So here we are at last, the dust is settling on the domestic seasons in Europe and we can now concentrate on the four week extravaganza of football that is the latest chapter of the World Cup. For self-confessed football obsessives, while nothing will ever replace the ebb and flow of following our team(s) through a season, there is something absolutely magical and thrillingly surreal about the major summer tournaments. They place us in our absolute element and offer us a whole month where it becomes not only acceptable but almost admirable to revolve daily life around football matches.
As fun as the Euros are, and I am sure fellow football addicts from South and Central America, Africa and Asia thoroughly enjoy their respective continental competitions, nothing beats the World Cup. The excitement and drama that unfolds on a daily/nightly basis, the stories of underdogs overcoming the odds, the gathering of the greatest players on the planet, the heartbreak and the glory make it absolutely compelling viewing.
Being of a certain vintage, my memories of the greatest footballing show on earth stretch back to Espana ‘82 and through each subsequent tournament, the years may pass but the memories never fade. In quieter moments I find myself drifting back to vibrant memories of: Paolo Rossi’s hat-trick to eliminate the greatest Brazil side never to win the World Cup; Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ and his sheer brilliance with which he dragged Argentina to glory almost singlehandedly; Gazza’s tears and England’s penalty heartbreak; the sheer novelty of USA 94 where ‘soccer’ took over the one country that hadn’t at that point taken it to heart; that b**t*rd Simeone and the will-he-won’t-he play drama around (the original)Ronaldo before Zizou won France the trophy; revenge for Beckham in the Sapporo Dome; Rooney’s red card, (not the original)Ronaldo’s wink, and Zidane’s head-butt; vuvuzela’s, the Jabulani, De Jong’s assault and La Roja’s majestic football; 7-1, the ‘Mineirazo’ sparking the mourning and shame of the host nation before Mario Götze’s sublime volley secured Europe’s first victory on South American soil; to name just a small selection.
No longer content with simply watching every game possible at home, Mrs Football Nerd and I decided four years ago that there was no longer any excuse; we simply had to be there, to experience it in the flesh and to join the carnival. Being the ingeniously creative souls that we are, once we had booked our flights to Brazil and hotel in Copacabana we decided that such a trip merited elevation beyond just a simple holiday and arranged to get married the week before the tournament started, thereby turning it into our honeymoon. I hasten to add at this juncture that Mrs Football Nerd rather than I was the instigator-in-chief of this decision!
To even begin to try to sum up the experience in mere words simply couldn’t do it the justice that it deserves. It was unquestionably the greatest experience that two football obsessives could ever hope for. The first week of the tournament sees an atmosphere of exuberant anticipation before things get really serious and while everyone still lives in hope. Such was the impact on us that in just two weeks’ time (of course we have been counting down!) we will board our plane bound for Moscow to do it all again.
Even before a ball has been kicked, this year’s tournament has already been labelled as the “most political and politicised sporting event of all time” amidst allegations of corruption, racism, homophobia, political rows, the poisoning of an ex-spy and ongoing military involvement in the Ukraine. Yet, shamefully perhaps, that will all be pushed to the background once the thousands upon thousands of fans from around the world start to arrive in the host cities. The tournament itself becomes an almost-sheltered, self-contained micro-environment with a timeline, context, demography and perceived reality all its own. To put it simply, all that will matter to World Cup fans is the football.
Looking ahead to the football itself there seems to be somewhat of a consensus on the tournament favourites, with Germany, Brazil, Spain, France and Argentina being touted as the likely winners by various commenters and pundits. Beyond those five, Belgium with their array of talented players are a popular choice but have failed to deliver on the big stage in the past two major tournaments; while European Champions Portugal seem to be relatively unfancied presumably as a result of their uninspiring progress to the final in France two years ago.
Four years ago the group stages threw up some thrilling matches before things all got a bit more serious in the knockout stages; we can only hope this year’s edition follows suit. It all gets underway with the hosts taking on Saudi Arabia in just fourteen days’ time with a kick-off time that will require some imaginative creativity to extricate ourselves from work in time for kick-off.
Over the course of the next couple of weeks this blog will be immersing itself fully in the build up to the World Cup, as ever it remains an open football church with contributions actively encouraged from anyone who will be allowing the tournament to take over their lives completely, so if you would like to join the party get in touch as below: