Do you remember the first time?
Of course you do. It probably came flooding back in recent weeks — as you read a preview supplement, stuck up a wall chart, or drew Costa Rica in the office sweepstake, making you feel a bit like Proust, except with Panini stickers instead of fancy French biscuits.
Maybe it was Cruyff’s turn, or the rapture of Marco Tardelli, or Maradona’s goal against England (which one?).
Maybe it’s Italia ’90 and all that, or Diana Ross missing the penalty in 1994, or the glorious technicolour of 1970.
Maybe it’s collecting Esso coins, or getting a Jacob’s inflatable shamrock, or your very own Adidas Tango. Maybe it’s World Cup Willie, or smiling Naranjito, or the avant-garde Ciao.
You see, nostalgia is a disease and we’ve all got World Cup fever.
Is there anything else that provokes such waves of warm and golden memory than football’s quadrennial global festival?
Maybe Christmases past, but they all blend into one steaming pudding of hazy remembrance. Was that the year we got Scalextric? Or the year of the big snow? The one when Del Boy and Raquel had a baby?
World Cups stand out, shimmering and unmistakeable. They are a twist on what’s known as flashbulb memory, those death-of-JFK or 9/11 moments, when people remember exactly where they were and what they were doing.
For football fans, the four-year interludes stake out phases in our lives around which all the humdrum stuff of existence is filled in.
For example, my life is signposted thus: Maradona… Pavarotti… Giants Stadium… Zidane… Saipan… Zidane again… Vuvuzelas… Germany 7-1 Brazil. Try it yourself.
That’s why each tournament is greeted with this wave of remembrance, a cascade of pop-culture references and kitsch childhood artefacts.
Psychologists view nostalgia as an effort to reassure ourselves about the very fundamentals of who we are when all around us seems subject to constant change.
So, sentimental Christmas memories are how we cling to the ties of family and kinship that form our identity, even when loved ones are no longer with us and we ourselves are older and wiser.
The World Cup nostalgia phenomenon must speak to some similar bittersweet need to commemorate innocence lost.
I remember Mexico 1986 as vividly as you probably remember your first. It was not my first experience of watching football, but it was when a spark was ignited into a flame.
In those prelapsarian days, when live soccer on TV was a treat and foreign players unspeakably exotic, the World Cup just blew your mind.
But it wasn’t just the football. It was, after late-night last-16 matches, my father leaving a handwritten note on a small brown envelope on the kitchen window sill before heading off to work: “Belgium 4 USSR 3. AET. Great game.”
The next night: “West Germany 1 Morocco 0. Poor game.”
It was running outside after Argentina games to practice dribbling like Maradona, one of a generation doomed to become greedy ball-hoggers with questionable lifestyle choices.
It was telling a girl on my first day in secondary school four years later that I could still name all the goalscorers from Mexico ’86, earning an early taste of what was to be a long-running familiarity with the pity of the opposite sex.
It’s this deep psychological hinterland that comes out to play every four years, when billions of people around the world get misty-eyed about sticker albums, retro tracksuits and dads.
It seems, however, like the atmosphere around this World Cup has been thicker with the fog of nostalgia than previous tournaments.
It may be the sheer weight of its glorious history; it may be that Ireland aren’t involved and we must sustain ourselves with dog-eared copies of Jack Charlton’s World Cup Diary; or it may be the realisation the time before the tournament is better spent watching reruns of Josimar and Johnny Rep than Gareth Southgate press conferences.
It feels, at least until the actual football starts, as if the World Cup’s past is as important as its present. The History Channel devoted its entire schedule in recent weeks to World Cup nostalgia; the Irish airwaves were full of tales of bygone tournaments; and newspaper columns were jammed with childish reminiscences (yes, yes, I know).
This may simply be the work of middle-aged media bores adamant that modern life, in all its brand-endorsed, Insta-ready, Fortnite-addicted glory, is, indeed, rubbish.
Or perhaps, with pre-eminence of club football and the concentration of the world’s best players in a handful of European cities, it is a yearning for a time when World Cups were both the game’s ultimate showcase and source of its most brilliant surprises.
Or maybe, in these oversaturated days, when coverage of every game in every stadium looks the same, it’s harking back to a time when a World Cup was never just More Football On The Telly.
This, however, is also, of course, the first World Cup since the fall of the Fifa organised racket, which parcelled up and sold off this tournament and the next one to gangsters even more nefarious than the Zurich lot themselves. It’s also in Russia, which you might have heard is not exactly toeing the line with the whole cuddly, western, liberal democratic, human rights thing right now.
So, it’s the first time even the most devoted football fan, head stuck in preview magazines and daily podcasts, cannot avoid asking themselves if they really should be so excited about this jamboree that, quite frankly, in so much of its construction and execution, stinks to high heaven of unvarnished corruption and barefaced avarice.
Maybe that’s why we find ourselves digging out the bric-a-brac of memory — Opel jerseys, Roger Milla’s hips, World in Motion, Socrates’ headband, etc — and wrapping ourselves in the protective embrace of nostalgia, as if to reassure ourselves that, despite everything, it is still, and will always be, the World Cup; still embodying the values that Pique, the sombrero-wearing jalapeno pepper mascot of Mexico ’86, stood for.
Also, I know Proust, presumably after unpeeling a shiny Brazil badge, wrote that “remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were”.
But then, he never saw Maradona play.
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