Friday 11 June 2010

My World Cup Memories - Part Five, France 98

When I watched Italia 90 with my mates I was just 15 years old without a care in the world. By the time I would watch England play once again in the world’s greatest football tournament, I was 23 years old with my own flat and all the responsibilities that went with it. I had just spilt with my then girlfriend, and the World Cup proved to be a very welcome distraction! England had assured their qualification by gaining the point they needed after a dramatic goalless draw v’s the Italians in the Stadio Olimpico in Rome in late 97: a game I recall very well. Despite the lack of goals the game was on a knife-edge throughout and given the importance of the result (especially after the failure to qualify for the previous World Cup in USA 94) my good friend Bolts and me had decided to watch the proceedings away from the partisan (but sometimes distracting) atmosphere of the our local pub (just 100 yards up the road) in favour of my flat. As the game hung in the balance, there was the truly heart-stopping moment in the dying seconds when Vieri headed over when it seemed easier to score. It was almost too much to bare! For the last 20 minutes or so, Bolts and me sat in total silence: not a single word spoken. Then, when the ref put us out of our misery, we both spontaneously jumped from our seats and hugged each other. England was back in the World Cup Finals. Thank God…or should it have been ‘Thank Hod’, as the Sun’s headline read the following morning?

For me, this tournament would be watched from my local pub, The White Lion, in Sawbridgeworth. I was growing ever tired of watching games in such venues (too many idiots who were more interested in throwing beer around), but one notable memory I do have was the whole pub chanting ‘Ang-ler-terre, Ang-ler-terre’ throughout the England games in place of the more standard ‘Eng-er-land’ chant. Thankfully the 3 syllable replacement worked equally as well. France 98 was opened by Scotland’s credible and brave attempts to thwart the mighty Brazilians, eventually loosing the game after an own goal late on. The group matches never really took off for me, with only a few games sticking in my mind; the Italy v’s Chile game amongst them. It appeared the whole world was intrigued by the USA v’s Iran fixture, but despite the hype, it just didn’t have quiet the ‘bitter rivalry’ feel of say a Brazil v’s Argentina fixture (although I appreciate this game transcended football to political opinion). Iran won, by the way, although I doubt the States went in to meltdown as would have been the case in any other nation. Then there was the unbelievable game between South Africa and Denmark in which the Columbian referee, John Tor Rendon, proceded to book 7 players and send off 3 more! Unsurprisingly he never officiated again in the World Cup. England started with a typically unconvincing win over Tunisia that never satisfied the red-top press, and things went considerably downhill with a defeat against Romania (was this the game where the Romanians coloured their hair en-mass?). This all meant a final ‘winner takes all’ group match v’s Columbia, who had recorded a victory v’s Tunisia in their previous game. Thankfully Darren Anderton (I can’t believe I’ve just wrote his name in a blog relating to the World Cup!!!) and the emerging David Beckham sealed a 2-0 victory, the latter with what would go on to be a trademark free-kick. Despite the 8 years wait to see my national team back in the World Cup, things were a little uninspiring at this point. Next up, Argentina in the second round.

In the last 16, FIFA had introduced a ‘Golden Goal’ rule to attempt to promote attacking-minded play should games enter extra-time. Sounded exciting enough, but everyone was pessimistically predicting England would face this agonizing way to fall. In reality, it was far more painful with the dreaded penalty shoot-out ending England’s unconvincing World Cup dreams. At least the dramatic Argentine game left us with some memories of note: some good, some not so good. A young Michael Own took on the Argentine team single-handedly with a goal that must have left even the great Maradona drooling. Beckham’s sending off was harsh (pictured above), but was a petulant error of judgment that would leave him as a national figure of hate. What if Sol’s goal had been allowed to stand? All in all, England had failed to raise themselves for the biggest footballing tournament in the world. If only they had played with the same passion as we had witnessed in Rome in October 97.

The quarter-finals played out their drama with Bergkamp’s wonder goal v’s the Argentines a notable highlight for me. Elsewhere, there was a shock with Croatia beating the Germans comfortably to book a semi-final place. Brazil and France beat the Netherlands and Croatia respectively, with the French victory soured by the Laurent Blanc sending off mid-way through the second half after an innocuous incident with Croatia’s Bilic. Even with a dislike for the French team, you couldn’t help but feel sorry for Blanc, who missed the final as a result.

From the moment the World Cup Final kicked off in the impressive Stade de France there was only going to be one winner. For all intents and purposes, it looked like the Brazilians had grown a little bored of World Cup Finals and decided to get the game out of the way and go home to laze about on Copacabana Beach. But back home, Christ the Redeemer must have been hanging his head in shame at the awful Brazilian performance and the bizarre and unforgivable Ronaldo farce less than an hour before kick-off. Arguably one of the best Strikers the world has seen in his prime, Ronaldo was not playing, then he was…then he wasn’t….then he was. Rumors of fits and seizures circulated, but a strangely subdued Ronaldo eventually took to the pitch, but looked genuinely relieved when it was all over. Credit to France, they deserved their World Cup win.

Another World Cup passes. Another chance for England glory ends in the all-to-familiar disappointment. Next up Japan in 2002: a World Cup that for me rates as my least favorite.

Wednesday 9 June 2010

You've Got To Hold The Ball...

I had one of those magic moments yesterday as I got home from work armed with a CD I'd created with all the England World Cup football related songs I could recall (ready for a party on Saturday night).

Picture the scene, the whole family in my conservatory dancing away to New Order's 'World In Motion', which is head and shoulders my favorite England song (if not one of the more evocative tunes in my 'favorite' list). Cue John Barnes rap, and off I go, giving it everything I've got...joined word for word by my 6.5 year old little girl (who had taken to standing on the sofa to replicate a stage)!!! I couldn't quite believe it.

Now I will confess to singing / rapping it around the house intermittently over the years, in those random moments when it just pops in to your head (should I admit to that?), but World In Motion hasn't been played in my house since 2006.

Just goes to show what kids pick up, but what a fantastic moment.

To add to that, my 3.5 year old lad asked for an England shirt after his Great Grandad gave him a wall chart and some football cards. I'm off to the shops this afternoon...

Tuesday 8 June 2010

My World Cup Memories - Part Four, USA 94

Four years between World Cups is long enough to wait, but to have to endure 8 long years after the monumental disappointment of Italia was incredibly hard to stomach. England’s failure to qualify for the USA 94 was beyond my worst nightmare, and yet it happened after a difficult qualifying campaign ended in failure after a 2-0 reverse by the Netherlands in October 93. I recall the classic commentary line from the legendary commentator, Brian Moore, “he’s going to flip it, he’s going to flip it” as he foresaw Koeman’s intentions with a free kick from which the Dutchman scored (he should have been sent off earlier in the game, you may remember).

I was 19 years old when the World Cup kicked off, and had just left hospital after an operation and found myself in a two week recovery period at home. I couldn’t have timed it better to have had a bloody abscess on my backside!!! Even if I was trying to kid myself I wasn’t interested, one consolation of this rather embarrassing ailment was that I could focus on watching the World Cup; and all without the anxiety of following England. It is something I hope I don’t experience again, but I’ll confess that I enjoyed the World Cup from a neutral point of view. It had all the razzmatazz you’d expect from the Americans, but that was easily forgivable for a worldwide tournament. For me, USA 94 was a great World Cup.

It was no real consolation that Eire had made the finals, although there was at least some familiar faces from English football on show. I didn’t really have an adopted nation I’d support in the tournament, but (and you’ve probably guessed this already if you’d followed any of my previous World Cup posts) I was looking forward to watching Maradona on the worlds greatest stage once again. Being a football stadium anorak I was left a little disappointed by the featureless, open-topped arenas that are still commonplace in US sport. Even the 91,000 capacity Pasadena Rose Bowl in Los Angeles failed to interest me.

As the group matches unfolded, players like Stoichkov of Bulgaria, Romario of Brazil and Hagi of Romania stood out for me. I recall fondly the goal celebration of the Nigerian striker, Rashidi Yekini, after he scored against the Bulgarians (picture above). The sizable African scored from the simplest of tap-ins, but reacted as if he’s won the World Cup itself. As his momentum carried him into the back of the net, with his huge clenched fists pushed through it, he began screaming in utter delirium (I seem to recall a story that he began reeling off the names of his family members back home). For me, it is a football celebration bettered only by Tardelli in 1990 for raw emotion (and marginally above Stuart Pearce after the penalty conversion v’s Spain in Euro 96, by the way). Maradona’s expulsion from the tournament after a positive drug test was a massive blow to me but not entirely unexpected after the bizarre goal celebration against Greece (the difference between raw emotion and lunacy). Another notable and regrettable incident that sticks in my mind in the group matches was the own goal by the Columbian, Escobar, which would eventually lead to the defenders murder in Medellin just a week or so later (supposedly by a crime syndicate that lost money betting on the result of the game). It was a shocking reminder of the pressure some of these players were playing under. One thing still puzzles me to this day is why Al-Owairan’s wonder goal for Saudi Arabia vs Belgium is not commonly noted as one of the best goals of all time. Running from deep inside his own half he passed 4 or 5 men before shooting past the keeper from just inside the box.

There was a notable shock in the last 16, with Hagi masterminding Romania’s victory over the Argentines. Elsewhere Brazil knocked out the hosts in a game that saw the world’s worst goal celebration by Bebeto, who proceeded to ‘rock his new-born baby to sleep’. Rubbish! It was fantastic watching the German’s fall in the quarter finals after the bald-headed Letchkov headed the winner mid-way through the second half. After that, everyone in England became Bulgarian overnight. Rather encouragingly, both semi-finals were concluded in normal time, with the mighty Brazil meeting Italy in the final. If football was ever to catch on in the States, then nobody would have wanted a final that played out 0-0 after 120 mins and ended in a penalty shoot-out. How boring! The masterful Roberto Baggio will be remembered for missing his kick, but he wasn’t alone, with the legendary, Franco Baresi, another notable spot-kick failure.

A few years ago I had conversation with a friend of mine who’s Dad was out in the States during the 94 World Cup. My friend had asked his Dad to bring back some souvenirs of the football and he duly obliged as my friend is the proud owner of an ‘England USA 94’ baseball cap and matching T-Shirt. Apparently, the American’s continued to produce England Merchandise despite us not participating. It could only happen in the USA…

Sunday 6 June 2010

My World Cup Memories - Part Three, Italia 90

After the controversy and disappointment of England’s exit in Mexico, the four years wait until the next World Cup seemed like forever. I had followed the qualifiers intently. It wasn’t entirely comfortable, and it was with considerable relief that we gained the vital point we needed to qualify for the 1990 World Cup v’s Sweden in Stockholm in September of 89. The game may have finished 0-0, but it’s a game that will never be forgotten for the iconic image of the talismatic Terry Butcher drenched head to toe in blood following a head collision that required numerous stitches. His white England shirt had quiet literally turned red. To a young impressionable chap like myself, Butcher typified the English spirit.

At the start of Italia 90 I was 15 years old; the final would be on my 16th birthday. Unlike the previous two World Cups, this one would not be followed from the comfort of the family home. This time around I was going to follow the drama with my mates. The tribal, patriotic emotions took the viewing experience to a whole new level, as did the odd drop of alcohol here and there! New Order’s ‘World In Motion’ was played back to back wherever you went. Easily the greatest football song of all time, it is a lifetime defining anthem that conjures so many evocative memories, good and bad. I was bursting with pride for my country. It is perhaps a little sad when looking back in retrospect that Italia 90 was probably the peak of my World Cup experience in some ways. I viewed the England players as heroes: every one of them. In particular, Gazza, who had so much passion, skill and invention plus the lovable slightly daft character to go with it. It would be the last time in a World Cup I would look up to England players with such awe and admiration.

The World Cup in Italy came with all the cultural sophistication you associate with the Italians. This was no ‘Pie and a Pint’ sort of World Cup. Constant reminders of the history of the country were evident throughout, with the final itself being held in the ancient city of Rome. Even Pavarotti’s Nessun Dorma gave a dramatic and emotional operatic theme to the TV coverage. My fascination with football stadia was satisfied with such venues as the impressive Stadio Olimpico in Rome and Milan’s San Siro. I already knew of the Stadio San Paolo in Naples as it was Maradona’s home ground at the time. There is, however, a common opinion that due to the defensive nature of some teams and the low goal-scoring ratio throughout the whole tournament, Italia 90 was the worst World Cup ever (Brazil, for example, despite all their flair and ability played with 5 defenders in some games). I don’t think that it was a coincidence that this happened in a country famed for their defensive approach. But then this was a World Cup: the stakes were at their very highest. Take England’s group for example, things were so tight that only England managed to win a game, nobody scored more than one goal in any one game and no less than 5 of the 6 games played ended in a draw (two of them goalless). But despite all this, Italia 90 represented England’s greatest World Cup adventure since 1966. And what an adventure it was!

The favorable time-difference meant I’d get a chance to watch both the late afternoon and evening kick-off’s. For one month I was completely surrounded by football at an age where nothing else appeared to be more important! I remember quite clearly the first game of the tournament between the current holders, Argentina, and the Cameroon. Despite my admiration for Maradona, I found myself rooting for the underdog Africans. Played in a packed San Siro in Milan, the Cameroons pulled off one of the all time World Cup shocks and out-muscled and bullied their far more talented opposition winning 1-0, and all this despite having every one of their players and substitutes sent off for not being able to tackle! The result would not prove to be as much of a fluke as first thought, as the huge Africans went on to win their group (Argentina scrapped through as one of the four best 3rd placed teams). England’s campaign got off to a disappointing start with a draw against Eire (I recall the typical doom and gloom in The Sun the following morning), a slightly more respectable 0-0 draw against the Netherlands, and, thankfully, a vital and decisive 1-0 win over Egypt, courtesy of Mark Wright’s only ever England goal. We were through to the last 16.

The first round of knockout games featured some mighty encounters; a strangely defensive looking Brazil v’s Argentina and West Germany v’s the Netherlands amongst them. The latter of the two games will unfortunately be better remembered for the bizarre Frank Rijkaard spitting incident on Rudi Voller that saw both men sent off (if memory serves me correct, the TV cameras had picked up an earlier attempt by Rijkaard to spit at Voller, but the ref never saw that). England was drawn against Belgium, a side who was in good form and had been impressive in the group matches. The game was a typically nervy and tight affair that looked to be heading to a penalty shoot-out before David Platt somehow swiveled on to a ball into the box (I seem to recall it was Gazza from a set piece?) and put the ball passed the Belgian keeper. It was a magic moment shared with friends and although I don’t recall a huge amount about the game itself, I can picture the moment the pub erupted when we realised Platt had bagged the winner. The beer was dripping from the ceiling and there was utter pandemonium. England were through to the Quarter Final’s once again, but this time a stocky Argentine genius would not be amongst the opposition, rather it would be colossal Africans built like clay village huts that stood in our way.

If this World Cup was indeed the worst one ever due to the reasons noted above, then the quarter finals done little to disprove the theory. A dull 0-0 after extra time, Argentina relied on a penalty shoot-out v’s Yugoslavia (despite Maradona missing his spot kick) to go through to the last four. The hugely impressive and eventual Golden Boot winner, Schillaci scored for the Italians v’s Eire in an all-to-predictable 1-0 win, and a penalty put the Germans through against the Czechs. The game of the round was most certainly England v’s Cameroon. There were some that thought this game would be a formality. It was certainly true that England were the favorites against an African side that appeared to be over-performing and riding their luck. But the Cameroons were no mugs. They’d beaten Valderrama’s Columbia in the last 16 thanks to two goals from Roger Milla, who, despite being over 40 years old, became forever famous for that dancing goal celebration in an earlier game. Before the Cameroon match I was concerned about our ability to cope with the brutal tackling and relentless raw power that the Cameroons had displayed so well against the Argentines in the opening game. Everyone was nervous that Gazza would react to a strong challenge and get sent off. It was, I think, the only England game I watched outside of a pub in 1990. A few of us had gathered at a friend’s house to watch the drama unfold. First we scored through Platt, and then the towering Africans hit us with two goals midway through the second half. Without the anxiety of a packed and twitchy pub, I remember sitting quietly; keeping the faith we had another goal in us. And thank God, we did! The England Captain, Gary Lineker, scoring from a dubious looking penalty with just 7 mins left. Another dodgy looking penalty converted by Lineker would win us the game in the first half of extra time, and England were in the semi-finals. Just saying it sounded fantastic. Just thinking about the possibilities beyond that was…er…well, unthinkable! The whole nation got behind Bobby Robson: a man we had all grown to love as a second father figure.

I began dreaming of a very special birthday on July the 8th in the Stadio Olimpico in Rome. I swear, I’d have never asked for anything else…ever!

But it wasn’t to be. On the 4th of July 1990, late into the evening, I was left totally heartbroken. 15 years old and crying on the shoulders of friends, who themselves were inconsolable. I can honestly say the pain of the defeat – and the nature of it – is still very hard for me to try and recall nearly 20 years later. I simply don’t have it in me to put on a brave face and re-live the game (which I admit is not ideal considering this whole series of reminiscing posts was my idea!). Hand on heart; I have never been able to watch a re-run of the failed penalties. And that image of Bobby’s face as he turns away from the dugout knowing his dream is over gets me every time.

As Waddle’s penalty attempt rose high into the Turin sky, the 1990 World Cup was over. Even the thought of watching Maradona in the final wasn’t enough, and don’t talk to me about 3rd place matches (is there a game anywhere that has so little value?).

Four years to the next World Cup and a chance to heal the pain. But four years of hurt would turn in to eight...

Wednesday 2 June 2010

My World Cup Memories - Part Two, Mexico 86

Four years on from the bewildering experience of Spain 82 and the World Cup had moved on to South America and Mexico. I was now 12 years old and far wiser to world football. Unlike the previous World Cup, this one could not sneak up on me with little time to fully take in what the month-long festival of football really meant before it exploded in all of it’s colourful splendor, played out it’s drama and died in a flash. In fact, this time around I’d followed England’s qualification for the greatest tournament on earth. My excitement was steadily building many months in advance.

Once again, my ‘Mexico 86’ reference book was read back to back, over and over as I familiarized myself with yet new countries and their whereabouts, national flag and footballers. Out had gone countries like Honduras, Peru and El Salvador and in their place on the world stage were intriguing national teams like Iraq, Morocco and South Korea. Like the previous World Cup, I stared wide-eyed at the stadia from where the football would take place. If Barcelona’s Camp Nou - with it’s 94,000 capacity - seemed big, then you can imagine how awe-inspiring the sight of the mighty Azteca Stadium in Mexico City was for a young lad who was already developing a fascination with football stadia! When full, it would take some 114,600 people to fill it! I was used to a few hundred each week following my local non-league team: I just struggled to comprehend the sheer size of the Azteca.

Mexico had created a thoroughly likable World Cup mascot in ‘Pique’, who was dressed in the national team colours with a huge moustache and big sombrero. He was commonplace in kinder eggs at the time. It was some years later that I realised he was a jalapeno pepper! Perhaps the Mexicans alternative mascot should have been their very own striker Hugo Sanchez, who seemed to find ways of spectacularly overhead licking everything! Searing heat was once again a feature throughout the whole tournament. Advances in technology had bought better quality TV pictures and sound, with the clarity of the colour enhanced by the Central American sunshine.

The time difference meant that I’d miss the weekday early afternoon games because of school, but I’d be home in time for the second round of daily matches, of which, in the group matches at least, England thankfully featured. I don’t recall much about our first two games (a defeat and a draw), other than Robson going off in agony holding his shoulder against Morocco and me thinking the world was coming to an end. Thankfully, a 3-0 victory over Poland, via Gary Lineker’s hatrick, was enough to see us in to the last 16, where England tasted the Azteca experience for the first time in this World Cup v’s Paraguay. We won 3.0, although I don’t recall a single thing about the game (it’s likely I was at school).

Our reward for the Paraguay victory was another visit to the mighty Azteca, and a quarter final v’s Argentina. The game - played early afternoon on a Sunday - gripped the nation as memories of the Falklands conflict a few years earlier still evoked intense emotion. Typically, the red top newspapers went to town. This was Maradona’s Argentina. The Azteca was packed to the rafters (in fact, a report at the time stated over 121,000 were thought to be present, well above it’s official capacity noted above, and more than the final itself). In terms of world football, games just didn’t get more meaningful. This game possibly represents the one and only time I can remember my entire family sitting down to watch a TV game together. Even my sister watched! I had my Dad’s seat: the best position in the house for viewing the TV. In many respects, I was as excited about seeing Maradona as watching England. The left-footed, tiny-but-stocky, big haired Argentine with the low centre of gravity had left me spellbound in the tournament so far as he looked to be almost single-handedly carrying the full weight of Argentina on his back. And then, in the space of 90 minutes, two very different moments that would be etched in football history forever. Firstly, the ‘Hand of God’. I make no apologies as a very proud Englishman to say I have always been embarrassed by the English response to that ‘goal’ (in many ways, a non-typical English response that was hyped up by the poor quality newspapers of the day). I just couldn’t fault Maradona. I was twelve years old and I deeply admired his cheek, defiance, arrogance and will to win. I would argue with anyone that had Lineker committed the same offence up the other end we’d have called him a hero. But for all the criticism that came with the first goal, even the hardiest of England fan could not have done anything other than admire the second. For me, it remains the best goal ever scored (I take in to account the occasion and stage). Maradona’s run was far beyond genius: beyond imagination. I had never seen such genius with the football. You could have put the entire English nation in front of Shilton that day and the world’s greatest footballer would have gone through us all. He was unplayable and unstoppable. Above all else, I wanted with all my twelve year old heart for England to win, but the truth was that day belonged to someone else…El Diego!

By the way, in only one Englishman have I ever seen that sort of maverick natural brilliance, albeit on a much-reduced level - comparatively speaking - and I will cover Gazza in my next post.

Maradona scored twice again in the semi final v’s Belgium, avenging the shock 1-0 reverse at the hands of the same opposition in the previous World Cup. The necessity to be educated scuppered my chances of watching the other semi, of which West Germany proved victorious (knowing me, I was staring out of my school classroom window daydreaming of lifting the World Cup, wishing the hours away).

So on to the final. In England we were torn on who to support: our arch-enemies, West Germany, or the Argentines, who had so controversially (in the opinion of many) knocked us out the competition. For me, it was easy; I wanted Maradona to lift the World Cup. The final was a gripping affair with West Germany fighting back from 2-0 down to draw level via Rummenigger and the stereotypical caricature of a German, Rudi ‘The Spit’ Voller. Not long after the equalizer Maradona waved his magic wand once again sending Burruchaga through to score the winner for Argentina.

Mexico 86 had passed with so many memories and emotions imbedded in my young mind. Next up, Italia 90. The lump is forming in my throat as I write…