They say, of course, that the best World Cup finals is the one that was held when you were ten years old. In the summer of 1982, I was three months shy of my tenth birthday and this tournament marked the consummation of a love affair that had been growing, steadily and inexorably, for the previous three years or so, and in addition to this there was the small matter of the first involvement of the England team at this stage of the competition for the first time since two summers before I was born. At the end of a season which had finished with Enfield winning the FA Trophy and Spurs winning the FA Cup within a week and a half of each other, I was, just about, at fever pitch.
My excitement levels had been sent skywards by marketing men, of course. A combination of the purchase of a Panini sticker album by my parents for the forthcoming tournament – little did they know what they were letting themselves in for there – and the gift, the previous Christmas, of the 1982 Match Of The Day annual had guaranteed this. When commentators wring their hands over such nefarious activities as in-game purchases on mobile phone apps, I’m usually reminded of the wild glint in the eye of ten year olds the length and breadth of the nation three decades earlier as searching for the missing stickers required to complete a collection became increasingly desperate.
The Match Of The Day annual affected me in a subtly different way. It was a lavish production, featuring interviews with the entire BBC commentary team and pages of minutae about this summer jamboree. Photographs of sun-kissed Spanish stadia jostled for my attention with exotic pictures of players whose names might as well have been alternative working titles for that year’s film of the year, ET. Zico, the new Pele, if the experts were to be believed, was just one of a near entire team of Brazilians who rejoiced in just the one name. Perhaps, I thought to myself in the superficially logical but hopelessly wrong way that primary school children tend to, that’s just how people are named in Brazil.
This sense of over-excitement seemed to have spread its tentacles everywhere. Quite asides from anything else, FIFA had expanded this tournament to twenty-four teams, meaning a byzantine system by which the top two teams from each of the six groups would go on to play in four groups of three, with the winners of those groups making up the four semi-finalists. It also meant an influx of teams into the tournament about which the general viewing public knew just about nothing – Honduras, El Salvador and New Zealand, for example – which led to a suspicion that, whilst there might a degree of imbalance in some matches, there was also the distinct possibility of a surprise or two, in the group stages, at least, a hope that seemed to have some legs when Edwin Vandenbergh scored the only goal on a balmy Sunday evening at Camp Nou to give Belgium a one-nil win against the defending champions Argentina in the opening match.
England’s progress in the competition, meanwhile, was later described, by narrator Sean Connery on “G’olé”, the official film of the tournament, as being, “like a countdown at Cape Canaveral – three… two… one… zero.” There was more than an element of truth to this, both literally and metaphorically. England started with a three-one win against France in their opening match, and won all three of their group matches, but with Kevin Keegan – who’d been the European Footballer of the Year in both 1978 and 1979 – in the squad but too injured to play, the goals dried up. Still, though, Ron Greenwood’s team could exit with its head held high, unbeaten in five matches and having kept clean sheets in four of those five, they were eventually eliminated after only mustering two goalless draws against the then-European champions West Germany and host nation Spain in the seond group stage.
In comparison with the other home nations, though, England’s progress to this stage of the tournament was uneventful. Scotland, for whom a balloon of hubris had been spectacularly punctured four years earlier in Argentina, had a difficult group to get through and eventually went out after failing to beat the USSR in their final match, the killer blow coming when Alan Hansen and Willie Miller collided with highly comedic effect to allow Ramaz Shengalia a clear run on goal to give the USSR a two-one lead with seven minutes to play. Even another equaliser three minutes later from Graeme Souness wasn’t enough to save Scotland’s skin. Northern Ireland, in their first major tournament finals in twenty-four years, fared better, though. A Gerry Armstrong goal after a fumble by goalkeeper Luis Arconada was enough for them to beat the hosts in Valencia, and they were eventually knocked out in the second group stage after drawing with Austria and losing to France.
Elsewhere, the holders and the favourites also fell by the wayside in the second group stage of the competition. Argentina picked themselves up from their opening defeat to scramble their way through to the second group stage, but then tumbled out with defeats against both Brazil and Italy. Brazil, meanwhile, had their best team since 1970 and were nonchalantly dazzling in their opening group matches but, needing only a draw from their final match against Italy, their lackadaisicalness caught up with them. Sloppy at both ends of the pitch, they lost to Italy after having led twice in perhaps the finest and most dramatic World Cup finals match ever played. As if to prove that history doesn’t repeat itself but people do, all three of Italy’s goals in that match were scored by Paolo Rossi, who had just returned to the team after serving a two year ban over his involvement – which he has always disputed – in the 1980 Totonero match-fixing scandal. Criticised as out of shape upon his return, Italy had squeezed through their first group on goals scored after three uninspiring draws, against Poland, Peru and Cameroon.
For almost ten year-old Ian, though, the importance of the mechanics of the competition started to wear off once the experience of it all started to sink in. The television coverage was superb. The BBC added a sense of occasion to it all with the slightly odd – but certainly dramatic – “Jellicle Ball” from the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical “Cats” as its opening title music, whilst both in the studio and the commentary gantry, short-sleeves may have been the order of the day on account of the weather, but they also lent an end of term jamboree feel to the whole event. Colours seemed over-saturated by the television cameras, giving matches am almost cartoonish feel, while the sound of commentaries coming down a muffled telephone line whilst ten thousand horns blared away in the background added to the feeling that these matches were being beamed into our living rooms, not from another European country, but from another planet.
I watched the final, between Italy and West Germany, not in a council flat in North London, but on a portable television balanced precariously on an upturned suitcase in a house just outside of London that we’d moved into the day before. The 1982 World Cup final wasn’t a classic, unless you were Italian. It might not have looked as if it was going to be their evening when Antonio Cabrini dragged a penalty kick – the first to be missed in a World Cup final – wide of the post in the first half, but West Germany never really turned up, and second half goals from Paolo Rossi, Marco Tardelli (whose delirious post-goal celebration was certainly the defining image of the match, and possibly of the whole tournament) and Alessandto Altobelli put the result beyond any doubt, with Paul Breitner scoring the most desultory of consolation goals for West Germany. I didn’t see this. I was already in the garden, a football at my feet, replaying the match in my head.
Even after more than 1,300 words and at a thirty-year remove, I still feel as if I haven’t quite done it justice. France and West Germany’s epic semi-final, a match which demonstrated the extent to which the bad guys can win. West Germany and Austria, and accusations of collusion between the two, whose match – which ended in exactly the result needed to send both through to the second group stage at the expense of Algeria, who had already beaten West Germany in one of the previous matches – resulted in the requirement for all final round group matches to kick-of at the same time from 1986 on. Hungary putting ten goals past El Salvador. Brazil turning on the style against the USSR and Scotland. Kuwait’s on-pitch protest against France after a whistle from the crowd caused their players to stop and France to score. They say that the best World Cup finals is the one that was held when you were ten years old. It’s an opinion that I’m inclined to agree with.
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