As a boy the World Cup was everything to Scott Derry. Now the slick, branded tournament evokes little more than apathy. Has the greatest show on earth lost its soul?
Flags of St. George are already flapping on cars and adorning the façades of semi-detached houses, a sure sign there’s a World Cup around the corner, or to use its official title, the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. According to the Hublot clock on FIFA.com, there’re 30 days, 2 hours, and 21 minutes before the tournament’s kick-off, and I can’t remember ever before feeling such ambivalence to football’s showpiece event.
For the purposes of context, my earliest World Cup memory is that the opening match of the 1982 tournament, between Argentina and Belgium, wasn’t televised in England due to the ongoing Falklands conflict. I also recall that summer rushing home from school to see Bryan Robson score after 27 seconds, my disappointment at bedtime being at half-time during late matches (I was six), and a brave Northern Ireland team being dismantled by the French in brilliant sunshine.
It was love at first sight. I fell for the colour, the excitement, the noise, the drama, the crackly commentaries, the cool kits with rolled down socks and no shin pads. Seduced by Socrates, David Narey, and Gerry Armstrong, I couldn’t get enough.
Midnight football wasn’t an issue four years later; our family’s first VCR allowed late matches to be consumed before school the following morning. By 1990 I was an anorak able to quote facts and figures and trivia about not only the tournaments I’d seen, but those going back to the World Cup’s origins also. I developed a compulsive need to see every match, an addiction fed ever since. Work appointments have been rescheduled to allow viewing of afternoon delights such as Australia v Japan, and family and social activities have been arranged around matches. In short, the World Cup has for 32 years been an ideal mistress; sexy, stunning, exciting, and only needing my attention for a month or so every fourth year—but when we’ve met we’ve had such fun. She’s lavished on me moments like Toto Schillachi’s eye-bulging celebrations in Rome, the frenzied electricity created by Manuel Negrete’s acrobatic volley in front of his home crowd in Mexico City, and Rashid Yekini’s spontaneous prayer in Dallas after scoring his country’s first ever finals goal. This was no whirlwind romance, more like partners for life.
So what’s changed? Why has the recent announcement of Roy Hodgson’s squad not stirred in me the same excitement felt when Michael Owen announced his arrival on the international stage in Casablanca, or when Steve Bull bullied (no pun intended) his way into Bobby Robson’s Italia ’90 squad? There’s nothing there. No anticipation. No excitement. No appetite. This year I’ll be barely able to tolerate three (four, if we’re lucky) insipid performances from England’s cast of usual and fatigued suspects (with the addition of a couple of promising youngsters who’ll be touted as world football’s next big thing by this country’s football writers, who’re both rabid and fawning at once, on the strength of beating a couple of pedestrian midfielders).
I can’t be certain of why I’m not looking forward to the tournament, and I don’t know if I’ll actively avoid some, most, or all of the matches, so I guess my writing this is an attempt to understand my ambivalence.
There’s a healthy chance my problem isn’t with the World Cup per se, but that any affection I had for football has been eroded to such an extent as to render the consumption of 64 matches in a month seem unpalatable in the extreme. Wall to wall coverage of a major football tournament has become nothing more than an extension of a domestic season during which all forms of media compete against each other to be more immediate and relevant and impacting. Exclusives flash by on yellow ticker bars before their exclusivity is trumped by the immediacy of social media. By the time highlights shows are broadcast, fronted by vacuous, sterile, and grey pundits offering inane analysis they are irrelevant to all but those stumbling in from the pub. The thought of spending an extra month in the company of those same vacuous, sterile, and grey pundits offering inane analysis is enough on its own to send me scrambling for a remote control.
So switch it off. Avoid it. Right? Wrong. It can’t be done. In a couple of weeks supermarkets and garden centres will be full of World Cup paraphernalia. Only it isn’t World Cup paraphernalia, is it? Garden chairs and barbecue coals. Sun umbrellas and tables. Towels and children’s toys. Crates of beer and packets of burgers. They’ll all be sold in packaging bearing St. George crosses and footballs and images (sold for a small fortune) of Messrs Rooney, Hart, and Cole. Through the coming autumn the news will be full of how the country’s second quarter financial results reveal a fifty percent increase on the same period last year and that business owners and bankers and politicians love a World Cup year. And someone, somewhere, sometime soon will mention the inevitable feel good factor. There’ll be countdown shows on radio and podcasts cluttering the web presented by pundits who’re too sterile, too vacuous, and too grey to get a TV gig. There’ll be replays of classic matches (which in itself is no bad thing). There’ll be Z list celebrities interviewed in magazines devoted to the cult of celebrity, asked to nominate their favourite team except England and their favourite tipple for watching the World Cup and their best barbecue tips. The same magazines (and red top newspapers) will have girls painted in the colours of St George. The word overkill won’t do justice to the football-related events of this June.
But whilst the presentation and packaging grates, it’s only a reflection of a changing product, of the game’s slow metamorphosis into something unrecognisable from that which I fell in love with thirty-odd years ago. Modern football has become part-sport, part-entertainment. Attending an “event” has become akin to attending the theatre. For twenty years or more football has been going through a process you could liken to sterilisation. In other words, the game has had its heart and soul ripped from its every facet.
People argue modern tactics and game management systems such as tiki-taka have revolutionised the game. They may have, but they can be tedious to watch for a neutral. After Maradona had been kicked out of his first World Cup by Claudio Gentile, and likewise the brutal treatment Michael Laudrup suffered four years later (Pele and Cruyff before them, too), there followed a concerted campaign to protect skilful players and remove from the pitch any notion of violence or ill will towards an opponent. Whilst this was no bad thing upon its inception, it soon gathered momentum and became an irreversible trend which has led slowly and directly to today’s sanitised sport in which a player may be sent off for a barely mistimed tackle followed moments later by an innocuous tug on an opponent’s shirt or an overzealous goal celebration.
It’s too easy to highlight the endless drama of players rolling around and feigning injury in an attempt to gain free-kicks, penalties, and even to cause the sending off of an opponent. Of course, players rolled around in the days of crackly commentaries too, but whereas today’s players glance sneakily at the referee hoping to see their cheating rewarded, it was once common to see blood seeping through fingers which dramatically clutched a player’s face, or maybe he’d be on the floor looking for lost teeth. Not that these events were good things, but how do we end up with a less violent sport in which players are better protected yet those same better protected players spend way more time (pretending to be) injured than ever before? FIFA has always been corrupt, but when their sport is played by and its results influenced by effeminate and well-paid cheats instead of real sportsmen, then defeats in those circumstances beget bitterness and victories are hollow.
Remember the beautiful tower at the Stadio Renato Dall’Ara, scene of David Platt’s late winner against Belgium in 1990? How about the vast sun trap that is Pasadena’s Rose Bowl, where Roberto Baggio proved his ponytail far from divine? The then newly added third tier and corner towers supporting a futuristic roof at Milan’s Giuseppe Meazza? Like past tournaments and even the sport itself, grounds of yore were full of character and weren’t prosaic and symmetric. Whilst modern stadia built for recent World Cups have occasionally been things of wonder, they’re made sterile and faceless for the duration of the tournaments. FIFA’s impositions likely include that all seating areas be of equal distance from the pitch’s edge in all stadia used in any given tournament, that any clue to a stadium’s occupying club be removed for the duration, that all advertising hoardings be of standardised height, that all grass be cut to a specified length, and it’d be no surprise if concrete used in building these sporting monoliths is always the same required shade of bland.
Such faceless venues will this summer, in Brazil, be visited by mono-expressioned executives representing organisations whose names scroll around pitches and form backdrops for interviews and filter into our subconscious via too-large TV screens dozens of times a day throughout the tournament. It’s a strange marriage. ITV’s coverage of Italia ’90 was sponsored by National Power—which involved Peter Purves switching the floodlights on in a darkened Wembley Stadium after every commercial break—but my parents didn’t change their energy supplier due to that campaign, and neither, now, will I change my preferred beer to Budweiser because they’re the official beer of this year’s tournament.
Maybe some of these things are true, maybe all of them. Maybe it’s not the game at all, or the tournament, but its slickness and domination and branding and its slide towards family oriented light entertainment and how it’s more than a football tournament now, how it’s a fashion shoot for WaGs and a chance for hacks to sell books (Cris Freddi and Brian Glanville excepted) and for every radio station and commercial organisation in the country to give away free tickets and for third-rate pop bands to perform at fan parks and for mums and children to put up bunting which’ll hang dirty long after England are knocked out and for bookmakers to bombard punters more than ever with adverts about in-play odds, et cetera, et cetera. Or maybe I’m just a nostalgia junkie who longs for crackly commentaries and football played by real men with rolled down socks.