It’s a comment that has been more than once over the course of the last few months: what could it possibly say about the current kleptocracy that is FIFA that a significant proportion of the population of Brazil, the most storied nation in the history of the World Cup, have been turned against the tournament being held in their own country? The civil disturbances that marked last summer’s Confederations Cup there may or may not be repeated this time around, but what we can say with a degree of confidence is that there is, even in the event that talk of full blown disorder comes to nothing, a good chance that this summer’s World Cup will be accompanied by a an undercurrent of disquiet, to say the least.
What, though, of the rest of us? Watching from afar, we will, in spite of our misgivings concerning those that awarded the tournament to Brazil in the first place, still find ourselves as invested in it all as ever. We’ll swallow a small proportion of our principles and watch it all anyway. For those of us who consider ourselves addicts, the World Cup finals, with sixty-four matches to be played out over the course of four weeks, is our equivalent of freebasing. It’s the cleanest hit that we could ever hope for, and we only have the opportunity to get ourselves intoxicated by it every four years.
So, why do we put ourselves through it on spite of these misgivings, then? Well, I won’t pretend to speak for anyone else here, but from a personal perspective the World Cup finals are a an ongoing love affair which stretches back over more than three decades, and this love remains capable of inspiring butterflies in the pit of the stomach and a childlike sense of wonderment even after all this time. And if that feeling of excitement results in me staying up until the early hours of the morning to watch Cote d’Ivoire play Japan on the other side of the world and suffering most dreadfully for it at work the following day, then so be it. It’s totally worth it.
The World Cup finals often feel as if they may be the nearest that a ten year old boy might have to a fairytale that they could. After all, the plot of any individual tournament follows a plot arc which culminates with a happy ending, for one of the entrants at least. But the story of any football tournament will be considerably more nuanced than any children’s story could ever manage. As with any sporting event, sometimes the bad guys win, and the sting of disappointment at the feeling when our team makes its inevitable exit from the competition, even if it’s one that we’ve felt numerous times before, can be a difficult one to have to compute. Yet we keep coming back for more, every four years. In this respect, the World Cup finals are a love story, though perhaps not one in the conventional sense.
We might consider, for example, the fact that some of the most popular teams to ever have played in the tournament are those that failed to win it. When we talk of, say, the Hungarian team of 1954, the Dutch teams of 1974 and 1978 or the Brazilian team of 1982, we might consider that the “flaws” that cost those teams the trophy were actually more like characteristics that only made them more lovable. Hungary’s apparently chronic attachment to Ferenc Puskas was such that he played against West Germany even though their talisman was in no fit state to play is matched by the Netherlands’ failure to kill off a final that they could or should have won against the same opposition to decades later, whilst the lackadaisical defending of Brazil against Italy in 1982 proved to be the end of the team that was the most enjoyable to watch of all in that tournament. But whilst all three of these teams were ruthlessly punished for proving that to err is human, none of those that bested them are as fondly remembered outside of their own countries.
At an individual level, the inclusion of the impurity of flawed players in a team often only served to make them seem more human, and in some cases more memorable. That Brazil team of 1982 was perhaps the clearest example of this. Where the word “lummox” appears in the Oxford English Dictionary, there should be just a photograph of that team’s gangly striker Serginho whilst, at the other end of the pitch, goalkeeper Waldir Peres carried an endearing aura of haplessness about him which was most notably seen when allowing a Soviet Union shot to almost pass through his body during their opening match of the competition. That team might have been better without those two players – hell, it might even have won the competition – but that human, fallible element to the team quite likely means that it will live longer on the memory than, say, the technically flawless but oddly robotic Spanish team of four years ago.
In a broader sense, the attachment that we take from the paraphernalia of a World Cup Finals is also reminiscent of that which we take from a romantic relationship. Much as most of us have a song or two that will forever remind us of a significant partner, either past or present, so it is that “Nessun Dorma” will forever associated with the balmy Italian summer of 1990. Heading a little further towards relative obscurity, for men of a certain age – ie, me – a perfectly natural loathing of Andrew Lloyd Webber is tarnished an iota by the knowledge that he wrote “Jellicle Ball” from the musical “Cats”, the peculiar – but insanely effective – choice of the BBC for their coverage of the 1982 tournament in Spain.
We can and should hate FIFA for their increasingly obvious dubious practices. Of course we should. But the World Cup doesn’t, in spite of all the numerous occasions upon which they seek to tell us otherwise, belong to them. It belongs to us, and the few weeks building up to the tournament to come have seen excitement levels amongst both supporters and the press move towards an almost child-like pitch of excitement. We accept the World Cup into our lives every four years because what might be perceived as its flaws don’t matter to us when faced with the spectacle of it all. Perhaps this sort of excitement and unconditional love isn’t terribly fashionable these days, but I just can’t help myself.
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