The Russia World Cup 2018 is here. The quadrennial football fiesta never fails to open the floodgates of my memories. Dazzling skills, mind-boggling goals and high-voltage matches can always be found in club football too. So what makes World Cup matches special? The images stay with you: like the Mario Goetze winner in Brazil.
Germany's Mario Goetze celebrates after scoring the opening goal past Argentina's goalkeeper Sergio Romero during the World Cup final soccer match between Germany and Argentina at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. AP
I’m not the typical club football fanatic who follows leagues around Europe. An El Clasico may stir my interest because I follow the fortunes of Barcelona. Occasionally I would catch a Champions League fixture if I have an interest in one of the teams, like Arsenal, Bayern Munich, Barcelona and more recently Manchester City. Yet, these matches are more a passing interest than a passionate pursuit.
I became a World Cup faithful in the eighties and early nineties, never skipping the telecasts. As a youngster, I marvelled at the sublime skills of the best footballers of the time. Some of those players and their displays remain etched in memory.
Advent of television
Television came to my town in the early eighties, and experimental transmission began with the telecast of 1982 World Cup matches. Zico, Socrates and Paulo Rossi soon became my heroes. The Brazilians didn’t win, done in by a Rossi hat-trick. But I fell in love with the attacking, flowing Samba style. The squad with Socrates, Zico, Eder, Junior and Cereso went down in history as the best Brazilian side never to have won the World Cup.
An injured Zico and Socrates, the chain-smoking doctor, returned to my living room in1986. Brazil thrilled me again before the quarterfinal heartbreak against France. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Zico (in regular time), Socrates and Julio Cesar missed penalties in a single match; Michel Platini too, in the shootout. That’s World Cup pressure.
Italy's Paolo Rossi, left, celebrates, after scoring the second goal for his team during their World Cup match second round soccer match against Brazil, in Barcelona, Spain. Italy, who beat Brazil 3-2 in a classic match, went on to win the tournament with Rossi scoring six goals. AP
The robust style of Europeans never caught my fancy. I haven’t seen the Dutch masters of the seventies. And the Spaniards, those days, were not exactly champion stuff despite Emilio Butragueno wreaking some havoc. But there were other wonderful European players in the eighties.
Romanian Gheorghe Hagi’s skills left an impression on me. His long-range dipping shots that left goalkeepers bemused showed me that you could score from 40 yards out, at this level.
Hristo Stoichkov was another of my favourites. The Bulgarian’s power and robust game always captivated me. How can I forget Zbigniew Boniek, the red-haired Pole who in 1982 carried his country to one of their best finishes in World Cup.
My heart went out to Paul Gascoigne who was inconsolable after picking up his second yellow card in the semifinal against Germany in 1990. Having come into the match with a booking, Gazza would have missed the final, had England won. The best English side I have seen (it had Stuart Pearce, Peter Shilton, Gary Lineker, David Platt, to mention a few) failed in the shootout.
The French midfield maestros were a treat to watch. A beaming Platini led the pack that included Luis Fernandez, Jean Tigana and Alain Giresse. Tigana was special. The commentator’s voice still rings in my ears. “Tigana, Tigana, Tigana,” he would scream as the lean, lithe figure relinquished his defensive duties to tear into rival defences.
I was treated to a new brand of football when Cameroon brought the African effervescence to Italia ’90. Veteran super sub Roger Milla had a brilliant tournament. One of the enduring images was of the 38-year-old scoring after stealing the ball from Colombian showman Rene Higuita, one of the earliest sweeper-keepers.
I never liked the Italians: mainly because their Catenaccio system made for boring football. That was until I discovered Roberto Baggio, the “Divine Ponytail”. I last saw the popular Azzurri trudging off the field after firing a penalty over the bar in the shootout, in the USA ’94 final.
Another Italian rose from obscurity to World Cup fame. Salvatore Schillaci (right) was not elegant. We all love an underdog. I backed him since he was the fifth-choice striker with little international exposure. From being a substitute, he went on to win the Golden Boot (highest scorer), and Golden Ball (best player), ahead of West Germany’s Lothar Matthaeus and Argentina’s Diego Maradona. A World Cup fairytale indeed!
Enzo Francescoli was a whiff of fresh air in a Uruguayan side that was quick to employ rough and ready tactics. His good looks won plenty of female admirers, but what won my vote was Francescoli’s breathtaking footwork that made him float over the pitch.
Saudi Arabia was an unknown quantity to me. But I will remember Saeed Al Owairan. His 70-yard run to score against Belgium is simply unforgettable, undoubtedly one of the iconic moments in 1994.
That brings us to a true genius: Diego Maradona.
The Argentinian was at the peak of his powers in 1986. I remember the match against England. No, not the Hand of God goal. But the one that followed. The Goal of the Century, when he slalomed past half the England side. That was pure genius.
There were many such exhilarating moments from the last century. In the new millennium, I continued to keep up with the World Cup matches. Somehow it doesn’t seem to have the romance of the eighties and nineties. Maybe the youth of today would see it differently. They would see the exploits of Zidane, Maldini, Iniesta, Ronaldo and Messi in a different light.
That is the magic of football!