My history of the World Cup since 1982!

17 Jun 2018

Memories  of  my first World Cup are from Phikwe and  revolve around  a  small black and white  television set  owned by  a local mentor  called Tom  who allowed   his favourite  boys in the neighborhood  to  come over  and watch. Viewing games  as a  guest was solemn business. No  noise making, kids pranks or  even cheering  of the teams  on the pitch. You were lucky to sit  on the floor in front of the telly. The unlucky chaps had to jostle by the  window for a peep. Espana 82  was my first  encounter  with  the  global game  in  its quadrennial  extravaganza  to  elect  the  champion of the world. Black and  white  television images  left  much  to the imagination in terms  of the  actual colours  worn   by the teams. One therefore had  to have a reference point  to translate  to television.  For the lot  I hung out  with our frame of reference  was a British publication called Shoot which  was on sale  at the local bookshop. It was flipping through the pages of  Shoot that we  got to encounter  the  many star  names  of the day  and also  get  an indication  of  their bright squad jerseys which  on television metamorphosed  into  black and white.  We also had another mentor  Papi who himself  was  a football  player, ironically  for  Copper Chiefs, a team we   didn’t  support,  didn’t  even like because we swore by Nico United. But we liked  him  and his  housemate known  as Sugar  who also  played for the same team we  disliked.

They collected  stacks     of football publications both South African  and British. In reality our  local football  was  just  for weekend recreation  and   proper fans  believed serious   football  was  to be found in South Africa  which then played  alone  due  to  the sports boycott prohibiting teams  from free  societies  playing  against the pariah apartheid outpost. Being isolated  meant  they  ran a thriving domestic  football scene. But  because the Boers  loved that inelegant game called rugby,  mot much football was  shown on television  and  for our weekly  fix of  football across the  border  we listened on Radio Tswana  and its signal was better on the  hills  dotting the local leisure park. Every Saturday  groups of grown up men  would leave  their  homes, carrying portable transistor radios  and make their  way up the hill to catch the  action from Orlando Stadium in Soweto. Around the radio owners would  be  us the  kids listening intently  as the proper fans berated a striker for  missing  a  sitter  just  by following the voice on radio. Up in the hills of Phikwe  they  could also yell for a substitution purely from  monitoring  the  ebb and flow of the  match  commentary. It truly was surreal  and later in life recalling these  pundits  I  surmised radio gave them  a kind of touchstone  to  imagine  and  bring the  game  to life  in their  minds. So this meant  in 1982 small town Phikwe,  a fan rooted  for a local team and a South African side. The  more committed  fan could also  nail his affections  to a Gaborone team and supporting  the likes of Rollers, Gaborone United or  Notwane was considered a badge  of status by some of the more uppity types.  Then there were folks  mainly   from the rural  areas who in addition to the two or three teams they supported  also backed a xmas  selection  back in the village where playing  for a goat  could even lead  to fan violence.

In fact fandom  was a demanding pastime  long before  the European leagues  came  into our lives due to television  becoming  an ubiquity  in  many a home. Anyway by the time  we gathered  at Tom’s  house  we had  a reasonable  knowledge  of the team  and  players  featuring in the World Cup  courtesy of Shoot magazine. The South African  magazines  had returned the  boycott favour  and  only  profiled their teams. I think I only watched two games of Espana 82, because  the Boers in any case  didn’t want  their  television  broadcasting  a black sport  when rugby was  available. So  they  flighted only   few matches  and  that gave me the opportunity  to  see New Zealand   getting thrashed 4-0  by  Brazil, and  the  then Soviet Union, now Russia for those  born after  the Cold War drawing 2-2  with plucky little Scotland. But Shoot magazine  would  in  subsequent  weeks  treat  us  to comprehensive coverage  of the  just ended World Cup  with glossy pictures, profiles and statistics. It was our  bible of  football and transported  us to stadiums and  matches  we could  only dream about. Resourced by Shoot  we  started  following English  league teams  long before  every local  Mpho, Thabo  and Modiri  discovered an English  team. These  games we watched  at the Ziga household. Through  Shoot  magazine  we were the  experts during football banter  and  beyond Jomo Sono   and Ace Ntsoelengoe   in South Africa, we  knew   dudes from far  off lands bearing names like  Kevin Keegan, Bryan Robson, Paolo Rossi, Socrates, Zico, Michel Platini  and enigmatic  players representing the  Soviet Union,  clad in iconic CCCP blazoned strip  like Ramaz Shengalia, Oleg Blokhin and acrobatic goalkeeper Rinat Dasayev. Connoisseurs  would later tell us the Brazil squad of  Espana 82, coached by Tele Santana and captained by the elegant Socrates   was the best  since the 1970  World Cup winning selecao because they  played a brand  of romantic football known as o jogo bonito.  It  was Shoot that also  brought into our football lives  a   kid called Diego Maradona  from  a delightfully named country  called Argentina. In  a decision that almost  caused a national uprising, the coach  Cesar Luis Menotti  had opted not to select the boy of gold  for the 1978 World Cup hosted and won by Argentina because at seventeen he considered him too young. Fans were baying if he is good enough  he is  old  enough. Menotti desisted  from adventurism and relied on captain Daniel Pasarella and striker Mario Kempes to lead the team to victory over Holland in Buenos Aires. 

Finally when Maradona  announced his arrival  on the world stage at Espana 82, the twenty two year old  was a marked man  and literally butchered by every defender. In exasperation  Maradona  got sent off  against Brazil  for retaliation  but the world  had caught glimpse of  the looming phenomenon. Talking of butcher defenders Espana 82  introduced  to the world   Claudio Gentile, a brutal  Italian defender, an exponent of catenaccio   who was  a man marker par excellence whose  present day equivalent in defensive   thuggery is  a certain Sergio Ramos. The years went by and Mexico 86 came around  with colour television  and more  homes  had acquired the  wonder  box through  the  new  retail system called  hire  purchase. One  no longer had to be friends with  the  kid  whose  home  had the only  black and white television set  in the street. Actually   some  of the original black and white owners  failed to upgrade  to colour  and the  family  would sit there forlorn with  their once  arrogant  kids having fallen from grace as we  migrated to new  friends  who had colour. We still relied on South African television because  our country had  no service. That is  how Mexico  86  found us. Another big change was no  more   climbing the  hill to catch Radio Tswana  broadcasting Pirates versus Chiefs because they were now  often on  the telly.  Shoot was still  our  encyclopedia  and  distinguished us  from  mere,  unlearned fans. We  were the  clevers  with the ammunition in terms of facts and stories behind the players. In this country  and  many in Africa , Mexico ‘ 86  was  the  first tournament that enjoyed  mass viewership and how apt because  it  on that stage that  the  kid  we  had  always  known  from Shoot  since he was a sixteen  year  old  prodigy  affirmed  his place as  the greatest footballer  ever  conceived by leading Argentina single handedly  to triumph. 

Simply Mexixo 86 was Maradona’s  World Cup. By the time of the 1990  World Cup  in Italy  satellite  television had arrived and  the local fan  had  become  more urbane and  better schooled in matters football. Now they  followed  a local team, a South African side and an English  squad. Supporting  teams in Italy or Spain  was still some years away. The new badge of status was an English  team, Manchester United or Liverpool. Arsenal would  come into vogue  later. Of course   the ruralites  despite living in town still hankered after their village xmas teams  and  on their return  home for the December festivities  would  break into fan violence due to a refereeing decision that deprived them of a goat. Italia 90  took place  when the state had  shipped us off to national service in the hinterlands. The seismic event of  that  tournament  was Les Lions Indomitables of Cameroon    defeating cup holders  Argentina  in the opening  game.  Television hadn’t arrived in the hinterlands  and  I caught the  game  on  weak and static  BBC World frequency. I  couldn’t   believe the result  and  realized  I  would  be  missing out  on a   fantastic tournament  if  I  didn’t  make  my way back  to civilization. Back then  for  such an infraction national service  deserters would   have their  tour extended by  a month when everyone else  went home after  a year of  doing  good deeds  for  rural communities. I decided it was a small price  to pay because there was no way I was  missing out on  this World Cup. If Cameroon sounded so good on radio they  certainly were incredible on  television. I deserted  to join my  friends who were already  at university  and  from  then on was  hooked on Cameroon. They  didn’t play like  previous  African teams  who tended to be timid, afflicted by  inferiority  issues. This  bunch played with swagger and panache. The likes of Cyril Makanaky, Emile Mbouh, the Biyik brothers showcased silky skills. Our defenders  took   no prisoners. Big and tough as baobab trees,  defenders like Benjamin Massing  and Emmanuel Kunde  introduced  the world to the tackling known   in local leagues as man plus  ball. 

I was now a Cameroon  convert and our fairy tale was thwarted  at the  quarter final  by England  through  some dubious penalty decisions. Well  I  guess the powers that  be couldn’t allow some African upstarts to  knock  the founders of the game out  of their game.  By the time USA 94 rolled in I was  enrolled at  university  and already  pushing  my weight about  to  run the television set in the common room. The games were broadcast to us late  at  night or  in the early  hours of the morning  and  many of  us sat through the  cold. I think if  some research were  done, many  a  varsity  student  who watched  the matches  flunked  exams  that year. But it was a carnival  World  Cup nonetheless  because we  didn’t know Americans could embrace  soccer. Up to  now USA 94 retains the  record  for the biggest  crowds at  a tournament. One of the greatest goals was scored there by Saudi Arabian striker Saeed Al Owairan  when he took on the entire Belgian team from his own half on a mazy run before finishing with fine aplomb.  Besides a Nigeria team  that  flattered to deceive  and crashed out through tactical  naivety and indiscipline the less said about my Indomitable Lions the better. They were  just  a disaster. Russia,  not a great soccer power hammered  us  by six  goals and our  young defender Rigobert Song summed up the calamity  when he  was sent off  to  commentators  describing the moment as ‘ Song out of tune’.   Play on the pitch was not so exciting  and even  the  winners Brazil  played  so awfully     they were undeserving champions. But the tournament rehabilitated  itself  in France 98   where we were  introduced  to Zinedine Zidane and  his swashbuckling band  of merry men  who  were worthy winners. Again the Africans, particularly Cameroon and Nigeria  just  never came through. It was after this tournament that  I  drew conclusions about  the African football  condition.  Players  don’t gel as a team, they    are too individualistic  and  lack  discipline. The  root  of all this is the village. Every  problem in African  can be traced  to the village including the under performance  of   the squads at the World Cup. You see the village is  so wired  into  the psyche of the African so much that   with everything we do  the village looms large and uppermost  in our  minds.

An African  team could be  winning   the game; examples  being Cameroon  versus  England 1990 and Nigeria against Italy 1994. But instead  of  listening to the coach and  shutting  down the  game  the  minds of players   begin wandering to the  village. They think  of personal glory and   how their fellow villagers  will  be  proud of them; how the chick  who  rejected  them at secondary school will be left  eating  humble pie; how  the  jealous  neighbours bewitching  them  will finally get their comeuppance. Our players  think of how they will be rewarded handsomely  and  build the biggest mansion in the village.  They imagine driving  big cars on  dirt  roads with  emaciated and snotty  nosed  urchins running alongside, feteing them as  local  heroes. As the players   minds  wander to rural villages  thousands  of miles  away from the pitch, the  non African team  with no such pathology  will turn the match on its  head  through focus and discipline  and the next thing the  African team  will  be out. Until Africans abandon their  love affair  with the village,  none of our teams will win the World Cup and it, of course goes without saying that Africa’s  host of problems such as poverty, indolence, tribalism, sorcery and superstition  will  continue as long as we retain  the village mentality. Anyway I maintained  my  tenuous affair   with Cameroon. We were after all   winning the Nations Cup with regularity  and  going into Korea/Japan  2002 we  had  a  superstar  whom I had first seen in 1998  when the Lions  hoisted  the Nations Cup   in Lagos. At the time  he was seventeen  but something was  just special  about  the kid. He had a rare  hunger  and  burning  ambition  in the way  he  moved. I recall very well we were watching  the  final game at my flat in Phase 2 and  they  will  testify  today  that  I sagely  told all  within earshot that  Samuel Etoo was  going to be a superstar. Which indeed he  became  but  in 2002  in Japan  didn’t carry  us far. For me  it  was  a good  tournament and   the first time I saw  a goalkeeper  who  stood head and shoulders above  all infield players. Except for a single fatal mistake that led to the Brazil winning goal in the final, Oliver Kahn  was  deservedly  player of the tournament. Then  an earthquake   smashed  into my  football soaked  mind. In all my  time  watching and studying the World Cup since those two measly games I  watched  at Tom  house  in 1982 it had  never occurred to me  that the World Cup  could ever be hosted  on the continent. When South Africa was announced as hosts  I  was in celebratory  spirit and hardly  paid attention  to action on the field at  Germany 2006. All  I  hoped for  was to remain alive until 2010. I was besides  myself with  joy and expectation. Finally  I would  watch  this xmas of football  in my hood. Conversely  the   next  best thing about  not staying in South Africa  is  being its next door  neighbor. You get to enjoy the best of the country but when you are done, just dart across the  border to escape its problems. I  want to see Rihanna  twerking, its just four  hours away. Unlike a fellow African  living in say Tanzania  or Liberia  we are blessed  that  the most advanced and only country capable of bringing all manner of  big acts  in sports and entertainment  is  a shout away. I  was determined to  suckle the most  joy  from South Africa 2010. I  got to see five games,  watched at fan parks and  was literally  living there  for the duration of the  tournament.   

It was an unforgettable experience for  me and up to today  I still cant fathom how some of my football loving mates  never attended a single game  or  if  on account of lack of ticket, never went to a fan park to  revel  with thousands of fans who came from all over the world. But this being Africa they couldn’t  go to a once in a lifetime  event and yet  during the  World Cup  weekends  they were regular visitors to the  village; Africa’s source of every  single problem.  On the pitch my  takeaway from 2010  was  a complete loss of respect for Zidane who got sent off for violent conduct  and  thus lost France the cup. In my long  football life I have  never seen such a vainglorious  player who  thought nothing of  sacrificing  the dreams of his teammates  simply because his ego had been pricked by a taunting Italian  defender. Even after  recently  winning  three UEFA Champions League titles  I  still detest the man. Still  buoyed  by South Africa 2010 I  looked forward with relish to Brazil  2014. I didn’t have the money  to travel  but I set myself  a challenge.  I would  lay in my bed, collect  all necessary accoutrements  and watch as many games as possible including obscure fixtures  like Japan versus Greece. At the end of it all I think I missed out on only ten games of the 64 played. In  terms of quality of  football, Brazil 2014  was the  best  tourney by  a mile since  1982. In fact  at its conclusion, flush with euphoria I made a vow  to  ditch football and  turn my back on  the game forever because  there  was  nothing   that could ever  surpass  what  I had seen. Who ever thought Germany could  demolish Brazil by seven goals? Unlike the pundits  who possibly smoke something  illicit,  my player of 2014 was not Lionel Messi but  the remarkable Javier Mascherano. And oh the  best goal  was not scored by James Rodriguez  but  by Robin van Pierse  when  he floated  in the air like a robin songbird to  pierce Spanish hearts in that rout of a game. Thursday this week  my 10th World Cup  kicked  off.

My  love affair  with football  remains  healthy, robust   and quite fulfilling. I have  called  time  on my  attachment to the Indomitable Lions. That said, life is about second and even third chances. If the Indomitable Lions ever roar again  they  will find a place reserved for them in a portion of my heart. For Russia 2018  I plan to watch every single game barring unforeseen circumstances. And  as a  fan  who  has been around  and   confidently  know my  football, my smart  money  is  on the Red Devils of Belgium. For the past number of tournaments I didn’t support any team but just watched  as many as I could  to enjoy the game. However  for this year I have made an exception by choosing a side.  I am a Red  Devil  and please Belgium  don’t  leave me bereft and humiliated.