Memories of my World Cups
From Chile to Qatar
My first World Cup was the one in Chile in 1962. In those days, there were no satellites to beam the picture directly from South America to Europe so the live games were listened on small transistor radios that you would grab in your hands, ever more tightly as the attack seemed more dangerous. My one big memory: the Yugoslavia-Chile game for the third place. I went with my family to dinner and we carried the radio. It turned out that everybody else did the same. And then a huge silence that enveloped the restaurant when Chile scored the winning goal.
The World Cup then was not a very big affair. Few people travelled to Chile and some games were played in front of empty stadiums, with only a couple thousand of spectators. It reads almost incredible that a semi-final of the World Cup was watched by 3,000 people! Like a village game. These were still football’s heroic days.
The first World Cup I watched live was 1966 England. My memories of that Cup are incredibly vivid. In June that year I got a viral pneumonia and spent a week in a hospital. I was keen to get out of the hospital on time for the World Cup. Luckily, I did, and watched many of the games (in those days, not all the games were shown on TV). Single memory. The brilliant Hungarian dismantlement of Brazil sans Pelé (3-1), and Varga’s incredible goal. These were the days when Hungary still displayed some of the Puskas era scintillance before it dropped into the footballing black hole, seemingly forever.
The 1970 World Cup was, I believe, the best ever. It was also the first World Cup I watched on color TV. Technology was making big strides (just compare Chile 1962 and Mexico 1970—much greater technological advance than in the past eight years). One special memory: rather conventionally: the semi-final slugfest between Italy and W. Germany that I watched alone (my parents having decided it was too late and gone to bed). The final is, of course, deeply engraved in everyone’s memory. But somewhat misleadingly I think, as I discovered when I rewatched the game on YouTube several years ago: Italy was even until the 66th minute. It is Carlos Alberto’s coup-de-grace that made everyone forget that the game was tight until the last 20 minutes.
The 1974 Cup was held in West Germany. The quality of the games was still outstanding, mostly thanks to the great Dutch team. A memory: a quasi waterpolo match played by West Germany and Poland on an inundated field. And of course, the minute 1 penalty for the Netherlands in the final which, in the end, (psychologically) contributed to its defeat.
For the 1978 World Cup, I was in the United States where soccer was an exotic sport. No games were shown on the national TV. No games, period. So I would read the results of the previous day's games in the newspapers. But since I watched all finals since 1966, I could not miss this one: I travelled three hours by car to Gainesville, Florida where in a movie theater with an audience about equally divided between the Argentinian and Dutch fans, I watched the final. People climbed the chairs and jumped across the aisles
The 1982 World Cup found me traveling. I was in Cameroon when Cameroon tied Italy 1-1. The World Bank arranged a high level meeting exactly at the time of the match. It was clear to all, except to the leader of the World Bank team, that the Cameroonian counterparts were not interested in structural adjustment but in dribbles and shots. Suddenly, half-way through the meeting to which he clearly paid no attention, the minister jumped and started yelling “le poteau, le poteau”. Cameroon failed to score.
By 1986, US television was showing all the games (notice again the tremendous progress over these eight years). I remember being late for an important meeting because France-Brazil went into extra-time and then penalty kicks. But I just could not leave without knowing if Platini or Zico will play in the semis. “Burrrruchaaga” will stay in my memory forever. With of course the unbelievable Maradona, perhaps the greatest player I have ever seen.
1990 was, I think, the worst World Cup ever. I remember the rather badly attended games, and the Italian stadiums that, contrary to what happens now at the World Cups, were left in their fairly dilapidated states. Yugoslavia, which had an excellent team, was imploding. Slovenian Football Federation recalled its players before the World Cup began. A couple of team staggered after a tournament full of 0-0s, to the pathetic final, complete with fist fights, doubtful penalty, dubious ejection.
The 1994 World Cup was perhaps just slightly better in quality. The 1990s were not very good years for soccer in general. In a somewhat blasé way I did not care to watch the games played in Washington DC, but then as the tournament progressed I got excited. My former girlfriend very kindly helped me get three tickets for the final in Pasadena. In those days, you still had to buy tickets on the spot and she bought them just a week before the final—when instead of Italy-Brazil, there was a possibility that we might watch Sweden-Bulgaria. She asked me if I still wanted the tickets: I said “yes”. I liked the bold Bulgarian guy who scored the winning header against Germany. People used to say “the hair is out”. Balding, I agreed.
The French 1998 Cup was yet another, very modest, improvement in the level of the game. I spent that month travelling with my family across France and was surprised how little interest the World Cup elicited. It was hard to find restaurants that would show the games—except when France played. I watched the final after paying a sizeable amount of money to a FIFA official who got his ticket for free. He asked for even more money than what I had in my pocket but his wife (God bless her!) convinced him not to press the price further.
The 2002 Cup was in Japan and South Korea. Now the whole world was watching. One big memory: when Cafu climbed to the top of the makeshift podium and in a flurry of confetti and with music blaring lifted the Cup. I thought a new pagan religion had overwhelmed the world and Cafu, Ronaldo o fenomeno and Rivaldo were its chief priests.
In 2006, we travelled through Germany. Unlike eight years ago in France, football was everywhere: in all bars, hotels, fan zones. I watched Germany-Sweden QF match in a beautiful hotel in Berchtesgaden. Perhaps because the hotel was expensive and the guests quiet or perhaps because of the place where it was built, German tourists who watched the game just politely applauded each German goal. It was almost like attending a chamber concert. But for other games and in other surroundings, the atmosphere was different.
I remember rather badly the 2010 World Cup. I watched the Uruguay-Ghana match with my son in an outdoor café in Belgrade. Suddenly the storm descended and the connection was lost. I insisted that the owner try several times to restore it. Eventually, he succeeded: we witnessed Suarez’s incredible “save” and Ghana’s unlucky penalty miss. It was the closest that an African team had even come to the semis.
The 2014 Cup in Brazil transformed the whole country. You had the feeling that had the nuclear war broken out, the news would be relegated to page 4 of the newspapers. Despite all the fears, the Cup was excellently organized—surpassing in some areas even German organization. I remember a beautiful starry night at Ipanema, dining in a terrace restaurant, with Henry and FIFA officials just a few tables away. There would never be a World Cup like that—ever, I think. I left Brazil before the (in)famous semi-final and watched it in disbelief.
The 2018 so far looks great. The quality of the games has steadily risen: it is one of the better World Cups, I think, and we yet have to see the best. (The added part: The organization was perfect: the weather collaborated up to the very end. I watched the Croatia-England semi that Croatia rightfully won. I watched the final on a Greek island that is visited by many French tourists. I was surprised by the lack of outpouring of emotion after the French convincing win. I thought French tourists would be jumping into the sea. Instead they calmly went to restaurants and enjoyed the fish.)
I am very optimistic about the Qatar Cup. I am glad it will be played in an Arab country: Arabs love football and their teams are getting steadily better (and they were singularly unlucky this year). The Cup will be played in Winter when top players are less tired. (I am still optimistic: it will be a great World Cup.)
It has been a great ride of more than half century for me, and when we compare machines and organization used today and the global reach of the sport with how things looked in 1962, we can more easily grasp the role of both technology and globalization. Who could have imagined VAR in Viña del Mar in 1962? Immense progress was made in many areas. But we also have to be modest in judging what was accomplished. We are proud that the Olympics and the World Cup have an almost unbroken record of respectively more and slightly less than a century. But Greek Olympics were held continuously for four centuries. Who will win the 2318 World Cup? Will countries compete? Or perhaps only Oceania, Eastasia and Eurasia? Will there still be football? Will the Cup be held at all? Qui sait
PS. The Brazilian player on the picture is somebody who suddenly and unexpectedly shined in the World Cup, made his name world-famous, and quickly descended into obscurity.