At half-time in last Friday’s game between Spain and the Netherlands, my 14 year old son Abe rose from his chair, picked a soccer ball up in the hallway and headed outside to play. Through the window, I watched him curl a shot into the giant goal that stands just to the left of our mailbox and then I decided to join him. Fifteen minutes later, I returned to my armchair, a heavy breathing, sweaty, middle-aged mess. I am 43 years old. I should know better but this is the magic of the World Cup. It brings out the child in all of us.
For that fifteen minutes, I was transported back in time from a street in a Long Island town to a patch of green grass in the Cork suburb of Togher, a hallowed venue we lovingly called “the bog”. That was where, at half-time in just about every World Cup match I ever watched as a child, the boys of the neighbourhood gathered to try to emulate our heroes. If the game got intense and the stuff we’d been watching on telly hadn’t been up to much (there were many, many bad matches back in the day), we might skip the second half and keep playing.
If I close my eyes, I still can recall games during Espana 82 and Mexico ‘86 that only ended when our mothers roared from the doorsteps to demand our return or creeping darkness made the ball impossible to see or, all too often, when a disputed goal caused one team to walk off in protest. There was no age demarcation on that field so the smallest of us learned to compete with the big kids or, if we were smart, to hang around the fringes of the action, hoping to pilfer the type of goal that would be denounced as “a sneaky-liner” by our peers.
Those endless summer evenings, a hallmark of every Irish childhood of the 1970s and 1980s, are part of the reason why the World Cup gets so many of us in a tizzy every four years. It’s a rare thing in life in that all of the memories it dredges up are happy ones. Every time I think of trips to the beach in West Cork as a kid, there are clouds on the horizon and a breeze that would cut you in half. Every time I think of our World Cup soccer matches in “the bog” so long ago, the sun is shining into the late evening and we all have our shirts off to try to cope with the heat.
We can and do measure out that part of our formative years in World Cups. I was seven for Argentina in 1978. The first tournament I have any proper memory of. I can recall us getting our first colour television the week before the opening game, a Nordmende that looked like it had been delivered from a space station it was so sophisticated. I can also recall my father swearing at that same television during the final. Like so many others, he’d had a gra for the Dutch since 1974 and was gutted when the hosts defeated them in the final.
Four years later, I had a full-blown case of World Cup fever, replete with a Texaco soccer ball and a half-full Panini sticker album. Even now, I wished I’d wrapped that album in cellophane so I could open it today and run my finger along the names of the Brazil squad that enraptured us all, even in defeat; Eder, Falcao, Zico, Junior, Socrates and the rest. There wasn’t a boy in Ireland who didn’t have his mind blown by the way they played and who didn’t try impossible, long-range pot shots for months afterwards.
Their exit at the hands of Italy, or rather the feet of Paolo Rossi, was memorable for all the wrong reasons. For the first time in my sporting life, it put me at odds with my father. He was cheering for Italy. Fervently. He’d backed them long before a ball was kicked. By the time Dino Zoff lifted the trophy, the house on Clashduv Road was en fete, the winning docket lay under a leg of the big clock on the mantelpiece and all of us, from oldest to youngest, being promised a cut of the winnings.
There was no monetary reward from Mexico 86 but there was the joy of Jimmy Magee pronouncing Josimar as Josie Maher, a Belgian wizard called Enzo Scifo, and, of course, Diego Maradona. To get to see the Argentine genius work his magic, good and bad, in our living rooms was special. See, in an era when every goal scored or every sublime dribble is available online as a Vine within seconds of it happening, it’s difficult for this generation to understand that the World Cup used to be so eagerly awaited because it was so unique.
Back then, we didn’t have a daily diet of live televised soccer from all over the globe. By the time of Mexico 86, we’d been waiting four years to see if Maradona could redeem himself and if he was good enough to win the whole thing for Argentina. He was. Oh, how he was. None of his subsequent transgressions on and off the field will ever diminish him in the eyes of those of us whose boyhoods he lit up and changed forever in those few weeks.
I worry it’ll be different for our children but maybe I shouldn’t. In the moments before Brazil and Croatia kicked off festivities last Thursday, myself and Abe were sitting in the television room when he turned to me in a voice that’s gotten all too deep and teenaged in the past few months, and said: “I just worked out I was in fourth grade during the last World Cup. And next time it’s on I’ll be graduating high school and it’ll be my last summer before college.”
Already measuring out his life in World Cups. Yup, the boy is getting it.
(This piece was first published in The Irish Echo, June 18th)