Friday, February 10, 2006

sprechen sie fußball?

17 weeks to the start of the World Cup Finals 2006 in Germany, and I feel duty bound to spread the word about the planet’s most popular sport’s biggest festival, so I will post every Friday until after the tournament is over.

This week’s bout of nostalgia is all about my first taste of World Cup action.


The hometown team celebrate - on the ground, both the famous confetti and the dejected Dutch

My grandfather handed me a folded up piece of paper and said in his whispery tone with a broad smile : “I think this will interest you.” Little did he know that in actual fact he was giving me my first heavy dose in what was to become a lifelong addiction to the world’s most popular game.

If you were to ask football historians to tell you about the World Cup Finals tournament which was held in Argentina in the summer of 1978, they could tell you many stories about the drama surrounding it.

First, there was the question of international outrage at General Videla’s totalitarian regime in the country, which almost led to the event being cancelled altogether. The sport’s governing body, FIFA, eager to discourage mixing too much with politics, persuaded everyone to participate regardless.

Then, there were the various sub-plots within the competition itself. There was the host nation, eager to win the famous trophy for the first time.

There was the Dutch team, playing for the first time in its heydey without the legendary Johann Cruyff.

There was Scotland’s participation, as they found themselves in the unique position of being the sole represetatives of the so-called “home nations” [the others being England, Wales and Northern Ireland, all of whom failed to qualify].

As for my home team, the Republic of Ireland, qualifying for the finals was nothing but a pipedream at this point.

The historian would no doubt tell you how Scotland came within a goal of advancing beyond the first phase of the tournament, for despite being held to a disappointing 1-1 draw by unfancied Iran, they managed to pull off a shock by beating Holland but unfortunately not by enough.

He would then tell you of the suspicious nature of Argentina’s last second phase game. Needing to win by at least four goals against what had previously been an impressive Peruvian side, their opponents seemed to be subject to some kind of Inca curse and allowed themselves to be whipped 6-0 which denied Barzil a berth in the final.

Although the 18-year-old Diego Maradona was not considered to be ready for the international arena, Argentina still triumphed in the final 3-1 over Holland with great players such as Osvaldo Ardiles, Daniel Passarella, and leading scorer Mario Kempes.

But I can assure you, absolutely NONE of the above facts mattered to me as the tournament was progressing.

Regular ABOPATOS readers will know my grandparents brought me to Ireland from the USA in 1977. If you are irregular, now you know too. I was thus thrown headfirst into a new school with new boys with new accents, and they even played sports that were new to me.

Although rugby was the prevalent sport in my school, it wasn’t a very practical game to play at recess, and so instead we used to play football. Eager to fit in, I did my best to participate. Everyone would be talking about clubs like Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal, so I felt compelled to choose my own, and I plumped for Tottenham Hotspur.

Before leaving California I guess I was beginning to develop an interest in team spectator sports, but I remember the one thing that used to fascinate me more than anything – the statistics, in particular the league standings.

For some reason, probably because I was destined to be a number geek, I enjoyed looking at league standings, and working out what the numbers in the various columns stood for. I used to have graph paper and I would copy them out from the newspaper and make them as neat as possible.

When I started to follow soccer after the great emigration, I realised that this new game had just as much to offer in the line of numbers; in fact, the European leagues contained WAY more teams than the American ones. I was in my element.

No doubt my grandfather had found several of my transcripts of league tables and various stats lying around the house, which was why he approached me on this particular day with the folded up piece of paper. With great curiosity I opened it out to see what it was.

The Official Sunday Times World Cup Wallchart 1978. What you see in the picture is a similar one from 2002.

I’m not 100% sure on the actual paper it came from, but I do know my grandpa had a penchant for the English broadsheets after we moved here. Again, such details meant nothing to the 9-year-old me.

The chart was full of pictures, packed with information on all of the 16 countries taking part in the World Cup finals, but most importantly, there were the spaces where you could fill in the results as they happened and track the progress of the event all the way to the final.

In many ways following international football did wonders for my learning about the world as a whole. When it comes to information, I can never have enough, so I had to consult our National Geographic Atlas of the World (which we still have) to see where all these countries were located.

By the time the opening game of the tournament kicked-off, I was bang up to speed with what was going on. OK - maybe I wasn’t completely sure about all the rules of the game as yet, but I guarantee you I could tell you who was playing who on any given day. As soon as the final whistle blew in each contest, I’d run upstairs and log the score on my chart, and then work out how it affected the standings, and I wondered how the outcome of the next game could affect them further.

“Man, what a geek” I hear you cry. Well, I was an only child raised by his grandparents in what was still a strange country. It all seemed perfectly normal to me.

Needless to say I was beside myself with anticipation on the day of the final. Who was going to win – the hometown boys or Europe’s remaining representatives the Dutch? Given all the pomp and circumstance surrounding the home team, my loyalty was with them. I must have also been amazed at the sea of confetti which was streaming from the crowd before every Argentina game, a sight that became synonymous with the ’78 World Cup.

I would have been on the edge of my seat for the entire game, especially since the sides being level 1-1 after the regulation 90 minutes meant there was to be an extra half hour of excitement, which led to Mario Kempes assuring himself a place in national sporting folklore by breaking the deadlock. Bertoni added a third to kickoff one hell of a party on the streets of Buenos Aires.

Back in Dublin, once the trophy was handed over and the telecast ran through its credits, I went upstairs and scribble “3” and “1” on the chart, and even added the letters “aet” to signify that the result was after extra time. Then I must have thought “Now what?”

Well, it was the end of June, so in just over a month’s time, the new English club season was due to begin. My team Tottenham were to become one of the first to sign World Cup heroes from abroad for their team when they signed both Ardiles and his team-mate Ricky Villa.

For me, the 1978 World Cup achieved one of the famous tournament’s most important goals – to attract new members to the family of football fanatics. When The Sunday Times releases it’s wallchart for this summer’s version in Germany, you can be darn sure my son will be receiving a folded up piece of paper from his Daddy.

Next week – ESPAÑA ’82 : Are they Irish or not?

1 comment:

Alan said...

What do you mean "geek"? Surely no self-respecting person would ever be without a World Cup Wallchart to fill in?

Many years ago I was in the play "An Evening With Gary Lineker". The play follows five people (four English, one doesn't like football, one German) in a Spanish hotel room for the 1990 England vs Germany World Cup Semi. The husband of the couple whose room it is has a World Cup Wallchart which he has filled in in four different coloured pens. The (long suffering) wife introduces the whole play describing the scene to the audience. I can't remember the exact words but it went something like:

"That's my husband, filling in his World Cup Wallchart. This is his second World Cup Wallchart. His first World Cup Wallchart caught fire in... mysterious circumstances. Annoyingly, he was actually pleased that he got to fill it all in again."

Never a truer word....