Belfast Telegraph

Never mind Putin and all the politics - the World Cup is still the greatest show on Earth

 

A record 180 countries will tune in on television when the 21st World Cup finals kick off tomorrow in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium. John Laverty looks back at some of the highs and lows of the competition.

There were over 94,000 people in the sun-drenched Rose Bowl Stadium, eagerly anticipating an event so big that superstar Whitney Houston was merely the warm-up act.

July 17, 1994, Pasadena, California ... the World Cup final.

As my travelling companion and media colleague Jackie Fullerton said to me at the time: “It doesn’t get any better than this.” And he was right. The game itself was a stinker; the first — and still the only — goalless final in the competition’s history.

It was settled when Italy’s Roberto Baggio blasted his shoot-out penalty over the bar to hand Brazil their fourth world title. I really felt for ‘The Divine Ponytail’, who was the best player in the world at that time and undoubtedly the player of the tournament.

What could have been the best day of his life turned out to be the worst, cruelly defining the career of a brilliant footballer who deserves to be better remembered for so many sweeter moments.

But this is the Fifa World Cup — the ‘greatest show on Earth’, the one that means most to everyone ... players, fans, even those who otherwise show little interest in ‘soccer’ between these quadrennial extravaganzas.

And journalists, too, lest we forget. I’ve been fortunate enough to attend other World Cups, but that USA-hosted event was the first; ergo, for me, the most special.

And that ‘journey’ began, ironically, at Windsor Park on one of the most notorious nights in Northern Ireland’s football history.

The World Cup qualifier between the two ‘Irelands’ on November 17, 1993; a match played in the immediate aftermath of the Shankill bomb and Greysteel massacre atrocities. An evening saturated in ugly, naked, mass sectarianism, when the only thing that seemingly mattered was Northern Ireland, who couldn’t qualify, stopping the Republic, who could.

Consequently, I’ve never felt a seething Windsor reverberate more than when Jimmy Quinn put the home team ahead, or silenced more than when Alan McLoughlin bagged the equaliser that ultimately put Jack Charlton’s men on a plane to the States.

McLoughlin’s goal was greeted with near-silence in the Press box, too, save for a quickly-suppressed yelp from the Irish News representative.

But there may have been one or two others, myself included, thinking: “You know, a draw might help ease the unbearable tension — and it might get  across the pond as well...”

The Republic’s American dream got off to a surreal start. I was one of only two local journalists who flew from New York to Orlando with a deeply-subdued Irish squad following their epic 1-0 win over Italy in a heaving Giants Stadium.

Why? Because, shortly after the game, word started filtering through about yet another unspeakable atrocity back home, when members of the UVF gunned down a Loughinisland bar full of people who’d been watching the match, killing six of them.

As defender Phil Babb said to me on the plane: “How can you celebrate when people who’d gone out just to see you play in a match are now lying dead in a pub?”

Football-wise, the victory over highly-fancied Italy convinced (far too many) Irish fans that their team could go all the way, but less than a month later — when Roy Keane, Ray Houghton and Co were relaxing on a beach somewhere far away — it was Italy who were stretching their limbs in Pasadena while Whitney belted out The Greatest Love Of All.

I’d been hoping Baggio could go one step further than Johan Cruyff 20 years earlier and actually lead his side to victory in a tournament he had done more than any other to illuminate.

West Germany 1974 was the first one I can actually remember, and Cruyff made it unforgettable. The goals and meticulous orchestration of the ‘Total Football’ philosophy notwithstanding, the Dutch master soon had us all out in the street attempting that astonishing pirouette now known as ‘The Cruyff Turn’. Swedish defender Jan Olsson, The Turn’s first hapless victim, is probably still wondering where the ball is.

That stunning Dutch team, however, ended up being consumed by their own Cruyff-driven arrogance, thinking (and trying to play) as if they’d already won after going 1-0 up against the hosts in the first minute of the final, but ultimately becoming the latest group of players to pay dearly for underestimating the Germans.

The Brazilian Ronaldo also famously fell at the final hurdle in 1998 — the second showpiece decider I attended, and easily the most bizarre.

Stade de France, an hour before kick-off, we were handed the Brazilian team-sheet and the talismanic, in-form Ronaldo wasn’t on it.

Yet before the shock of that had fully sunk in, another team-sheet was sent out, this time including the world’s number one player. To this day no one knows what really happened — except that Ronaldo had suffered a seizure in his Paris hotel room, had been rushed to hospital and, as a consequence, been declared unfit for the game.

So, why did he play — really poorly, as it turned out — against Zinedine Zidane-inspired hosts France who went on to win 3-0?

There are those who swear the calamitous decision was forced on the coach by Brazil’s sponsors Nike, a claim the company vigorously denies. At least Ronaldo got the chance to exorcise that ghost, rather brilliantly, in Japan four years later.

Fast forward to 2014 — the last one before Fifa became engulfed in claims of widespread corruption — and more cynicism as Lionel Messi is awarded the Golden Ball as player of the tournament shortly after his Argentina side had lost in the final to Germany.

The Golden Ball is sponsored by Adidas. Messi is a handsomely-paid Adidas ambassador. And though arguably the best footballer ever to pull on a pair of boots, even he’d admit he was a long way off his best in Brazil.

But the people who vote for the Golden Ball winner get to pose with him — and who wanted selfies with Germany’s Toni Kroos or Mats Hummels?

You may wonder if any of this matters. Well, it does — because it’s the World Cup, the biggest stage of all, and it all kicks off in front of President Putin and 80,000 others in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium tomorrow.

Forget the politics — and Fifa will, because the viewing figures are always jaw-dropping; 3.2 billion watched the last one, and a record 180 countries will tune in this time.

To paraphrase the Sinatra classic, if you can do it there you can do it anywhere.

That’s why Maradona is still more highly regarded than his compatriot Messi, why 77-year-old Pele is still the most cherished guest at tournaments, why people still want to shake Gerry Armstrong’s hand when he goes for a stroll in downtown Belfast.

Conversely, it’s also why people still point and speak in hushed tones when the tormented Baggio is within earshot, why Gazza was paid a fortune to recreate the most devastating moment of his career for a crisps ad — and why the modern-day Brazilians are praying for something — anything — to banish the recurring nightmare of that ruthless, merciless 7-1 tanking inflicted in their own backyard by Kroos and Co four years ago.

Yes, it’s the World Cup, and you’re going to be remembered, one way or the other.

Let the games begin.

John Laverty is the Belfast Telegraph’s executive editor

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