In the north-west part of Kho Pha Ngan in Thailand during the World Cup of 2002, two brothers ran a guesthouse. One, perpetually on a cannabis high, would routinely forget to charge ordered fruit juices and toasted snacks to his guests’ accounts. We called him Boss Man. The other sported a Zapata moustache that crawled its way gloriously across his top lip. He was ‘Tom Selleck’, Thailand’s very own version of everyone’s favourite Hawaiian-shirted private investigator.
Without fail, after every game of the tournament’s opening stages, they would take down the already fraying-at-the-edges World Cup wallchart from above their ramshackle bar, spread it across the varnished floor and sitting cross-legged, begin the process of studiously filling in the vacant spaces that invite the steady penmanship of the football obsessed. On one such occasion, I peered across to see what the next day’s schedule had in store and Selleck, whilst taking a long drag on a cigarette, looked up at me and muttered the word “E-qua-dor”. He nodded knowingly and went back to his ruminating. All this, despite the barriers of language and culture, I instinctively understood.
I only conjure up this memory from the recesses of nostalgia for two reasons. The first being that the Japan/Korea World Cup was the first one I would experience outside of the cosily insular shores of England. They may have their place within England’s cultural landscape but I was glad to be away from the histrionic triumphalism that gripped the nation during that not-so-golden period of Beckham and Owen and their mates. There would be no twattish flags bought impulsively from petrol station counters, desperately flapping from car aerials as if their owners were willing themselves to believe the hype that yes, England would win and should win the World Cup. I breathed a sigh of relief that I’d miss all that and then choked as I inhaled Bangkok’s smog-smothered air.
I always knew it to be the case, but my experiences across Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam over the course of that month incontrovertibly proved to me that football, above anything else, transcends all. It is the one unifying factor we have as a human race. I know that’s an easy statement to make. It may also come across as a little too earnest and it’s probably easier still to dismiss. But if you think about it, no other cultural event brings the world together in quite the same life-affirming way as the World Cup. World changing events, those moments when we’re all transfixed to our screens whether on tv or phone, are usually born out of sadness and injustice. They’re not pleasurable experiences. Music too, perhaps football’s only rival in this sense, doesn’t always necessarily translate well from culture to culture.
Football however, probably because of its fiendishly childish simplicity, is something that is commonly understood by all. Watch, for instance, the instinctive joy of children as they kick a ball. It’s part of who we are and it’s no surprise therefore that every nation competes to play in the World Cup Finals. You never have to prefix the competition with the word ‘football’. Wherever you go, everybody knows it as the World Cup. Throughout its duration, wherever you are in the world, you can probably guarantee that you’ll be able to watch it somewhere, anywhere and despite my better nature, I love those adverts that show people huddling and bundling round flickering televisions in various locales the world over: mock Tudor pubs and overcrowded favelas and neon-drenched Japanese fan parks and farms with an oblivious chicken serving as an aerial. Cultural stereotypes they may be, but there’s something warming in the knowledge that we’re all watching the same thing because of our shared love for it.
I watched South Korea knock out Spain in 2002 in a dusty roadside café somewhere in Cambodia whilst a South Korean couple, waving little flags, wept with joy. I also witnessed a near-riot when England’s match with Sweden was interrupted by the daily televised airing of the Thai national anthem with the bar owner desperately imploring us all to pipe down or risk arrest. I think I wore a four-cornered handkerchief on my head for that match. You can take the boy out of England and all that. I watched the Final in a desolate Saigon bar, squinting at the tv, flanked by a couple of Aussies, a New Yorker hellbent throughout on explaining why his city’s bagels were the best in the world and a couple of off-duty Vietnamese prostitutes. I never saw any of these people again but they remain vivid in my mind all these years hence. I wonder what they’ll all be doing during this year’s tournament. Who they’ll meet, who they’ll share these common experiences with.
This is football’s eternal goodness. It is these moments that we savour and they emanate out of our love for the game. It’s an ideal beyond corruption and morally bankrupt self-appointed guardians of the game and tales of horror and inequality that perpetually threaten to kill off the last vestiges of romance we still wrap ourselves in. We don’t need yet another bombastic Nike ad self-consciously grasping to create its own mythology for our game. We all know what’s wrong with the sport. We know that there’s much work, campaigning and pressurising to be done if we want to fix it. This month just isn’t the time to do it. For the next few weeks it’s all about the sheer unadulterated joy of watching football.
Which belatedly brings me to my second reason for referencing 2002 and our friends Boss Man and Selleck. I knew you were wondering when I’d get to the point. I don’t use the word ‘unadulterated’ merely for the sake of throwing in adjectives for effect. As it happens, I’ve been thinking for some time as to why it is that the World Cup continues to capture our collective imagination and I think it’s because it essentially allows us to literally “un-adult” ourselves.
Consider the ubiquitous wallchart. I hadn’t been able to locate one here in Greece since we moved. This grave fact gave me the sweats and palpitations. So much so, that I had to request for one to be sent out from home. Since its arrival I am much calmer for the fact that I can now see it as I write, blue-tacked and ready as it is above our tv. Why does it matter so much? This innocuous freebie tempting you to purchase its parent periodical. After all, the schedules are easy to look up and I’ve more or less committed the fixtures to memory anyway.
It matters for two reasons. Firstly, it allows those who fill it in to have a sense that they are somehow participating in an unfolding narrative. As the stems grow narrower, we witness time disappearing and simultaneously hurtling towards an inevitable outcome. It’s human existence boiled down into one easy-to-understand diagram and being such visual creatures, it plays to our natural instincts. Once it’s all over and with a hint of anti-climax and melancholy, it’s taken down and put away – along with yet another incomplete Panini sticker album – but remains as a historical document for our children to stumble upon in our attics as they clear out the paraphernalia of a lifetime watching football once we’ve departed. That, or they’ll probably run it down to the tip. It doesn’t matter either way. That’s life and it’s proof that it was experienced.
Perhaps less prosaically, maybe more so, the World Cup wallchart takes us back to when we were young. That’s what I really mean about becoming ‘un-adults’. When I look in the mirror now, I see stubble flecked with grey and lines furrowing slowly into my forehead. I worry incessantly about whether or not this crazy gamble to become a ‘proper’ writer will pay off. Have I done the right thing uprooting my family from those they love and the places they know to a country beset with economic discontent and burgeoning support for Nazi thuggery? That wallchart though reminds me of the bashful twelve year-old boy I was, whose love for football offered daydreams and escape and although I realise that you cannot stave off the responsibilities of being an adult forever, once every four years isn’t such a bad thing.
I miss that pre-teen innocence. When Gazza cried, before the drink took hold or when Cameroon were more than just a squad of mercenaries squabbling over financial rewards and I suppose, with every World Cup, I find myself trying to re-capture that blissful naivity. It somehow becalms the cynicism and frustrations that rage within me for the four years pre and post.
Nina tentatively broached The Subject the other day. That because of the time differences and the erratic sleeping patterns of our children in the Cretan heat, I might not be able to watch every game of this year’s tournament. We were trundling the pram in the cobbled streets of the old town as she said this and I, without knowing it, stopped in my tracks and stamped my feet. I actually stamped my feet. “But I want to watch every game,” I whined. My shoulders did that up and down thing that kids do when their parents don’t give in to their every whim and want.
“Do you know what you just did?” she said through laughter. “You’re no better than Bonnie. Look at yourself.”
And I did. And I laughed with her. It’s the World Cup, you see. It does that to you. It’s my only line of defence and seeing as we’re in Greece, a robust defence is a prerequisite. I confess. I, for better or worse during World Cups do become an “un-adult” and that’s fine because at least I can acknowledge that within myself these days. That’s important. This beautiful, screeching monster of a tournament is the marker for who I am and who I was and who I will be. I will always be that boy playing his seven inch single of World In Motion over and over and however the game evolves, it will always remain so. And you can also be certain, I’ll be on a coffee binge over the next few weeks in an attempt to ensure I do get my way. When I awaken from sleep-deprived sweats, with Nina marshaling the kids to pull and cajole at my idle carcass, I’ll happily accept that withering ‘told you so’ look that apparently comes with the manual for every wife and mother. Highlights it’ll inevitably be then. Garth Crooks instead of Alan Hansen. Life rolls on. You grow up, slowly and not so surely. Not without a fight though. Or a tantrum, at the very least.
I like to think that twelve years on, Boss Man and Tom Selleck will be doing exactly that. With their wallchart ready and resplendent above Rose Villa’s bar. In the end, we’re all essentially the same. All we want is to watch the football. In peace. Eating crisps with silly hats on. Wonderful, isn’t it?
Further reading: World Cup Dreams 2010: Why The World Cup Still Matters
Follow Dispatches on Twitter: @Sofalife
Next World Cup Dispatch (according to the wallchart) – Friday 27th June