Dark Winter Nights with a World Cup on the Tele

by Northern Life

For many football fans, the World Cup acts as a kind of cultural signpost, a reference point for certain events in their life. Ask any fan of a certain age to recall their memories of Geoff Hurst scoring England’s fourth goal at Wembley, and they will be able to tell you exactly where they were; most likely huddled around a black and white television set with the family and neighbours. Similarly, talk to England fans who were children of the 80s and 90s, and they will pinpoint the Hand of God, Gazza’s tears, Beckham’s red card and many other instances that weave the World Cup’s rich tapestry.

But for many of us, the overarching memory of the World Cup is linked to childhood summers. Family barbecues on hot days, the feeling of camaraderie, a sense of watching a small slice of history unfold. Speak to an Irish person in their 40s today, and you might be surprised as to how large Jack Charlton looms in their youth. Charlton is, of course, beloved in Yorkshire and Leeds, but in Ireland, he is a historical figure.

“Big Jack” led Ireland to its first two World Cups in Italy and the USA in 1990 and 1994, and it’s almost impossible to explain his relevance to those who did not grow up in Ireland at that time. His obituary in the Irish Times gets as close as possible to painting a picture of the mark Big Jack’s team left on the country, and it all revolved around those World Cup adventures.

Success of World Cups can be unquantifiable

Normally at this time of year, we would be living through a World Cup summer. But due to the hosting by Qatar, it would not be feasible to have the tournament in the extreme heat of the summer. As such, the 2022 World Cup (November-December) will be characterised by cold winter nights if you are watching in the UK. It will be interesting to see whether its legacy will be impacted by that fact.

There are many things that combine to make a ‘great’ World Cup. According to the sports betting odds, England are among the favourites for the 2022 World Cup. While England – or any of the other Home Nations – doing well is always guaranteed to help capture the imagination of the public, there are also many intangibles that factor into the equation.

If we go back again to the 1990 World Cup – Italia ’90, as many of us still say today – the football was rotten. The quality of the action on the pitch was arguably the worst in modern memory. But so many of us remember the tournament like it was yesterday. Of course, nostalgia can play tricks on our memories, but we can still recall Gazza’s yellow card, the missed penalties, Gary Lineker’s body language, the heartbreak, and so many other reference points vividly.

A sense of wonder is lost through interconnectedness

But perhaps football is too close to us now. Back in 1990, we would have been reintroduced to the ultimate villain – Diego Maradona – after a four-year absence. After the Hand of God in the Estadio Azteca, Mexico, in 1986, few would have been able to see the brilliant Argentine until he appeared in the blue and white stripes at Italia 90. It was event television to see this enigmatic magician arrive again, a sense that we were being treated to something special.

Can young fans have the same sense of wonder when seeing Lionel Messi in Qatar? Perhaps he is Maradona’s equal – or superior – in talent, but there is not the sense of mystique. Young football fans will have seen Messi hundreds of times in the Champions League or on Instagram. The World Cups of our childhood were a journey into the unknown, and now we no longer have that feeling of discovery.

Perhaps much of this is a lamentation for a past that didn’t really exist. As we say, nostalgia can play tricks on the memory, making us believe that a tournament full of turgid football was actually one of wonder. But it’s fair to say that those kids watching the Qatar World Cup will have a different experience from those of us who watched back in the 80s and 90s. Qatar will be the most technologically-advanced and most interconnected World Cup. The players will be superior athletes, and the quality of the football most likely be better, but the overload of content, and the everything-on-demand broadcasting, will remove some of the mystique of the World Cup and perhaps those cultural signposts as well.