Football, I’ve long maintained, is a package sport: to enjoy it you have to tolerate everything that comes with it—the constant advertising, corruption, hooliganism, tribalism, racism, offensively inane punditry. As a child I enjoyed football largely, I suspect, because I was not particularly aware of these things. It was only as I got older, when my knowledge of the game developed beyond what was happening on the pitch, that I began to lose interest in following it.
I finally stopped completely in the mid ‘00s. By then, the players, who for decades had resembled Bullseye contestants and traffic wardens, were beginning to look like low-rent nightclub owners—the kind who supplement their income by peddling crushed up Trebor mints disguised as cocaine. Some of these players were obviously gifted, but more often than not their talents were eclipsed by their irrepressible egos. They were the product of a new era of football that ushered in an accepted admiration for passionless individualism, whereby talented players didn’t particular care how well their teams performed, so long as they themselves increased their transfer value.
Football in the early ‘00s became exclusively a business; even the fans began to talk about it as though it was some sort of stock exchange. Supporting a big team seemed, to my mind, increasingly pointless—a bit like supporting Coca-Cola or DFS. But perhaps I was being unfair. I began following football again a couple of years ago and, much to my surprise, I have quite enjoyed it, in spite of all its unappealing associations I mentioned above. The standard of play is incredibly good nowadays—probably better in fact than it’s ever been. Yet nowadays, whenever I watch a big game, something about it still leaves me cold.
I can’t quite put my finger on why this is, but after watching some of the official FIFA World Cup films, I do have a clearer picture of what I used to love about football, and what I loved about the World Cup in particular. The films, which FIFA have produced after every World Cup since 1954, recap the highlights of each tournament: not only the moments made by the winners, but also those made by the countries that defied expectation. They capture the excitement of each Wold Cup, not to mention the fashions, which are invariably suspect—wet perms, ludicrous facial hair, kits that look as if they’ve been designed by an artist who works exclusively in highlighter pen. You could put one of these films on at random and immediately know which World Cup you’re watching. And even if you were unsure, the style of play would probably enlighten you.
Nowadays players look confident with the ball at their feet. They don’t look like malnourished tradesmen who have ended up on the pitch because an administration error, like many players in the World Cup films. Even in the 1980s, the age of Maradona, most players seem surprisingly awkward on the pitch. And yet I wouldn’t describe them as less skilful or talented than today’s players—just less slick, less polished, in many ways more interesting.
It’s worth noting, too, that until quite recently some countries were qualifying for the World Cup with teams consisting almost entirely of amateur players. In fact two of the most enduring Word Cup stories, to my mind, are those of New Zealand and Cameroon in the 1982 World Cup. These sides, both formed of mostly amateur players, had never played in the tournament, but breezed through their qualifying matches with impressive skill and determination. They fared less well in the actual tournament. New Zealand lost all their games and Cameroon were simply unfortunate: they played well in the group stages, holding Peru, Poland and Italy to draws, but failed to advance to the next round owing to goal difference—a cruel fate for a team that played showed so much potential.
For me one of the best parts of the World Cup is watching less established teams try their luck. I remember the thrilling opening of the game of the 2002 World Cup, when Senegal beat the then world champions France 1-0. I was beginning to lose interest in football at the time, but this helped rekindle some of my passion for it. Such moments are the reason I got into football in the first place. I was never impressed by the hysterical tribalism that excites so many. I’ve only ever cared about surprises: small teams beating big teams, unique and skilful players with inimitable talents.
When I was growing up I viewed the World Cup as showcase of international football. Now football fans are used to seeing players from all over the world playing every week in the Premier League, but in the ‘90s it was truly incredible for a British fan to watch Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos, whose agile and skilful style of play was like nothing I’d ever seen before. I found it equally thrilling to watch Higuita, the scorpion-kicking goalkeeper, and other players whose antics tickled the border between dazzling and batshit insane. As ridiculous as some of them were, they gave the game personality, a sense of fun.
I’m probably not qualified to comment on players today, and that’s largely because I struggle to tell them apart: not only did half the players at Russia ‘18 play like one another, but most had that peculiar mushroom cloud haircut that less than a decade ago was worn only by men who had been banned multiple times from Tiger Tiger. It must be this decade’s answer to the wet perm mullet, or vokuhila—i.e. inexplicably popular.
Suspect fashion aside, I enjoyed Russia ‘18, and I can see why so many actual football fans were quick to hail it as such a great tournament. There were exciting matches, fantastic goals and unexpected results—in other words, everything anybody could want from the World Cup.
Nevertheless, after it was over, I was left with the feeling that I’ll probably never enjoy the World Cup as much as I did when I was younger. Partly, I feel, this is because the game has changed, but I understand now that I, too, have changed. I’m too cynical and irritated by the negative elements surrounding the game to enjoy truly what’s happening on the pitch. And though, whenever I watch football, I do quickly become invested in the outcome of the game, I rarely feel invested to a strong emotional degree. I like football purely in a casual sense. I like watching talented players, but for me the part of the game that most fans enjoy—the gamble of emotions when you’re desperately praying for your team to win—is absent, and probably always will be.
That is fine by me. I can still enjoy new matches. I can reminisce and watch the FIFA World Cup films. And if I want to I can forget about football altogether—which, as a former die hard fan, I can tell you is a blessing.