The beautiful month

We are exploring the culture and history of the World Cup for the next month while the tournament goes on.

Zico and Socrates in Mexico 1986. Image credit Bongarts.

My first memories of the World Cup came from the written word, not from watching the tournament on television. Let me explain. Though South Africa introduced television in 1976, because of its Apartheid policy, South Africans only saw World Cup matches live and in full by Italia ’90. As for when I started to care about the World Cup: Though I followed events in Argentina ’78, the first World Cup I was old enough to make sense of was Spain ’82.

This was the tournament of Brazil’s Socrates (still my all-time favorite footballer), Zico and Junior. Of Diego Maradona self destructing. Maradona got sent off for retaliating against a Brazilian player who fouled one of teammates. It was the end of his World Cup experience. 1982 was also the year of Italy’s Paulo Rossi and his goal poaching. Of Cameroon’s Roger Milla and his teammates who played to three tough draws. Cameroon was unlikely not to go through to the knockout round. Italy went through at Cameroon’s expense only for scoring one more goal than Cameroon. The Italians would go on to win the whole thing that year. In the process, however, Cameroon put the world on notice that they would be a force to reckon with. They would make true on their promise eight years later in Italia ’90.

But back to Spain ’82. That World Cup was also the tournament which featured the disgrace of Germany, Toni Schumacher, and his brutal foul on France’s Patrick Battiston and, related, of Germany and Austria colluding to rob Algeria of a place in the knockout round. That Algeria team was legendary; especially the midfield genius Lakhdar Belloumi and the forward Rabah Madjer. (The latter, would later, in 1987, score a daring–almost disrespectful–back-heel goal to help Porto beat Bayern Muncher for the European Cup.) As for Algeria, it won two of its three matches in the group stage, but so did Germany and Austria (the other team in the group was Chile). The only difference was the latter two teams scored more goals. In those days, the final group games weren’t played at the same time, so all Germany and Austria had to do was play to a draw and both go through. Which they did. The match itself was a disgrace, with the German and Austrian teams kicking the ball around like they were in a pick-up game.

All this drama–all the highlights–I got from reading.

From newspapers, but especially books.

The same goes for Mexico ’86, though by then we saw highlights—mostly of the goals—on the nightly news. However, in the main, it was through the written word, through descriptions by sports writers, that I experienced the World Cup.

One book, in particular sticks out in my mind: Brian Glanville’s ‘The Story of the World Cup.’ For some odd reason, my school library always had the most recent edition of the book. It was updated after a World Cup. I can’t remember how many times I checked out that book. I would get lost in those pages. Remember: There was no internet at that time. You couldn’t Google search the reference to an incident or a goal. You just had to imagine the games.

In 1990, South Africa’s state broadcaster SABC was invited to buy the rights to show the World Cup live for the first time on public television. Only months earlier Nelson Mandela was released from prison. I cannot remember whether it was because FIFA finally approved selling World Cup television rights to the SABC when political reform appeared irreversible, or whether the SABC had finally become more responsive to the needs of black viewers. But nonetheless, we got to see the World Cup on our screen for the first time.

Since Italia ’90, I basically take a holiday once the World Cup starts. (In 2014 my family left town because they knew they wouldn’t get anything out of me.) I can almost remember where I was for every match of every tournament.  The first World Cup I traveled to was South Africa 2010. I was born and grew up there, so it was very special. I went to a number of first round games with my brother who lives in Cape Town (France vs Uruguay; Italy vs Paraguay and England vs Algeria. At the latter game, I stood confused at the black South Africans singing ‘God save the queen.’ I still have the Algeria scarf I wore at that game.

These days the World Cup is everywhere and there’s too much media coverage. A lot of it is clickbait, popcorn. Which is why I love the advice given by Financial Times football journalist Simon Kuper to first time World Cup viewers: “Don’t tweet during World Cup matches. Try to live the match as people did pre-internet, when it was the only thing in their brain.” I agree wholeheartedly.

I’ll add: When you’re not watching games, slow read.  Which is where we come in. We want to help. We asked our contributors to write short posts exploring the culture and history of the game; mostly personal reflections. Most of these will be 500 words in length, with the occasional longer post thrown in. Over the next few days, we’ll post these here. When not watching matches, check in.

Further Reading