With the greatest show on earth within touching distance, the hype and excitement surrounding the nation is about to hit new levels. It’s the only time of the year when all football fans are united behind the one team, and this is where the madness begins. Whether you have managed to get tickets for Rio or are resigned to watching it in the pub or on a sofa, fans tend to do the strangest of things.
For example, at home it is customary to have little plastic England flags tucked into the windows of your car, regardless of how silly it looks. In addition to this, look out for flags hanging out of bedroom windows and middle-aged men wearing an old shirt that they have dug out of a drawer for it four-yearly wear. There is even a growing trend to paint a huge St. George’s Cross on your garage door, much like a house around the corner from me. At no other event would this be even remotely acceptable: There was never a portrait of Kate and William on the door for that particular national event, and this is why the World Cup is so special, it brings out a little child in all that are engulfed by it.
In the stadiums the level of fandom raises even higher. When going to watch Stoke City versus Hull City in January, you will never see a grown man wearing the face-paint of his favourite team – as if he’s Braveheart taking his troops (usually family or friends) into battle (the KC Stadium).
“THEY CAN TAKE OUR MONTHLY SKY SUBSCRIPTIONS, BUT THEY’LL NEVER TAKE OUR FREEDOM!”
Yet at a World Cup, particularly if it is held in a sunny destination, this is the norm. For added effect, the ‘war-paint’ with a prickly clown hat in the colours of the team and for bonus points, add bells to tips of the stems. But if you don’t feel that face-paint is your thing, there’s always fancy dress. For the England team supporters, the dress-up of choice is usually knights in plastic battle gear with a flag draped down their back like a medieval, football-loving Superman.
This activity is all to support the team in their quest for glory on the World stage: If all of Brazil is a stage, then the actors are certainly the players. These players are the whole reason why fans behave the way they do. The great goals they score and the performances they put-in create the moments of passion that make us explode with euphoria or resign us to utter despondency.
The World Cup is where the best players solidify themselves as the best and propel themselves to greatness. It’s where, with only a few exceptions, the greatest and most iconic goals of all time are scored. Just think how celebrated that Geoff Hurst hat-trick strike is in England, or how Carlos Alberto is revered for scoring the ‘Perfect Goal’ in 1970 in Mexico. Of course we all remember Diego Maradona’s mesmerising run in 1986: the way he glided so elegantly and effortlessly across a surface that more closely resembled a lumpy old mattress than a World Cup pitch.
And every England fan lauds the moment that Michael Owen thrusted himself into the minds of everyone with his blistering run against Argentina in the same tournament. The most recent stand-out goal I can think of is Argentina’s 26-pass build-up that led to Esteban Cambiasso scoring against Italy in Germany 2006: Mozart compared to Owen’s heavy metal.
But Dennis Bergkamp’s goal against Argentina in 1998 showed how goals don’t always have to be mazy runs or involve dozens of intricate passes. The way he took that long-ball down more closely resembled a caring mother laying her baby to down for a nap than a first-touch on a football pitch; such was its gentle grace and technique.
It’s not just great goals that we fans love to see, for we fully welcome and indeed secretly desire moments of controversy in a sort of love-to-hate style relationship. You ask any shirt-clad, face-painted England fan in a bar and he will argue any sort of injustice that the England team faced as: “We would’ve won had it not been for that.”
With Frank Lampard named in the squad for Brazil it makes me wonder just how quickly a commentator will refer to him as: “Lampard, the scorer of course of that remarkable goal against Germany in South Africa in 2010 which was wrongly ruled out, even though it was, in fact, over the line.” If I were a betting man it would be the second he enters the pitch either as a starter or a substitute.
To play in a World Cup is the pinnacle of a player’s career and also a referee’s career, and like any high-profile situation, pressure is bound to affect those participating at some point. This where moments of disagreement arise.
Did the ball really cross the line in 1966? How did the linesman and indeed the referee fail to spot Maradona’s hand in 1986? Why did everyone believe the worst acting of all time when Rivaldo was hit in the knee with the ball in 2002? What was going on when Graham Poll failed to send off Josip Simunic after two yellow cards in 2006?
One controversy which is certainly going to rear its ugly head is the development and behaviour of the official World Cup ball. Since the days of a tatty, lace-bound leather ball, technology in football manufacturing has rapidly increased. The new ball, named Brazuka, even has its own Twitter account, presumably to defend itself against wild allegations and damaging rumours the tabloids will print, just like the players do. Just wait for the first goalkeeper mistake of the tournament and you can put your house on Andy Townsend beginning his assessment of the situation with: “These modern balls, Clive...” before moving on to sprout some other drivel.
On a more serious note, all of these fade into insignificance when referring to the worst incident of controversy ever witnessed at a World Cup, in America 1994. With the score at nil-nil against the United States, Colombia’s Andres Escobar accidently sliced the ball into his own net and his team went on to lose 2-1. Just ten days later, he was shot dead outside a nightclub in his native Colombia. His assailant was rumoured to have shouted “Goal” at the firing of each shot. He was just 27 years old.
It was a moment of anger and passion that has never been forgotten or forgiven, and rightly so.
Passion is something that fans want to see, but only on the field of play. Fans love to see the emotions of players as they feel more empathy for them, it reminds them that players are not robots part of a system, but real human beings who care as much as we do.
Paul Gascoigne’s tears at Italia ’90 are infamous. Gazza was a man of exceptional talent and skill but he had something that adorned him to the public, he had a human side. He had an air of flawed genius about him which is why when he broke down on the pitch, we all felt for him. Should we have got through, Gascoigne would’ve missed the final through suspension, and that really cut him up.
On the other end of the passion scale, anyone remember the ‘Tardelli Cry’ in 1982? It is one of the most passionate and elation-filled celebrations ever. Picture this - Marco Tardelli has just scored the goal that won Italy the World Cup and just ran around, clenching his fists and screaming in a way only a man overcome with such levels adrenaline and sheer unbridled delight can do so.
Drama and passion are everything at a World Cup and presiding over all the drama and passion are the pundits. Football pundits have become an integral part of presenting matches to the public. Gone are the days of a single presenter or journalist introducing the game in a PA-like fashion. Now we must have a desk of so-called experts giving their views on the action. Watching any live game on television you will see a panel of former players sat discussing the events that have taken place, or are about to happen.
Punditry at a World Cup is taken to a whole new, terrifying level. Not only do you have the usual suspects of Keane, Dixon, Shearer, Lawrenson et al, but joining them are various players who either didn’t make the World Cup due to injury or due to not being picked.
These suited and booted regulars voice fairly banal and innocuous opinions but that is taken to a whole new level when a current player is in the studio. There are the classic “What will they be thinking?” and “How much does it mean to them?” gap-filler questions to try and encourage the new-comers but it just ends up being three or four men stating the obvious. One of my earliest memories of a punditry anti-climax was when World Cup-winner Marcel Desailly was in the studio, seemingly a producers’ wet-dream to have one of the greatest players of his generation to call upon. Did he get asked about what mindset it takes for a team to overcome any challenge to win the cup? No.
Did they ask him to describe a potential game-plan or set of tactics that could be useful for the game? No.
He was asked one question at half-time and it was to comment on a sending-off, which was an obvious decision. I love seeing former greats give interviews but when they are asked such predictable questions, answers are pretty much the same time after time.
So what can we expect from Brazil 2014?
The usual great goals are a given, and always expect controversy. One of the major trademarks of a World Cup is seeing players that you wouldn’t normally see on a regular basis. Another favourite thing is watching game-after-game, day-after-day for a month. But on the whole, it is about the passion, drama, emotion, skill and determination which make this tournament truly the greatest show on Earth. I, for one, can't wait.
By Ben Matthews - @