My First World Cup: Beige & Brazil – Spain, 1982
Somewhere in the dimmest, darkest corner of my memory, amongst the names of various otherwise-forgotten Lyons Maid ice creams and Wade Whimsies (don’t ask your parents – they probably won’t remember) sits the story of how I became interested in football in the first place. It’s a piecemeal sort of story, written over several years and with no great “Eureka!” moment. I drifted into the game as dinosaurs, toy cars and – crucially, since I am today very much the adult equivalent of who I was as a child – maps and atlases started to fade towards being of little relevance to me.
I’d missed the last World Cup, of course. With England not represented and Scotland being considerably further from where I lived than France, I didn’t skip these finals through any sense of pre-pubescent sense of ennui or even political protest. I skipped them because I was a little shy of six years old and had no interest in it. Over the intervening four years, however, a switch slowly flicked in my head. First, it came through the Fifth Enfield Cub Scouts, for whose football team I scored on my debut (albeit off my knee, completely by accident, and as part of the sort of seven-nil shellacking that would turn out to be quite the feature of my football career, though all too seldom with me on the winning side), then through Enfield FC and their run to the Fourth Round of the FA Cup during the winter of the 1980/81 season, and eventually the playground of Bush Hill Park junior school, where I discovered that discussing the merits of Garth Crooks and Steve Archibald carried considerably greater weight than trying to engage classmates in the subjects of, say, how awesome pterosaurs are (and they are), or why the North Circular Road wasn’t really as circular as its name indicated it should be.
By the spring of 1982, I was hooked enough to a be a regular at Enfield matches, and local football excitement hit something of a fever pitch in May when Enfield and Tottenham Hotspur reached Wembley on consecutive Saturdays, in the FA Trophy and FA Cup finals respectively. We went by coach to the former (which Enfield won by a goal to nil – definitely a sign, though of what I had little idea), and watched the latter on the television, dismayed on the second of these Saturdays by the impudence of a Queens Park Rangers team who, I had been reliably informed by David Coleman et al before the match, were no-hopers and would roll over, allowing Spurs to fulfil the next instalment of what I considered to be their destiny of winning the FA Cup in every year that I was paying attention. Spurs scrambled over the line after a replay. I was indignant that they’d made such hard work of it in the first place. They’ve won the FA Cup once in the intervening thirty-six years.
Elsewhere, global events involving Britain were making newspaper headlines, but I’d done my homework and checked that Argentina didn’t have any nuclear weapons or friends that did, so the international match being played out between two armies and navies in the South Atlantic at that time didn’t overly concern me one way or the other. What did, however, was my own lack of understanding of a form of football that I hadn’t seen before. As I’d missed the 1978 World Cup finals and the 1980 European Championships, I had no frame of reference for tournament football, but the BBC’s 1982 Match Of The Day annual was on hand to give me some form of grounding in the shape of a lengthy article – with suitably other-worldly looking pictures – of the Mundialito, the “little World Cup” held in Uruguay in 1980 between each of the previous winners of the World Cup to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the first finals. England, I didn’t spot until was into my forties and no longer gave a shit, were not present. It’s a good job I didn’t notice, too. I’d have been furious.
Mundialito (a tournament that I saw nothing of on the television and still haven’t to this day) gave me a rough approximation of a grounding in what tournament football might look like, then, but what of Spain and this World Cup itself? The answer to this, as for so many other children over the last three of four decades, came from Panini. I can’t claim anything like the depths of Proustian rush that seem to overcome others when talking about old football stickers. I only ever completed one album – perhaps tellingly, it was the 1982/83 album – but the 1982 World Cup album itself, with its two pages of venues in towns of which I’d never heard – Alicante! Valladolid! Bilbao! – was enough to get me scrambling for my atlas, all the more so when I considered countries such as Kuwait, El Salvador and Peru, each of which had only previously existed to me in a theoretical sense as places for which the name of the capital city must be learned and nothing else. I never completed the Panini 82 World Cup sticker album, but a near-empty version of it with just a few pictures scattered across it was enough for me.
And then the tournament started. Or rather, it didn’t. On a balmy Sunday evening in Barcelona the 1982 World Cup finals got under way, but you wouldn’t have known this back at home. No-one was showing the opening match live (ITV, it turned out, had the rights to it but claimed that they didn’t want to upset the watching audience by screening an Argentina win, a decision which sounded even more stupid when we remember that Belgium won by a goal to nil – the first opening match of a World Cup finals not to finish goalless in twenty years), so the following afternoon’s drab goalless draw between Italy and Poland turned out to be my introduction to the thrill-a-minute, Technicolor world of World Cup football. There was a lot of chatter about Paolo Rossi, brought into the Italian squad after serving a ban for match-fixing, and the age of Italy’s captain and goalkeeper, Dino Zoff, but not a great deal of action on the actual pitch itself. Italy squeezed through the group stages with three draws from their three matches.
Much of what I remember of the early stages of the 1982 World Cup finals is sensory. I remember my inertia at being told that “we” had won the Falklands War when it came over the news shortly before one of the opening matches of the tournament – three and a half decades on, I still can’t summon up the energy to have an opinion on the sovereignty of the place, one way or the other. I remember the contrast between the beige of both the BBC and ITV’s coverage of the tournament – the colour of the studios largely seemed to be matched in the sports casual look employed by the middle-aged men looking down on it all – and the over-saturated television footage from Spain. I remember my surprise at the sound which accompanied these pictures apparently coming via a satellite stationed just the other side of Mars, such was its paucity of quality, and “Jellicle Ball”, the inexplicably appropriate music from the musical “Cats” which the BBC chose as its title music, the near-atonal crescendo-cum-coda to which would become such a familiar sound to British TV audiences that summer.
And more than anything else, I remember the Brazil team. I remember the sweat patches on their shirts, which seemed to send parts of them a strange shade of lilac, the goalkeeper, Waldir Peres, who looked as though he should probably have been street sweeping rather than keeping goal in an international tournament, the languid genius of Socrates, and the malfunctioning centre-forward, Serginho. That team is burned into my retinas, and they’ve undergone revision after revision in the years since those finals, but their ultimate truth is that other great teams of the past, they fell foul of the fact that the best team in the world at any given time often isn’t that which lifts the World Cup.
After coasting through the first group stage, the Brazil hype machine revved up to maximum power. Their second round group hadn’t been meant to be like this, of course. Only the relative haplessness of both Argentina and Italy in finishing in second place in their respective first round groups had left them in a group of three with the favourites to win the tournament, and when Italy beat Argentina in the group’s opening match the big story was the apparent roughhousing of Diego Maradona at the hands of Italy’s Claudio Gentile and the fact that the holders now had to convincingly beat Brazil and hope that Brazil could lose to Italy but only by the right margin in order to stay in the competition. The second match, between Brazil and Argentina at La Sarria in Barceona, was hyped in the media as “Star Wars”, but there wasn’t very much of a star-studded nature going on from an Argentina standpoint, as Brazil won by three goals to one and Maradona, playing as though carrying the weight of the world upon his shoulders, lashed out at substitute Batista, who’d only been on the pitch a few minutes but had already caught Maradona with a very high tackle, and earned himself a red card. To see Maradona walk from the pitch was to witness the final act of Argentina as champions of the world. We didn’t know they’d be back, bigger and stronger, four years later, of course.
The day of the match between the final second group match between Brazil and Italy was a double-header with England’s fading chances of progressing through to the semi-finals. England had started explosively, with a comfortable win against a France team that would end up reaching the semi-finals themselves, but had tailed off dramatically since then. They’d managed a 100% record from the group stages, but the win against Czechoslovakia – missed on my part due to a scout camping weekend – had been a little flattering with its two-nil scoreline (and featured the only own goal of the entire tournament) and the final group match, a one-nil win against Kuwait, was largely forgotten within ten minutes of the full-time whistle blowing. A goalless draw with West Germany in the first match of the next group stage had seemed like a decent result at the time, before West Germany returned to the Bernabeu to beat the hosts by two goals to one, leaving England needing to beat Spain by two goals to get through themselves.
We all know the story of how that particular day played out, of course. Brazil, needing a draw to edge through to the semi-finals, fell behind to Italy twice before pegging them back, only for Italy’s third goal to prove a step too far in the searing Barcelona sun. All three of Italy’s goals were presented as some form of “rehabilitation” for Rossi, as though scoring goals was atonement for the match-fixing that had seen him banned for two years in the first place, and Brazil, the favourites, the flawed geniuses, were out. That evening, England fired blanks for a second match in a row against the hosts and were out as well. Paul Mariner and Tony Woodcock, who started that game up front for England (and whose presence on the pitch itself demonstrated why England weren’t going to win the 1982 tournament) would never come this close again, with Kevin Keegan’s (probably irrelevant) fluffed header from six yards out after his introduction to the game from the substitutes bench providing a fittingly deflationary air to the evening.
The last week of my tournament was overwhelmed by other considerations, though. My father had landed a job and house in the Hertfordshire countryside the previous autumn, thirty miles geographically but a thousand miles psychologically from everything I, having been raised to this point on estates in North London to the point that I more or less believed concrete to be a naturally occurring substance, had ever known. I’d passed the announcement that we were moving with a hissy fit so monumental in severity that it still makes me blush to think of it to this day, and visiting the tiny village to which we’d be moving had done little to comfort me in the belief that I was about to lose everything and my dread at having to start this whole “making friends” thing again from scratch. I watched the semi-finals between taped up boxes of all my family’s worldly possessions. We were moving on the Saturday, the day before the final, and one of my biggest fears was that we’d arrive to find there to be no television aerial on the rooftop of the new house.
This particular fear turned out to be unfounded, not that this made any difference on the day that we moved, because neither the BBC nor ITV were showing the third-place play-off between Poland and France live anyway. The following evening, though, I was rooted in front of the television as Italy beat West Germany by three goals to one to lift the trophy. I had no preference regarding who I wanted to win. I was aware that England had once won the World Cup by beating West Germany and that the Germans had taken their revenge by beating England in Mexico four years later, but this hadn’t manifested itself into any sort of enmity, even if I wasn’t terribly keen on their goalkeeper Harald Schumacher following his assault on France’s Patrick Battiston during their semi-final four days earlier. When Dino Zoff lifted the trophy at the end of the match, though, I did wonder how it felt to be Italian at that moment, to be the champions of the football world. Thirty-six years later, I still usually wonder the same thing at the end of a tournament.
As the BBC reverted back to their talking heads, I ran into the garden with my football in my hand. This was a luxury that I’d never felt before, to be able to run into a garden late in the evening, with the fading of light still offering just enough vision to be able to kick the ball around for a while. On those estates in London, going out in the evening hadn’t quite been forbidden, but it was strictly monitored. Here, as I realised for the first time, these restrictions were looser. Our new house was in the middle of nowhere, with no neighbours to annoy and no gardens for my wayward shots to fly into. Football on demand during the summer months was a sweet deal that I hadn’t previously considered, and a couple of months later, on my tenth birthday, my present was a six foot by three foot goal with taut yellow netting. My very own goal posts and nets, in my very own back garden. It would take me a while to get used to a completely different lifestyle in a village of barely four hundred people, but football, just as it has done on countless occasions as an adult, played more than its part in softening the blows rained upon me by life in a more general sense.