Friday, February 24, 2006

sprechen sie fußball?

15 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 I relive what experience I had of the 1986 finals in Mexico.


English soccer fans talk about this moment more than they do about 1966 when they actually won the World Cup!

A lot changed for me in the four years that passed between the World Cups of 1982 and 1986. I think they call it puberty.

I went from a nerdy kid in his early teens to a nerdy horny kid in his late teens.

Given that, I could hardly pass up the opportunity of travelling from living with my grandparents here in Dublin to go stay with my mother in San Francisco for nine long weeks of the summer of ’86. I knew staying with her would offer me a sense of independence that I badly needed. By independence, of course, I meant that I was sure I was going to be able to stay out every night drinking and getting laid.

Well, whether I succeeded or not in that quest may make for a more interesting story, but it has no place here. I also travelled with the assumption that I would not miss a moment of the World Cup finals, I mean, for crying out loud, since they were being held in Mexico, I was actually going to be nearer to them than I was in Dublin!

As a point of information, these finals were originally meant to be staged in Colombia, who turned out to be either too poor or too run by drug barons to host the event.

My mother, who is known for her hatred of television, was under strict instructions to have a set in her apartment ready for me to watch the football. Well, she managed to beg, borrow and steal a set from somewhere, and I was supposed to be grateful that it was a colour one at that.

Too bad she didn’t realise you also needed a thing called a “cable box”. When I got there and tried all the channels to see if one was showing the opening game, I was quickly disappointed. She offered to get one of her friends to try and both obtain and hook up the right equipment, but at the age of 17 I was aware enough of my “spoiled-only-child-raised-by-his-grandparents” profile to be too proud to want any kind of special treatment. With that, I told my mother to forget the whole thing, and resigned myself to missing the entire tournament.

Such was the apathy the mainstream American media had towards football back then that for the whole month the sport’s main event was taking place, I did not hear one word about what was going on, save for a couple of column inches in the San Francisco Chronicle. I did hear a lot about a sensational rookie first baseman for the Oakland A’s called Mark McGwire, however.

Though it was a royal pain in the ass, not to mention unbelievable that my nation of birth did not embrace the beautiful game, I managed to have myself an enjoyable summer all round, even if I never did get laid.

One weekend, when I was staying at my Uncle’s house out in the “sticks”, I was on my own as everyone was out running various errands. Although clouds are considered UFOs in that neighbourhood, and it would seem to make more sense to go outside, I was always one to see what was on TV first before I did so.

My uncle DID have a cable box, so I flicked around the channels. To my amazement, I found a game between Argentina and West Germany, though the commentary was in Spanish. After about five minutes, I worked out that it could not be a live transmission as I had first hoped [it would have been two weeks AFTER the final – yes, it’s true, I still hadn’t learned who had won the damn thing].

In those days you still didn’t have the time and score conveniently placed at the top corner of the screen for you, so I was at the mercy of the Mexican TV director to inform me that it was early in the second half, and Argentina were winning 2-0. Just my luck, I thought, even though I do get to see some action without knowing the outcome after all, it seems to be over as a contest.

Well, with a bit of luck, the two finalists managed to turn the game into arguably the most exciting final ever, with the Germans surging back to make the score 2-2 before the Argentinians took the lead for good once more which led to a rollercoaster of emotions from the two sets of fans. It didn’t matter that the commentary was in Spanish – the only word you needed to understand was “GOOOOOOOALLL!!!”

And so I felt I had least tasted some of the excitement of Mexico ’86 as I watched the new world superstar Diego Maradona lift the trophy with his team-mates and celebrate. When I was to eventually return home to Dublin, however, I was to learn that this was not the only game to produce drama by any stretch of the imagination.

The English club season was well under way by the time I got back, but all the talk in the news media was not about how the great teams of the day such as Liverpool and Arsenal and the like were doing. Seemingly all of the Queen’s subjects had converted to religion, since their favourite three words had become “The Hand of God”.

Once again the Republic Of Ireland had failed to reach the finals – I knew that much before I left. Of the “home” nations, three had made it, precisely the same three that had done so in ’82 – England, Scotland, and plucky Northern Ireland. Sadly, the latter two had dismal first round campaigns in Mexico. It was left to the English to keep the home fires burning in the second phase.

Now that the sport’s governing body FIFA had the new “penalty shoot-out” method of deciding tied contests at their disposal, they decided to make the competition a “knock-out” one after the first round groups were completed. And so, 24 was whittled down to 16, and from then on it was sudden-death.

England were shaky at first, but after their 3-0 over Paraguay, they felt as confident as any that they had a chance to go all the way. Enter one Diego Maradona.

See the picture at the beginning of this piece? That’s Diego, jumping for a high ball with England keeper Peter Shilton in the quarterfinal. A split second after that historic picture was taken, Shilton was picking the ball up out of his own net with complete disbelief, as the goal had been allowed to stand. When Maradona was quizzed about it afterwards, he apparently coined one of the sport’s most famous phrases which suggested divine intervention.

Well if we thought English fans were a pain in the arse whenever they won something, we were to discover that they’re even worse when they feel they lost in questionable circumstances. They still bitch and moan about that bloody hand of God even today, twenty years later. Not even the fact that Maradona went on the score a dazzling solo goal with a run from inside his own half that beat virtually everyone in an England jersey keeps them quiet – they would tell you they should not have been 1-0 down in the first place.

As always, the competition had its interesting sub-plots, such as Denmark seeming invincible in the first round, scoring nine goals and winning all three of their games, only to get hammered 5-1 by the Spaniards in the next phase. Then there was Morocco, who furthered the cause of increased African participation by actually winning their group which included both England and Portugal, and only allowing the Germans to edge them 1-0.

Honourable mention should also go to the French, who managed to conquer the reigning champions Italy in the last 16. Finally there was Belgium – who seem to sneak unnoticed past everyone into the semi-finals only to succumb to yet more Maradona magic.

Looking back I suppose you would have to say that it appeared to be destiny that Argentina would lift their second World Cup, just as it was destiny for me to miss the all the action as it happened.

I was determined that no matter what the attraction of travelling abroad in 1990, I was going to be near a television that was showing the World Cup that summer. My wish was to be granted, but nowhere near the way I thought it would be.

Next week – ITALIA ’90 : How Olé Became an Irish Word

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