It’s the final of the 2014 World Cup today. (There’s an opening sentence that could turn away a few potential new readers.) For neutrals, the choice is between supporting Germany or Argentina. From the four teams in the semi-final, the options were Germany v Argentina; Germany v Netherlands; Brazil v Netherlands; and Brazil v Argentina.
Just prior to the semi-finals I had been mulling over who I would like to see in the final, and why. And here, I have to explain that there is childish grudgery and immature prejudice at play that I must admit to now, in advance, before things get ugly.
I’m the second child of four. I have an older brother, by one year, who I grew up more or less stuck to; a younger brother who bridged the three year gap with feistiness; and a baby sister who was, well, a girl and therefore put upon our world to step on our Subbuteo players. Which she managed to do. Often. (Luckily, and she knew it, younger brother was an Airfix aficionado and we were never short of its glue.)
My earliest recollection of proper football – there was practically no live football on television at the time – was the European Cup Final of 1968. For the Subbuteo-steppers amongst you, that was the year that Manchester United reached the final, conveniently being held at Wembley Stadium, becoming the first English club to do so, one year after Celtic’s famous Glasgow-infused victory made them the first British club to lift the trophy. Benfica, from Portugal, were the opponents and the match ended 1-1, after United’s goalkeeper Alex Stepney foiled the great Eusebio in the dying
moments. And so the game went to extra-time and Manchester United drove on to glory, banging in three goals to win 4-1. Bobby Charlton raised the mighty trophy to the sky and tears were shed for he, as a young player, survived the air accident that killed much of his team mates only ten years earlier during English football’s first adventures in European football. So much drama, and glamour, and poignant triumph.
All of which I missed as I was in bed asleep. We could stay up especially late to watch the match but Dad called time after the regulation 90 mins. My first words to him when I woke up were: “Who won?” And so another United fan was born, worshipping at the altar of the twinkly George Best. From there until 1974 I suppose were the years I was most into football, coinciding with an inexorable slide into mediocrity and under-achievement by my new favourite team.
So, back to the grudge-carrying.
The two greatest World Cup finals of my life were about to happen.
Although it was nice having an annual event like the FA Cup Final, there is something magical about a global occasion that only swings by every four years. I felt the same about the Olympic Games. When you are a young boy you only get two or three shots at this magical feeling – in the same way as you only have a small window of belief on the Santa Claus front – and you need to make the most of them.
The 1970 World Cup Finals were held a few months after we’d left London for the west coast of mid-Wales. We had three miles of gently-sloping golden sand beach to play on, turning into any and every sporting stadium from Lord’s Cricket ground to Wembley Stadium to the All-England Club to Cardiff Arms Park to Aintree. Didn’t help with the boat race so we dropped that from the schedule. Anyway, having come from the metropolis, my sticker collection left my new village school friends in awe. By March I practically had everything complete. Esso had a coin collection and we had got stuck into that, too. Although I am half-Welsh and half-Canary Islander I was more than happy to support England then – all the players coming from clubs we supported, dreaded playing against or hated/respected (Leeds Utd anyone?).
Much has been made of this being the first ‘colour’ World Cup, and a reason so many people were transfixed even more by Brazil, in the dazzling yellow shirts. Of course, if you were only transfixed by Brazil because of their dazzling yellow shirts, and not their football, you were probably a Subbuteo-stepper but let’s move on.
Do you remember Brazil v England? They played in the group stage. Great match. England were a good side then, actually. The last time they had a world class team. But Brazil were better. Gordon Banks made a save that I couldn’t at the time quite understand. My memory of it was David Coleman’s satellite-distorted commentary: “Pele!…..WHAT a save!” Always remember the inflection. WHAT a save. And the pause while his brain managed to stop him saying “Holy shit”. I can also remember being aware of the light. The bright, bright light. That was something that made it special. It was the WORLD Cup. It was somewhere far away. Somewhere completely different. Alien almost. England had this Persil-wash white kit, top to toe. And you could tell, even on the TV screens of the day, that the material was different.
Brazil won 1-0 in a match probably remembered not for the goal that was scored but for the goal that was saved; the goal that was missed (a sitter from Jeff Astle); and an absolute peach of a tackle on Pele by Bobby Moore that did what it was supposed to do without a trace of effort or aggression. Moore and Pele embracing after the game has also gone down in life’s iconic moments of football list.
But, anyway, let’s get on with the Germany issue.
West Germany, of course, reached the previous World Cup final and had lost to hosts England, adding a bit of spice to their quarter-final match. Gordon Banks, best goalie in the World at the time, went down with food poisoning the night before the match so Chelsea’s Peter Bonetti took his place. I didn’t think this would be a problem because his nickname was The Cat and I liked cats. England were 2-0 but, to cut a long story short, the West Germans side pulled two goals back and won it in extra-time. The equalising goal was a header by a bald man, who looked like a bank manager, who was facing the wrong way! I mean, come ON.
I have to admit I was a little bit traumatised. I had drawn an outline of the Jules Rimet trophy and my Dad had cut it out with a jig saw. I already had a trophy ready but, but, but…
We all had fountain pens in those days. It was but the work of a few bitter seconds to open my sticker album on the West Germany page (one of the fully completed teams) and give three bitter flicks of the wrist with the good ol’ Parker pen and spray ugly black blotches on Uwe Seeler and half his grinning Teutonic cohorts.
West Germany played out an absolutely thrilling 5-4 with Italy in the semi-final in a match many feel was the greatest in World Cup history and I could have cared less.
Brazil won the final 4-1. A match that was probably – and not just because it caught me at the perfect age for such memories – the apotheosis of the World Cup dream. I had my wooden trophy and it was just fine with me and the brothers to be Brazilians lifting it high on the beach.
So the 1974 finals come round and the excitement builds again. There are new names being whispered in the playground. Remember how in those days we would wait for these four years to come round just to see foreign players. Sometimes we were already aware of the names (perhaps they played for Ajax and we’d caught them while watching the European Cup Final?) but often we would welcome complete strangers into our TV screens and be utterly mesmerised.
England were already rubbish by then and didn’t even qualify. But we didn’t care. Oh no.
We had Cruyff.
Holland (as we all – and some still do – called them) were a joy to watch, as Brazil had been four years earlier. They were no one-man team but, let’s be honest, it was all about the Master – Johan Cruyff. A new, unpleasantly hard and defensively-minded, Brazil were dispatched by the men in orange to leave them with hosts West Germany in the final. Holland were 1-0 up before the Germans had even touched the ball. A few passes here and there and then Cruyff races forward, swerving into the penalty area where he is fouled. Neeskens smashes the ball straight down the middle. It’s as good as it got. Can’t remember much. It wasn’t a great game. West Germany also scored a penalty and then that little goal machine Gerd Mueller put away a winner. I will say that if the Dutch had a funny bone in their footballing body…let’s say they would have gone far with Gordon Banks between the sticks.
So West Germany ruined another party. Still, at least they couldn’t lift that beautiful retro Jules Rimet trophy. Brazil got to keep that for winning it three times. The West Germans got the new one. Good. Huh.
We were back living in Tenerife for the 1978 World Cup, but my interest was decidedly half-hearted by now. The Dutch no longer had Cruyff but they still made the final, only there to meet hosts Argentina. They were a good enough side, but I remember feeling that, my God, what hysteria. What machismo. What on earth will happen if Argentina don’t win?
They did win. In extra time but not before the Dutch had hit the outside of the post in the final moments of regulation time. It was probably lucky for world peace at the time that the ball hadn’t gone in. And I say again, without any offence intended, that with a better goalkeeper…
So that was that. We STILL talk about beautiful Holland and yet they haven’t played like they did back then since…well, back then.
There was one more flirtation with the beautiful game and that came at the next World Cup. It involved Brazil again. They were bloody gorgeous to watch. And then, wallop. They lost to Italy. Not in the final. Not even in the semi-final. Even in that game they were brilliant. But Italy had a goal poacher and he scored three times and that’s how you decide who’s won a football match. And THAT was the last time Brazil played like Brazil.
So, to today’s Final. Germany v Argentina. The third Final with these two opponents. In 1986 I wanted Argentina to win and in 1990 I wanted West Germany to win. I am utterly ashamed to say that what I really meant was that in 1986 I didn’t want West Germany to win and in 1990 I didn’t want Argentina to win. But I had only the slightest of real interest, if I’m honest.
I’ll never get excited by Germany. But I will say this, what an extraordinary record of consistency. Unbelievable. They were very average for a few years. But right in the middle of that poor period guess what? Yup, still made the final of a World Cup. In 2002. England – less than a year after deservedly beating Germany 5-1, in Germany during qualification – went out in the quarter-finals.
So I sort of wanted the final to be Netherlands v Germany to avenge the result in 1974. And I sort of wanted Brazil v Argentina because that just reeks of global glamour in football-land.
But most of all I wanted Brazil v Netherlands. Because I live in the past. Because I still see Brazil in 1970, and Holland in 1974. And what I thought I wanted most in life – for a couple of hours away from reality – was Pele and Jairzinho against Cruyff and Neeskens.
What I got – last night in the pointless 3rd Place Play-Off – was Norwich City against Everton.
Good luck to Germany AND Argentina. Do football proud.
But, you know, for old times’ sake, you could always both just lose. Double runners-up? Just a thought.
UPDATED JULY 14
Congratulations Germany! And Argentina, too, for being positive and having a right proper go. Like most of the 2014 World Cup, the final started with a bang and perhaps gradually lost fizz and sparkle. No complaints about the overall tournament winner. I think, all things considered and weighed up, the best team won.
It’s just that…it’s just that…(let it go, Mark. Put the kettle on. Ed.)