Just as the protaganist of TS Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ measured out his life in coffee spoons, I have measured out my life in FIFA world cups (if only that poem hadn’t been written in 1915, 15 years before the first world cup, it could have been very different). It’s not that world cups are the most important events in my life, but they act as signpost of a sort. If I try to remember what year a particular life event happened, it helps if I can think ‘Oh, that must have been 1990 as it was just after the world cup in Italy. The four year gap between tournaments is enough that my life has usually changed a great deal from one to the next, as we shall see.
1982 – Spain
I didn’t pay a lot of attention to this tournament, as I was only 2 years old at the time. Bryan Robson’s record 27 second goal against France didn’t impinge on my conscousness, although I spent enough time in future years reading books of world cup facts and lists that I didn’t even have to look up the fact it was after 27 seconds, which is somewhat worrying. I have little idea what occupied my 2 year old brain, but I suspect it may have been very much excited/concerned about the arrival of my new baby sister 8 days before the start of the tournament, rather than football.
1986 – Mexico
I was at least aware of football by this stage. I played it in the garden, in the playground and in semi-organised school matches. I remember coming home and telling my mum I had been playing quarterback, which does suggest some confusion about how the sport worked. Weirdly though, I have zero memory of this tournament. I don’t recall watching any of it on TV. My dad was more a rugby league man, but when we spent Saturdays with him, we would often spend the afternoons watching whichever sport was on TV. Perhaps the time differences meant the games were not on at a good time for a 6 year old to watch. I don’t even recall being aware of the tournament, although I imagine kids must have been talking about it at school. In any case Maradona’s knocking out of England in the quarter finals had no impact on my young life.
1990 – Italy
By this time, my interest in football had gone from vague awareness to keen interest, and Italia 90 pushed me over the edge into full-on obsession. My mum, generally speaking tried to encourage me to spend time playing outside rather than sat in front of the TV, but for this world cup I ignored her entreaties. In my memory I watched every single game, which I’m sure can’t be entirely true, but I certainly watched every game I possibly could, throwing myself into the tournament with the enthusiasm and lack of cynicism only a child can have.
It was the days when foreign players didn’t play in England, and overseas football was barely shown on TV, so all of these players I’d only read about in my books of football facts and lists (I may have been a bit of a nerd), I was watching for the first time, from the all time greats (Baresi, Klinsmann, Maradona) to those who were great just for this tournament (Toto Schillachi, Roger Milla). It also gave me unrealstic expectations of England’s performance at major tournaments, full of excitement, drama and the genuine possibility of vistory, something I began to expect in every tournament, but didn’t appear again for 28 years.
1994 – USA
By this time I was a 14 year old boy, and like most things in my life, my love for football had acquired an unnecessarily passionate intensity. I cared way too much about whether my team, Leeds United qualified for the UEFA cup, getting worked up listening to matches on the radio in a way that would seem overwrought now. England had failed to qualify for the world cup, which to my teenage mind was typical of the disappointments life bought, but neither this, or the fact that many of the games were on in the middle of the night due to time differences lessened my interest.
I tended to stay up late at this time in my life anyway, doing the things that teenage boys do (by which I mean worrying about life and writing bad poetry of course, not sure what you were thinking of), so I may as well stay up late and watch Switzerland v Colombia as anything else. I enjoyed the tournament, but the pure enjoyment of a 10 year old was now laced with the cynicism of a teenager.
1998 – France
The summer of 1998 was pure limbo for me. I finished my A-level exams in early June, then had nothing to do but wait until the results came out in August and my university career began in September (the idea of getting a summer job may have passed through my mind, but only briefly). Whilst at school I was only ever looking as far ahead as the next holidays or exams, suddenly the entire rest of my life stretched out ahead of me, a strange ineffable void.
What I needed was distractions and I found them in music festivals and the World Cup. I watched England’s game against Colombia on a big outdoor screen at Glastonbury in torrential rain. I had been intending to go and watch some bands after the game, but was so soaked I went back to my tent, put on all of my dry clothes and slept. Coincidentally, also the only football game the late, great Kirsty MacColl, wrote a song about, to my knowledge:
It was also the first world cup where I was old enough to watch in a pub. Every previous tournament I had been at home in front of the TV, so the contrast between that experience and being in crowd of people all going through the same emotions was notable. And England’s defeat on penalties to Argentina certainly bought out every possible emotion.
This world cup probably had a higher standard of football than any other I have seen, so the required distraction was achieved, for a month or so at least, before I had to go back to real life again.
2002 – Japan & South Korea
By now I had completed University and was working my first, suitably uninspiring full time job, the first time genuine responsibilities had interrupted my enjoyment of sports. Games were typically in the early morning or middle of the day due to time differences, and I found it hard to get into the rhythm of the tournament as I had in previous years. I watched what I could, in pubs, in my shared house, even in the case of England’s defeat to Brazil on the office TV at 7.30am, before starting work, am unsurprisingly deflating way for a workday to begin.
I watched the countries of the world and dreamt of escape from the drudgery of post-University life. I planned travels, first Europe, then maybe beyond. This didn’t quite work out for me (a story for another time). Once again, the world cup had arrived at a time of limbo in my life, when I didn’t really where I wanted to go, and even if I had, I wouldn’t have known how to get there.
2006 – Germany
I was now in my mid-twenties, with a little bit of disposable income for the first time in my life, and no real idea what to do with it. There was only so much money I could spend on CDs and gigs, which was admittedly much, much more than any sensible person would. I was single and my group of friends didn’t really go on holidays together apart from trips to music festivals. I could of saved for the future, but I couldn’t imagine my future involving house purchases, or weddings, or even a car, any of the big things that would be worth saving for. I drifted along from day to day, not unhappy, but with no real sense of where my life might lead, somehow ignorant of the endless possibilities the world has to offer.
This lack of imagination led to me spending much of my spare cash on a new TV, and using most of my annual leave to book off enough time to enable me to watch pretty much every world cup game. This was not a good idea. After a few days of matches, a sense of ennui started to drift in. Was this really the best life had to offer? I also realised that, whilst football can be a wonderful, exciting sport, it can also be incredibly boring, especially when you watch too much of it over a short period of time. Despite watching more of this World Cup than any other, I remember little of it. My month of non-stop football excitement had become a minor rut in the larger rut that my life had become. I needed to break out…
2010 – South Africa
… and by 2010 I well and truly had. By then I was living in a new city, Brighton. I had a much more interesting job, and was studying a professional qualification that would launch me into a new career. I had travelled more in the last few years than I ever had before. Most significant by far though, I had met the woman who would become my wife. At the time of the 2010 World Cup we were sharing a room in her Brighton houseshare, just until the contract ended and we could get a place of our own. My memories of that house and that room are fond, even if being back in a 4 person houseshare for the first time a decade bought its’ own challenges.
Football was extremely far from being the most important thing in my life at this time, and my future wife only an occasional watcher, so I didn’t see a great deal of the tournament, but it served a useful function, a way to bond with colleagues in my new job, and to make new friends. I remember folks gathering at the shared house to watch England’s defeat to Germany, wondering which of these new people in my life, friends of my partner, and friends of friends, would become important people to me. It had been many years since I had moved to a new city, had had to make new friends, and if football, or anything else, could help with that, so much the better.
I also distinctly remember one Saturday night, when everyone else in the house except me happened to be away, the only time I believe in the 6 months I lived there that this happened. I curled up on the sofa with a huge pizza and 2 world cup matches, and was reminded of one function football still has. When I have some time to myself, and need to switch off from the real world, nothing beats it.
By the next world cup, all had changed again. I was married, back living in my home city of Leeds, and my professional studies had paid off, having achieved, essentially, the exact job I had been studying for. Oh, and I also had a baby, born 5 weeks before the tournament began. No change in my life had been or could ever be as big as this. I was now responsible, or at least co-responsible, for this whole new person and it effected everything in my life from the important (my marriage, my job) to the not really that important (football).
Instead of watching matches at pubs or festivals, or with friends, I watched them with some combination of my wife, my mother-in-law and our tiny baby. She mainly slept or cried at this stage, so I tended to watch the matches with her asleep on my shoulder or pacing around the living room. Because of time differences, a lot of the matches were going on around midnight or 1am, a time the baby seemed to consider an excellent time to be awake. I was only too happy to take her downstairs to try and settle her, whilst keeping one eye on whatever game happened to be on.
My memories of the tournament are vague, although of course I recall Germany’s memorable thrashing of Brazil in the semi-final. I do also have one very specific memory. I was trying to get her asleep whilst watching USA v Belgium, and she eventually fell asleep on my shoulder. All was quiet except the low buzz of commentary and stadium noise from the TV, the two of us all alone in the room, and in that moment alone in the world it seemed. And I looked at her, this tiny sleeping creature, and I felt so much love for her and knew that this love would never end. A 2nd round World Cup match between two mid-ranked teams may seem a strange time for an epiphany such as this, but there we are, we don’t always get to choose.
In recent years, I have for the first time, began to really think about the ethics of the sports I follow (and everything else, it is quite annoying actually). Given that the 2018 World Cup involved one of the most corrupt organisations in the world, FIFA, putting on a tournament in one of the most corrupt countries, my enthusiasm was not high, and I even vaguely thought of not watching at all. But of course, like everyone else I got swept up in the excitement of the unexpectedly high quality of the football, and England’s relative success.
Not that I have been able to watch too much of it. My daughter is now 4, and I have a son who is almost one. The gentle rhythms of our life are dictated mainly by the children, and FIFA do not seem to have taken my childrens’ bedtime or mealtimes into account when setting their schedules. This, combined with poor sleep from a teething baby and an unexpected heatwave has meant this world cup, like the last, has passed in a sleep-deprived haze.
I have enjoyed introducing my daughter to football though. She enjoyed at least the first half of Mexico v Germany, identifying one of the Mexican players as having super speed, and pointing out whenever any of the players fell over. Generally though, she quickly became bored, insisting we switch off France v Argentina so she could watch Apple Tree House on CBeebies, and also that Sweden v England was ‘too boring’ (I suspect she didn’t appreciate the historic significance of this victory). I tried not to subject her to it too much, and instead enjoyed those evening games that took place after the kids bedtimes. I may not have watched as much, but I have appreciated it all the more.
It’s so hard to believe that by Qatar 2022 they will be 8 and nearly 5, by USA/Mexico/Canada 2026, 12 and nearly 9. It seems so impossibly far ahead, but I know the time will pass all too fast. Will the kids take an interest in football, will future world cups be part of our family memories. Will they tell their own life stories in this ridiculous way? If anything can be taken from this exercise (and really it shouldn’t be), it’s that 4 years is a life changing amount of time. The changes in my life between each of the last few tournaments have been bigger than I could have imagined at the time. I have friends and family who were around at the time of the last world cup, and are now no longer, but each of the last 3 world cups have also arrived with new people in my life, my wife and two children, the loves of my life. I can’t wait to find what the next 4 year chapter will bring.