Writing

A flagellating mash of self-harm and belching optimism: My life in World Cups

When you were a kid, did you, in an appealing re-imagining of the four times table, work out your age at projected future World Cups? In Mexico ’86, when I first became ‘World Cup aware’, I imagined myself at fifteen years old for the 1990 tournament, nineteen for 1994, by the time it got to sci-fi numerals like 2010 I envisaged myself viewing an England victory in some barely conceivable utopia and at thirty-five, decrepit.

TS Eliot may well have measured his life out in coffee spoons, but I measure mine in World Cups. Now that I am older and days and weeks slide by as un-grip-able as salmon, a four-year unit of time is conveniently tangible. Time’s carousel moves too fast and we know we can’t get off – ‘no re-admittance’, so the four-yearly festival of coming together in mindless reflection to sooth the circles of vertigo is more personal than global.

Here we are then in 2018, basically elderly and awash in nostalgia. To see Bobby Robson’s gentle victorious jig in a triumphant BBC VT is to be fifteen again; summer in Essex and the dreadful brightness of a pubic June. Gazza’s hysteria, the perfect talisman for all warped greatness, all opportunity squandered.

Mired in years we watched the England myth become a flagellating mash of self-harm and belching optimism. In USA ’94 we didn’t qualify, in ’96 we had that unforgettable summer, the curious inverse of ‘69 (a number made for inversion after all) and the apotheosis of ‘English football culture’ – a football Woodstock. By ‘98, drink and drugs were taking their toll on me and England were on the way to becoming WAGged and shagged.

Perhaps Gareth Southgate’s first-hand tournament experience is what is making him so adept. Like everyone else I held out little hope when Southgate took the chalice from Big Sam. (Are chalices ever not poisoned? If you’re offered one, Just Say No.) Too nice, too liberal, too modern. As if the top job ought to be occupied by some kind of bastard but no, in these early games (EARLY! We’ve not even played Belgium) this team seems to be the ‘feel good opposite’ of much of what has gone before oddly abstract from the defining national mood. This is the England of Brexit and Grenfell, of third runways and unexamined nationalism. Meanwhile on the pitch a cosmopolitan bunch of inoffensive youngsters are beautifully executing complex free kicks. I know, only against Panama, but still.

Jules Rimet, I like to believe had beauty and unity in mind when he devised this global football competition. I also like to think he didn’t name it the ‘Jules Rimet Trophy’ while he was still Fifa president, especially as his is a name that glistens with pornographic onomatopoeia, that would be a pimp-ass move. The fact is that the world stops for World Cups and the World Cup only stops for World Wars. In the overt tribalism and vivid livery, we are reminded of the combustible oneness of our planet. That’s why this shit is so sentimental, don’t you nearly cry sometimes at Baddiel and Skinner’s ‘Three Lions’? Isn’t it the very essence of the ‘Come here Dad, I love you’ conundrum that dare not speak its name? When globalisation is bad and nationalism worse, when patriarchy is nothing but negative, don’t you swell with tears and healthy pride to see dear Gareth, three-pieced up, fists pumping? When his wounded shoulder permits.

We all know that Fifa are outlaws, that the hosting of World Cups dubiously bestowed. Greed is everywhere. The optimist believes that beneath all greed, beneath all be-devilled yearning is a deep abiding glory. If we can just get past the ugliness of some of our first impulses, if we can just get past the compulsion to be powerful, if we can just get past the quarter finals, there is a promised land.

In 2018, via Talksport’s excellent coverage and the never-less-than-immaculate BBC (Lineker, with silver hair and Golden Slippers the perfect portal, the Ghost Of World Cup Past, perched beside an improbable table with a footballing Dad’s Army in front of the fucking Kremlin) the disparate past is speared by the unified present. All World Cup history is happening in the ‘perpetual now’. Perhaps things don’t ‘fall apart’, perhaps the centre can hold, the falcon can hear the falconer just fine thank you and maybe the thing ‘slouching towards Bethlehem to be born’ is not a ‘rough beast’ but something quite lovely. Here I am, contrary to calculations made in Essex ,’86, with two daughters, measuring out their giant futures in four year instalments; 2022, 2026, 2030. Maybe I have more World Cups behind me than in front of me, but on it goes the giant vessel, humanity, searing through space and manageable four-year pieces of time.