The World Cup: a measure of life

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

“I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,” wrote T.S. Eliot in one of his poems. I know exactly what he means. I have measured out my life with cups, World Cups.

The significant moments in my life – meeting special people, saying goodbye to others, obtaining academic qualifications and reaching career milestones – all seem to have coincided with international football’s top tournament every four years. Obviously, things have happened in between World Cups but my recollection of them is a little blurry – like vaguely remembering the name of someone you met at a party while on your way to greet another person you actually wanted to talk to.

Every four years, I become the object of ridicule as I read up on the participating teams like a scientist preparing for a job interview at NASA, check the TV schedule with the fastidiousness of a railway stationmaster and spread out my World Cup wall chart like a general preparing for battle. I go through this ritual each time because I have always regarded the World Cup as a unique learning experience. “All that I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football,” wrote Albert Camus. To paraphrase him, most of the important things I have learnt about life, I owe to the World Cup.

My first memories are of the 1982 tournament in Spain, when I would rush home from school during gloomy English summer afternoons to watch the teams play in the brilliant Iberian sunshine. The first incident that made an impression on me was in the Kuwait v France group game when the French, already 3-1 up, scored a fourth goal. Bizarrely, the Kuwait defenders stood still, allowing the French to hit the back of the net. They immediately remonstrated with the referee, claiming they had heard him blow the whistle during the build up to the goal. A sheikh who was president of the Kuwaiti federation stormed onto the pitch and demanded that the goal be cancelled. The Russian referee eventually caved in. I watched agog – this wasn’t the World Cup, this was my playground game being broadcast on TV. It was at that point that the tournament taught me my first lesson: there are no children and adults in this world, just small children and bigger ones.

Spain 1982 was also my first experience of Brazilian brilliance. The 1982 team is regarded by some as the most beautiful side never to have won the tournament. Echoing the remarkable Brazilian World Cup-winning team of 1970 – generally deemed to be the most entertaining to have won the trophy – the Brazil of 1982 played with panache and abandon, radiating optimism. Watching their yellow shirts dart across the screen felt like liquid sunshine was flooding into the room. Years later, I would read a book written by Garry Jenkins about Brazil’s 1970 victory, and his memories of watching the team on small colour TV in a tiny Welsh Village. “All coffee browns and ebony blacks, cobalt blues and canary yellows, their players and their playing came in shades I had never seen before. They have occupied a sun-kissed corner of my mind ever since,” he wrote in “The Beautiful Team.” I knew exactly what he meant.

The Brazil of 1982 would succumb to the eventual winners, Italy, in an epic game that finished 3-2. This match provided me with two more useful lessons. Firstly, Brazil’s defeat at the hands of the less imaginative but much more functional Italians made it clear that the most worthy are not always rewarded. Secondly, I came to realise that no boundaries, be they geographical, social or emotional, can contain the unifying power of sport. We were driving through what was then Yugoslavia when the Italians were taking on Brazil. We stopped at a village for something to eat but found the streets completely deserted. Like extras in a spaghetti western, we searched for signs of life before stumbling on the locals ensconced in cafe, watching the game together in absolute fascination. Ten years later, this same group of people would be torn apart by ethnic war.

In 1986, the football world gathered in Mexico and I was given special parental dispensation to stay up to watch the games being played in exotic-sounding places like Guadalajara and the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City. Two memories stand out from this summer – the first is recreating scenes from the World Cup on the football pitch with my schoolmates. We were all given names of the players we resembled and lunch breaks immediately became flights of fantasy in the afternoon sun. The other memory is more of a childhood trauma, which involved sitting on an Athens balcony on a hot summer night and watching Argentinean midfield genius Diego Maradona punch the ball into the net to set his team on the way to knocking my beloved England out of the tournament. Aged 11, I was in a complete state of shock. I did not for a second believe that authorities would let this stand and was convinced that the next day football’s world governing body, FIFA, would order the game to be replayed. When this didn’t happen, I started a petition. I only ever got around to collecting three signatures – two of them were my parents’ and the other was my grandmother’s. She had no idea who this dastardly Maradona chap was but he had clearly upset her grandson and that was all the reason she needed to sign on the dotted line.

My indignation at Maradona’s cheating blinded me to the sublime nature of his second goal against England that day, as he danced passed player after player to score what many believe is the best World Cup finals goal. Years later I would be able to marvel at how his balance and strength were for a few seconds in complete harmony with his improvisation and creativity. But in the summer of 1986, I was too busy coming to terms with the fact that cheaters sometimes get away with it and that fairness can prove as elusive in life as a stocky man from the slums of Buenos Aires weaving his way towards goal.

In Italy four years later, there was more anguish for England as they were eliminated by West Germany in the semi-finals. The match became synonymous with the tears of young English midfielder Paul Gascoigne, who was inconsolable after England’s defeat. I shared in his tearful dejection. The obliviousness of youth meant that I had never considered defeat was a possibility for the team I was supporting. Coping with its reality proved a test of my emotions. Coming a few months after my mother’s death, England’s loss revealed to me that pain and disappointment don’t come in neat packages but that they can crash in on you like waves, one after another, and you either stand up to them or face being swept away. Gascoigne, known simply as “Gazza” in England, never fully recovered from his disappointment in Turin in 1990. Although his career lasted almost another decade, it was blighted by injury, controversy and drink and drug problems. Gascoigne is still struggling with his demons in retirement and is a stark example of how fame can destroy people as well as create stars.

It was Gazza’s tears that first made me aware of the fact that I was not the only one experiencing moments of clarity thanks to the World Cup. It was also happening on a collective level. England’s unlikely run to the semi-final in 1990 and its unjust defeat to the Germans prompted a rare awakening of people’s conscience back home. It led to England increasingly trying to establish and project its identity through sport. More importantly though, the English had recast themselves in the role of gallant losers who wanted to be loved rather than aloof snobs. The game against the West Germans inspired a play, a film, a documentary and a host of books suggesting that England had emerged from the embarrassment of the hooligan- and Thatcherism-filled 80s with a new creative, positive energy.

At this point, I began to join the dots and connect the significance of what was happening on the field of play with what was taking place beyond the confines of football. This link was described most eloquently by journalist Arthur Hopcraft in his 1968 book “The Football Man”. “It [football] has more significance to the national character than theatre has,” he wrote. “What happens on the football field matters, not in the way food matters but as poetry does to some people – the way we play the game, organise it and reward it reflects the kind of community we are.”

My first visit to a World Cup was in 1998 when France hosted the tournament and the local team’s victory was certainly taken as a reflection of the successful integration of different ethnicities and nationalities in the country’s social fabric. Such powerful symbols are too important for politicians to ignore and it was at this tournament that I became acutely aware of how desperate leaders are to bask in sport’s glory. French President Jacques Chirac – who along the country’s other politicians had been largely oblivious to the tournament until France started to do well – attended the final with a France scarf awkwardly draped over his shoulders, looking as if he had mistakenly put on one of his wife’s shawls for the evening. If the Brazilian strikers had displayed the same opportunism against France in the final, he would have little to celebrate and no opinion poll “bounce” to enjoy after the match.

The enthusiasm displayed in Germany eight years later was much more genuine. I experienced first-hand a nation that embraced the event – not just its own team – and used the World Cup as an opportunity to break down stereotypes. This attitude was reflected in the country’s national team, which played with a freedom and attacking spirit that was untypical of its predecessors as it progressed to the semi-finals, where it was beaten by Italy. The Italians defeated France in the final, where it’s captain and the epitome of racial equilibrium, Zinedine Zidane, was sent off for headbutting an opponent.

Zidane’s dismissal proved to be the moment when French harmony began to disintegrate. Just as the team imploded at this year’s World Cup amid a bitter exchange of insults between players and coaching staff, so France appears a society ill at ease with itself and in search of a collective identity.

Germany is another country which is going through turmoil – political rather than social. Once the spiritual and physical driving force of the European Union, Germany is now suffering a crisis of conscience. So, it was no surprise to see Chancellor Angela Merkel in the stands of South Africa’s stadiums, cheering on her country’s young, effervescent team, hoping some of the positivity would rub off. In their progress to the semifinal, their determination to attack games rather than to rely on the all-out defensive tactics that have been popular with many teams helped to dispel the image of Germans as cautious conservatives who could not inspire others to admire or respect them. “In the history of German football, there have been many successes but they were expected, hard-fought and enforced. Achieved with limited skills, with accomplished destroyers who made life difficult for the star opponents, with iron feet, iron calves and an iron will,” wrote Die Welt daily after Germany’s historic 4-1 win over England in the second round. “Often our national team was strangely alien to us. We wanted to love them but we were unable to. They often found their way into the semi-finals and finals but rarely into the hearts of fans.”

The performance of individual teams apart, South Africa’s World Cup has taken football’s significance to another level. First of all, there was an opportunity for Africans to come together, especially when Ghana were the continent’s last remaining representatives in the competition. “Ghana’s exploits, and the team’s epically tragic exit, arguably did more for grassroots African unity in a few days than the African Union did over decades,” wrote Simon Tisdall in The Guardian on July 7. “It also re-focused attention on the lack of African coaches and under-investment in the sport and the young people that play it.” FIFA certainly wanted to make this last aspect – offering young South Africans an opportunity to learn football – to be a lasting legacy of this World Cup, The efforts that have been made so far have been laudable. Whether they will have a lasting impact remains to be seen. However, one of this tournament’s greatest legacies will be something that FIFA could never plan. It’s the fact that thousands of Europeans, Asians, North and South Americans have had first-hand experience of the huge divide in living standards that exist in South Africa and of the barriers that still exist in this beautiful country. It’s the thousands of foreigners who have visited Robben Island over the last few weeks and have been reminded or made aware of the damage that hate can wreak. It’s the fact that outsiders have had an opportunity to contribute to South Africa’s future, like the group of England fans who built an orphanage in the Valley of a Thousand Hills. The World Cup won’t make South Africa a fair or equal society but if it can help push it in that direction, then it’s been a worthwhile effort.

So, now we look to Sunday’s final between the Netherlands and Spain, which will no doubt also provide plenty to absorb. The winners will see at as confirmation that their country is doing something right while the losers will hold an inquest into what they are doing wrong. For the rest of us, there will be something very tangible to take away from the game – it will be less than 1,460 days until the next tournament begins in Brazil, when we can all attempt to measure out our lives, individually or collectively, again.

Nick Malkoutzis

4 responses to “The World Cup: a measure of life

  1. 2000 words on the WC and no mention of holland (ok, ok i see you added a new paragraph at the end) or panagoulias?????????????

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