at least) seemed to know this. Neither France nor Brazil were quite up to their 1982 vintages, but Brazil would have beaten… that West Germany side. Never can two sides as bad as the Germans of ‘82 & ‘86 been so successful in a World Cup Finals. Still, as RTE pundit Eamon Dunphy so neatly put it, “Maradona can’t play.” As England, Belgium and, eventually, West Germany soon discovered. About both Maradona and Dunphy, there was more to come. Which turned out to be a shame.