Espana 82

The first World Cup I remember, strictly speaking; but I was five years old and not yet interested in football, so my only memory of it is nagging my dad to let me watch The A-Team on the other channel.  (Note to youngsters: a working-class household in 1982 was very much a one-television affair, and you thought you were doing well if it happened to be in colour.)

At least, that’s how I remember it, and quite clearly too, but either Wikipedia is mistaken or I am, because Hannibal, B.A. Baracas & co. apparently didn’t hit the screens till 1983. So on reflection I think it must have been The Fall Guy instead.

Either way, he wasn’t best pleased, but as he got me into that stuff I suppose it was his own fault.

Mexico 86

The sun is hot, the goal nets in the Azteca yellow, perms and mullets everywhere, and the shorts never shorter. By the age of nine I have fallen under the spell of the beautiful game. Unfortunately the time difference means most matches take place at night. As with Santa Claus and the tooth fairy in years gone by, kids across the land go to bed hoping that the mysterious nocturnal happenings will end in a positive result. Anybody with a state-of-the-art VHS and a blank cassette can invest half an hour learning to set the timer according to the instruction grimoire, but this arcane rite is a hit-and-miss affair like performing a rain dance or casting a fishing line.

England’s group matches are all beyond bedtime. A 1-0 defeat by Portugal and a goalless draw with Morocco (cue disgust from aforementioned father delivering match reports in the morning) suggested an early return home, but like buses, the goals arrived all together in the final match and Poland were hat-tricked 3-0 by Gary Lineker.

Elsewhere, a USSR team featuring Belanov, Aleinikov and the magnificently moustachioed Rinat Dasayev thrash Hungary 6-0 in the first round but succumb in the second in a 4-3 classic (missed by my sleeping self, alas) to Belgium, the tournament’s surprise package. Mexico bequeath the world Negrete’s bicycle kick (now immortalised by a statue at the stadium) before falling victim to West German penalty efficiency, and in my first experience of a penalty shootout France overcome Brazil. Then, the next day, in the third quarter-final, it happens: England-Argentina, Maradona, the ‘hand of God’. What to say?

“He put that ball in with his hand!”

That was what my dad says anyway, along with the rest of the country, jumping up in his slippers with his half-drunk beer and pointing an accusing finger at the television. (The Tunisian referee and the Bulgarian linesman subsequently blame each other. Maradona has since visited the ref at home in Tunisia and presented his “eternal friend” with an Argentina shirt.) The ‘goal of the century’ follows a few minutes later, and England’s late consolation can’t save them. And there iss the lesson, for football and life: the result is final and without reprieve, however unfair.

I still cheer Argentina to final victory over the machine-like West Germany. Even as late as 1986, the Germans are still the Germans.

Italia 90

Almost every World Cup makes a global star, but not usually a fat 55-year-old. Viiiincerrrrooooooo!

Not the best tournament for goal count, but what colour it has: the trademark hair of Valderrama and Higuita, Cameroon finishing with nine men not only stunning Argentina but kicking them almost literally into the stands, the first football game on 8-bit computers with controllable players in recognisably correct strips, and above all Roger Milla announcing the arrival proper of black Africa.

This time it’s the afternoon fixtures I struggle to catch as English schools don’t break up for the summer till mid-July, but I see most of what matters. After draws with Ireland (Gary Linker scoring an early goal then soiling himself on the pitch) and the Netherlands, a Mark Wright header gives England the group’s only win, 1-0 over Egypt.

With a second round tie against Belgium about to go to penalties, a David Platt volley puts England in the quarter-finals. The Irish join them there but go down fighting against hosts Italy and the never-heard-of-before-the-tournament-and-almost-never-heard-of-again-after-it Toto Schillaci. Cameroon, already conquerors of Argentina, Romania and Colombia, come within eight minutes of knocking out England in the only game my mother has ever sat and watched in entirety (and without once referring to “grown men chasing a ball around”), but two Lineker penalties provide a surprise rescue.

In the first semi-final a dull and defensive Argentina win undeservedly (for the third successive game) on penalties (for the second successive game), breaking every Italian cuore and lending Nessun Dorma a new poignance. Then comes the turn of England and West Germany, and who doesn’t know the rest? Shilton beaten from a free-kick, Lineker’s late equaliser, and then the start of England’s long persecution from the gods of penalties. The Germans are ruthlessly efficient as always, but Stuart Pearce goes down the middle (a new fashion that season) into the keeper’s legs, and Waddle blazes high and wide. We have matched the world’s best team over 120 minutes, but our luck has run out and it’s all over. We’ve never come so close again since.

There’s still the third-place playoff and the final of course, but by then I’m in the middle of a holiday camp in France with no access to a television. I get to the car radio in time for commentary on the trophy presentation. By all accounts I haven’t missed much. Argentina were poor. England would have beaten them.

USA 94

Meh. No England under Graham Taylor, eliminated in qualifying by the Netherlands and Norway. I miss much of this one too: I’m old enough to set my own bedtime but also an A-level student with exams looming and a first serious girlfriend to force me outdoors.

Ireland beat Italy. Escobar scores an own goal and is shot dead when he gets home. Maradona’s celebration against Greece prepares the world for news of his failed drugs test.

The best moment is unfancied Bulgaria coming from behind to shock the apparently invincible Germans and reach the semis.

The first and only goalless final entertains no one but victorious Brazilians, and when Roberto Baggio misses the last penalty it marks the end of the road for mullets and 80’s perms.

France 98

I’m now a university dropout newly arrived in an East End house-share with four lads from Ireland. Ireland haven’t qualified even with the roster expanded to 32, so their team is whoever England are playing. As we sit down to the opening match, one of them tells us he’s bet 2000 pounds at 5-2 on Scotland to draw with Brazil. Assuming he’s broke like us, we think he’s joking until they go down to a late own goal and he shows us the betting slip. We never see him quite the same way again.

Having as yet no gainful employment, I miss England’s first match as I have to trek up Leyton High Road to Walthamstow for an appointment to claim housing benefit. (It doesn’t cover the rent, but without it I won’t eat.) Glenn Hoddle’s men beat Tunisia without me. Next up are Romania led by Gheorge Hagi, who go ahead early in the second half. On 81 minutes an 18-year-old Michael Owen equalises and, as the commentator says, “Only one team are going to win from here.” And only one team do: Romania.

The last group game is won, though, 2-0 against Colombia (Valderrama’s aging mane now yields the hair title to Taribo West’s bright green dread-plaits). Belief is restored, but Argentina await in the knockout. A controversial late penalty meanwhile gives Norway a surprise victory over an already qualified Brazil and eliminates the luckless Scots, who have not seen the finals since.

England-Argentina begins disastrously with David Seaman upending I forget whom and Batistuta scoring from the spot. But enter the fresh-faced hummingbird Michael Owen (not for years yet the drawling irritant who defects to Real Madrid on the cheap and forever tarnishes his Liverpool legacy by joining Manchester United), too fast for man or beast and certainly for Vivas and Ayala. First he wins another penalty to level the scores and then, still only 16 minutes into the game, produces a solo goal of breathtaking speed and skill, the one magical moment in forty years when the impossible actually seems within reach: it’s happening; this team can win the World Cup. The Irishman beside me feels it too and begins swearing, and for a priceless half-hour every England fan is on top of the world. But just before half-time a soft free kick and a well-worked routine makes it 2-2. Still, we have Owen, and they can’t handle him. The second half begins, England still the better team, but then Beckham, hero days before against Colombia, flails a petulant leg at Simeone, who goes down as though it were a meat cleaver. Red card, England down to ten for thirty minutes of normal time plus another thirty of extra. Naturallyit goes to penalties, and naturally England lose.

Argentina fall in the next match to a 90th minute winner from Dennis Bergkamp, but all England bring home is a national pariah who finds comfort in the arms of a Spice Girl. A new name ends up on the trophy as two Zidane headers and a late Petit counter-attack defeat a strangely underwhelming Brazil and send Paris into raptures.

Japan / South Korea 2002

Revenge! For the first and only time in my life, England go to a World Cup and defeat a top team. Beckham as the scorer of the winning penalty has his own personal revenge over Argentina, and I, having bet on 1-0 (I’m now a new father working as an English teacher, and a Chinese student full of his national love of gambling decides to run a book), take my wife to a pizzeria on the winnings. It’s not even England’s first major scalp under our new guru Sven, who already led us to an incredible 5-1 qualifying win in Germany. Yes, we only draw with Sweden and Nigeria in the other group games, and after thrashing Denmark in the second round we face a quarter-final against a stellar Brazil team fronted by the three Rs (Ronaldinho, Rivaldo & Ronaldo) who have barely broken sweat in the competition thus far, but who knows?

It’s a morning game in the UK and I watch the first half over breakfast. Midway through it, the impossible beckons again: Owen seizes on a mistake at the edge of the box and England are ahead. Can it really be? But like four years earlier, we can’t hold out for the half-time whistle and Rivaldo makes it 1-1. The players go off for a drink and Sven’s pep talk, and I run down the road to work. The school have admitted defeat and set up a television in the main hall to avoid a spate of sick calls. As I arrive, Brazil have a free kick but it looks fairly innocuous, 30-35 yards out and just wide of the penalty area. There isn’t even a wall, just the line of bodies on the 18-yard line and David Seaman in the middle of the six-yard box. Ronaldinho steps up with his flowing locks and goofy teeth, and shoots. Seaman flounders like a drunk whose bar stool has been removed, seems to prepare to head it and at last waves a drowning arm. The ball drops inside the far post, he crashes back arse-first into the netting, Brazil celebrate, and all John Motson in the commentary box can do is repeat Ronaldinho’s name. To the vindictive cheers of several Argentine students in front of me – supporting their greatest rivals, no less – England are homeward bound again.

The best entertainment is probably the Portuguese, Italian and Spanish tantrums at being knocked out by South Korea, but that’s about all. Brazil see off Turkey and Germany, still without breaking sweat, and are champions again. It would have been us.

Germany 2006

The World Cup is back in Europe and I, now an expat, am back in Blighty for the duration. Sven remains at the helm and the so-called golden generation is at its peak. Paraguay are overcome with an early goal, and Trinidad & Tobago with two late ones, Peter Crouch rising to the occasion: despite spending the first two games being repeatedly penalised and even booked for persistent tallness, he gets away with tugging a defender’s hair as he goes up for the header. A late equaliser is gifted to Sweden in match 3, Michael Owen carried off after only four minutes never to be meaningfully seen again, but England top the group and, despite making rather heavy weather of Ecuador in the second round, advance to a quarter-final with a Scolari-led Portugal side boasting a 100% record plus Luis Figo, Deco and Cristiano Ronaldo, 1-0 conquerors of the Netherlands in a violent four-red-card affair.

There is painful recent history. In the European Championships two years earlier, we faced the same opposition at the same stage, lost a then vital player (Rooney, to injury), and went out on penalties (Beckham famously skying the opener). Surely not again?

With minor variations, yes. It’s 0-0 rather than 2-2 this time, and Rooney gets sent off rather than injured, with major help from a winking Ronaldo, but the end is the same: it goes to penalties (my father, recently out of hospital, goes out to stand in the hall, holding his heart) and England lose. Robbed again and it’s the end for Sven.

Cynical cheats in the eyes of the world, Portugal lose to France and are then thrashed in the third-place match by Germany, appreciation of whose whose football and sportsmanship seems to mark the country’s overdue rehabilitation: the Germans, everyone seems to agree, are all right really. The final goes to penalties too, but the iconic image is Zidane ending his playing career mid-game by headbutting Materazzi. Italy win.

South Africa 2010

After the brief and disastrous Wally With The Brolly, England have a top-level coach again: Fabio Capello, famous for taking no nonsense and just the man to get the best out of our trophyless coddled prima donnas. After blitzing the qualifiers and actually playing quite stylish football, England are well fancied, even by me. Jamie Carragher comes out of international retirement because, as he later admits, he too thinks England might finally win. We even have an easy group: USA, Algeria, Slovenia.

“We won’t win,” says my dad, but he, with neither satellite TV nor the online nous for live streaming, hasn’t watched the qualifying games or friendlies.

We may never know what really happened behind the scenes to create the debacle that unfolded on the pitch. A goalkeeping howler that costs victory against the USA does not explain the direness against Algeria that ends with Rooney swearing into a TV camera because supporters have dared to boo. Then John Terry, stripped of the captaincy for an extramarital affair with a teammate’s wife, tries to reassert his authority in a bizarre press conference criticising the manager’s tactics and team selection. How many times have I heard Russians rant about their overpaid ice-hockey players caring only about their own egos and never about the national team? This is what they mean, and this is what we have come to.

After scraping past Slovenia, England face Germany in the knockout. On current form it will take a miracle to beat them, and the miracle doesn’t come. Yes, Lampard’s wrongly disallowed goal would have made it 2-2 and a different game, but by the end 4-1 is a fair result. The Germans, true to their character and tradition, would rather die than lose. It’s like watching a team of terriers and greyhounds against an opposition of overfed ribboned lapdogs. England? They have other considerations. Even a young Thomas Mueller says afterwards that England ‘came with too many chiefs and not enough Indians’. He’s being diplomatic.

And that – the press conference followed by that dismal humiliation in Bloemfontein (which begins with self-styled ‘big personality’ John Terry watching the ball float over his head for Klose to run in behind and score) – marks the end of my time as an England supporter. It was not – and is not – a complex thought process: if they don’t care, why should I? My imagination can just not stretch to feeling represented by Terry, Rooney, Ashley Cole & co.

And there’s still time for another Englishman to turn in a shocker: Howard Webb, the most over-rated referee in history, allows the Netherlands to wreck the final by playing a combination of gridiron and kung fu. Despite his efforts, Spain finally shake off their tag as perennial bridesmaids and win a victory for football.

The only consolation is that England fell to a potential champion. And in most of our lifetimes, is that not the tradition? The first potential champion encountered in the knockout stage, be it in the second round or semi-final, is the exit door for England. But wait! A man is coming who will change all that.

Brazil 2014

After due consideration of England’s awfulness, the F.A. masterfully pinpoint the problem: the coach wasn’t English.

After his attempt to turn Liverpool into 1980’s Wimbledon, Roy Hodgson arrives with the backing and recommendation of the thousands of suffering Scousers who sang ‘Hodgson for England’. I watch the finals draw in my Moscow living room with my son: Italy, Uruguay, Costa Rica.

I tell him at once, “We’ll lose every game.”

He laughs, thinking I’m a morbid pessimist.

“No we won’t.”

“All right,” I say. “We might just get a 0-0 with Costa Rica.”

In the event, we get a 0-0 with Costa Rica’s reserves. By then it matters little as we are already out after losing to an average Italy side and then to Uruguay.

To backpedal somewhat, the years since the last tournament have changed my views on more than just the team. The media lynching of Luis Suarez, accused of racism by a proven liar who doesn’t even speak the language in question, has been nothing short of disgusting and has freed me forever from any delusions about Britain having a remotely honest or fair press. The whole affair takes on the style of a national purge meeting, and when an FA executive declares in a cringesome apogee of little-Englander arrogance that if the Spanish word for black isn’t offensive in Uruguay (a country innocent of colonialism or slavery and without colour-based prejudice) then it jolly well should be, I am for the first time ashamed to be British. So when the ball drops onto the right foot of the pantomime villain and he smashes into the top corner to make it England 1 Suarez 2, I am quite far from heartbroken. In fact, I laugh and laugh.

Roy Hodgson has defied tradition: for the first time in my World Cup life, England are out in the first round, defeated by two teams of whom neither is capable of winning the trophy. He blazes the trail farther in the Euros two years on when, as Brexiteers smash cafes and shout “Fuck off Europe!”, England are knocked out by Iceland. Again, I am not inconsolable.

Russia 2018

A home World Cup! At least, it is if you happen to live an hour from the Luzhniki stadium. And I get tickets for two games there! As I’m going with my son my main concern is avoiding hooligans, so I hope the draw doesn’t give me England or Serbia. I end up seeing Portugal v Morocco (frustrating when sitting among and supporting les Marocains, but good to be part of anyway as it’s cathartic fun booing Ronaldo) and Denmark v France (the worst game I’ve been to in my life, and surely well in the running for worst game anywhere ever).

With Roy Hodgson gone, England are now led by Gareth Southgate, a man best remembered for missing a shootout penalty and managing Middlesbrough to relegation. Our newly anointed captain is Harry Kane, fresh from swearing on his daughter’s life that he scored a goal that several million people have seen him not score, and our tactics are to belt the ball at his big empty noggin and hope for the best. It works against Tunisia, just about, and more comfortably against Panama. Knockout here we come.

The main story, though, is the surprise of western and especially English visitors on discovering that Russia is not in fact the dystopian white North Korea portrayed in the UK press. The BBC, Times, Torygraph, Grauniad et al search desperately for some story of racism, police brutality or pro-Putin hooliganism, but there isn’t any. None whatsoever. By the end, American journalists who probably couldn’t explain offside without googling ‘laws of soccer’ are reduced to trumpeting the fact that all four semi-finalists are in NATO.

And England? Well, you already know. It’s fresh in the memory, the irritating “It’s coming home” followed by the inevitable crash. Ultimately, Southgate’s men did achieve two things: first, they ended the penalty shootout hoodoo; secondly, they broke from Hodgson mode and returned to the tradition, eight years missed, of losing to the first potential champion faced. (That Croatia were real contenders was clear to anyone with eyes after they thrashed Argentina.) Winning the trophy would have given a lift to a lot of people back in Blighty who haven’t had much to cheer for a good while, but it wasn’t to be. On the other hand, the ensuing arrogance might have been insufferable for the next twenty years.

And despite the boredom France and Denmark inflicted on me during my $200 afternoon of sunbathing, this one leaves good memories: the streets full of colour and smiling crowds, the cheers through every window of the neighbourhood when Akinfeev saved Aspas’s penalty, the total abject failure of the US and UK media to politicise the whole event, and the spontaneous camaraderie between locals and visitors that has undone years of warmongering.

It could be the last ‘real’ World Cup for a while. Anyone for winter Qatar…?