Friday, April 16, 2010
Heartbreak and joy
Everybody has a favorite World Cup memory. Here are four of ours.
The first time
It was 1994. I had just turned 10, and the soccer moratorium in the Schaerlaeckens household was still in full effect. My mother loathed soccer -- as she still does -- and did everything in her power to keep me away from the, in her eyes, not-so-beautiful game. So watching the 1994 World Cup on television, the first I can properly remember, took a good deal of begging, finagling and finessing to watch.
How gratifying it was then to watch my Netherlands play Brazil in the quarterfinals at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. It was a fantastic game, with fantastically poor refereeing. Despite being one of the premier quarterfinal matchups, the game had been awarded to a referee from Costa Rica and linesmen from Bahrain and Iran. The Netherlands, playing this tournament without superstars Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten, because of a dispute and an injury respectively, hadn't convinced in the tournament and was now facing the favorite.
Two offside-ish goals by Romario and Bebeto, who were too quick for the Dutch defenders, put Brazil ahead after the half, but the Dutch clawed back. In the very next minute, the wonderful Dennis Bergkamp pulled away for the 2-1 and a splendid Aron Winter header improbably equalized. Yet a very quickly taken free kick by a deliriously happy Branco put Brazil back ahead in the 81st minute, dashing all Dutch spirits in the July Texas heat.
Brazil would go on to hoist the World Cup. Several of the Dutch players cried. I cried a little too. But mostly, I was hooked.
Oh, those penalties ...
My favorite World Cup memories also happen to be my first ones. The year was 1990, the location was Italy and the impact was instant upon the 10-year-old version of myself.
The opening game had enough drama for an entire tournament. Cameroon beat Argentina, Maradona and all, despite finishing the game with just nine men. A day later, an unheralded reserve named Toto Schillaci scored the first of his six goals for Italy, for whom Roberto Baggio would later notch arguably the goal of the tournament against Czechoslovakia.
Meanwhile, England grew into its campaign after winning just one of its group games. In the second round, Belgium was beaten by a goal so late that my sleeping father -- himself no fan of the sport -- was rudely awakened by screaming from downstairs. The quarterfinal against Cameroon was just as dramatic, with England scraping by the Indomitable Lions thanks to two Gary Lineker penalties.
Penalties. Little did us England fans know then what we have since come to expect. Turin was the site of the first shootout heartache of my lifetime. West Germany, whose captain, Lothar Matthaus, was probably my favorite non-English player in the tournament, held its nerve from 12 yards better than did England.
As the victors celebrated their passage to a final they would ultimately win (thanks, of course, to a penalty), so the losers were left with little more than Gazza's tears and a vision of what might have been. We have never been as close since.
In 1990 the World Cup was still a largely closed society of South American and European nations. Teams from other federations were expected only to make up the numbers, so that the event could aptly be called a World Cup. Only six of the 24-team field that year came from outside Europe or South America.
This year there will be six teams from Africa alone. The tipping point in the shift to international soccer becoming a truly global game came that European summer of 1990, when a band of Indomitable Lions from Cameroon opened the world's eyes to the potential of African, and global, soccer. With all due respect to the previous World Cup exploits of outsiders like North Korea, Algeria, and Mexico, it was Cameroon that changed the paradigm.
An opening win over defending champion Argentina ranks among the biggest upsets ever at the World Cup, but perhaps the defining moment came a couple of weeks later, in the knockout rounds against Colombia. Having already put the Lions ahead in extra time, 38-year-old Roger Milla snuck in from behind and dispossessed risk-prone keeper Rene Higuita, then tucked away his fourth of the tournament, putting Cameroon through to a historic quarterfinal berth. Milla followed it all up with his classic corner flag dance, forging the memory most recall from that historic run.
There's nothing like a team winning on home soil, so France's maiden title in 1998 was special. Quality shone through, and Les Bleus had plenty with the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Didier Deschamps, Marcel Desailly, Laurent Blanc, Fabien Barthez, Lilian Thuram, Bixente Lizarazu, and Emmanuel Petit. Given the differing background of the players, it seemed to unite multiracial France, too. Images of a million fans partying up and down the elegant Champs Elysees will linger for a long time.
However, even more memorable was the final between Brazil and France. What really happened to Ronaldo? Will we ever know? He was out of the lineup, then in. It's widely held that the toothy one suffered a convulsion on the eve of the finale, undone by the immense pressure, although the usual farfetched rumors persisted (that he was poisoned or having trouble in his love life, although no transvestites were mentioned). Brazil coach Mario Zagallo was in an awful position. Should he start Ronaldo, despite the overnight episode, or leave him on the bench, incurring the wrath of a nation? We all know he chose the latter, and the striker was highly ineffective. France didn't mind one bit.
As an Arsenal fan (poor me), Patrick Vieira feeding Petit for the third goal brought immense joy.