The beauty of the unknown from past World Cups
Last week, a Facebook friend of mine was following the England-Peru game. I don't want to mention names, so let's just say that he is a British journalist whom I have never met and don't know personally. (He's not a football writer.)
A few minutes into the game, his status message read: "Why exactly do Peru not have a white sash on that red kit?" At that moment, I instantly knew that he was born in the late 1960s or early 1970s. (His Wikipedia entry eventually told me that the year in question was 1972.)
Of course, it was just speculation. He could have been an older man who remembered Peru's iconic kit -- white with a red sash or red with a white sash -- from the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. Or he could have been one of those young football hipsters who follow the Copa América games on pay television or the Web. (Peru haven't graced the World Cup finals since 1982.)
Still, I was almost willing to bet that this British journalist had first seen Peru during the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, and that the team, especially Teófilo Cubillas, had left an indelible impression on him. Because that's what happened to me.
Cubillas was a big star on his continent at that time. He had been crowned South American Footballer of the Year as early as 1972, when he was only 23. He had since played for Basel in Switzerland, and he was under contract at Porto when the tournament in Argentina began.
Me, I had never heard of the man. In all likelihood, I had never heard of Peru, either. I was 12 years old and this was the first World Cup I really followed.
Yes, I have some vague memories of 1974. I remember watching the final with my sister and my grandparents. My brother, a fanatical football aficionado and the person who turned me onto the game, just couldn't be bothered. Like many devoted football fans in Germany, he had -- and has -- no interest in the World Cup whatsoever.
The game I remember much more clearly from the 1974 edition was the most important match of this tournament -- and, of course, that wasn't the final. It was the game between West Germany and East Germany. I remember this game so vividly despite catching only 15 minutes of it, because I climbed out of bed (it was an evening game), walked into the living room and found my parents watching football.
They rarely did anything together and both didn't like football, so it bowled me over to see them side by side and staring intently at the television set. Not to mention that they also allowed me to stay and watch a bit. That's how massive this game was.
Anyway, it was only four years later, in 1978, when I really immersed myself in a World Cup. The problem was that so many games kicked off fairly late, at 8:45 p.m. German time. Argentina's first-round games started even later, at 11:15 p.m. It meant I could watch the afternoon games and was allowed to stay up for West Germany's matches, but I missed the whole rest. Live, that is.
Because there were reruns of those late games on the next morning, between 10:30 a.m. and noon, if I recall the times correctly. And so I would get up each day, walk to school, stay there for three lessons and then just walk back home during the first long break.
Nobody seemed to notice or care, so I guess we can blame football for turning me into an enthusiastic school-skipper throughout my secondary education. (Before you leave accusatory comments, let me point out that I eventually passed all exams, went to university and even got a proper degree. Not that it did me any good, though. I still ended up as a football writer.)
I didn't have to skip school to see Peru versus Scotland, however. It was an afternoon game. Scotland went ahead. That was to be expected, as these players were all superheroes, as far as I was concerned. They played for teams I knew by name (and would sometimes see on television when they knocked Bundesliga clubs out of Europe), such as Leeds United, Manchester United or the mythical, invincible, otherworldly Liverpool FC.
But suddenly the strange men in these strange kits with the sash equalised. Then their goalkeeper saved a penalty. Cubillas scored with a fantastic strike from 20 yards out and then just stood there with his red sash and his outstretched arms, waiting for his teammates to come and tell him how great this goal was.
Six minutes later, Peru won a free kick at the left-hand edge of the penalty area. One of their players ran up, feinted to shoot but then stepped over the ball to leave the business to Cubillas -- who did something I had never seen before and rarely since. He hit the ball with the outside of his right foot and curled it around the left side of the wall for the winner in a 3-1 final. I couldn't believe what I had just seen.
As you will have noticed, most of my lasting memories from this, my first proper World Cup, have nothing to do with the German team. I can't even recall much about the Austria game that looms so large in our football lore.
Our games just didn't give me that sense of wonderment I felt when I saw Peru run rings around Scotland. Or when I watched the Argentinian players in their stunning striped shirts, heard their names -- all of them unfamiliar, most of them impossibly cool -- and saw the ticker tape raining down on the pitch.
This is something I miss these days: the surprises. The unknown faces, names and kits. I don't think it has to do with my age, because I still had that sense of unexpected discovery in 1982 (Algeria, Paolo Rossi and those amazing Brazilians), 1986 (Morocco, Enzo Francescoli, Hugo Sánchez) and 1990 (Carlos Valderrama's hair, Rene Higuita's antics, Roger Milla's grin). Even 2002 brought enough of these wonderful moments -- had I ever really paid any attention to how good Turkey were or heard the names of those South Korean players before?
Then, last week and shortly after England played Peru, I found myself on a video podcast with two British writers (Fernando, our man in Brazil, got stuck in traffic, so it could have been even more international). And at one point it occurred to me that we were discussing Chilean fullbacks, injured holding midfielders from the Netherlands, Brazilian forwards and Japanese playmakers with a familiarity that was in equal parts fascinating -- and deplorable.
I wondered if I would ever have that sense of discovery again, which for me used to be the whole point of watching a World Cup and which I haven't really had in the past 12 years. There are just too many games from all corners of the world on television these days, there are just too many of the really good footballers on display in the UEFA Champions League these days, and for all that remains, for the potential surprises, there are those countless videos on YouTube.
I hope I'm wrong. Let's see. Come on, Brazil 2014, surprise me.