It sometimes seems my life has been counted out in World Cups. That rather than adhering to the 12-month calendar, I have measured the 40 years of it so far in the four-year cycles between the tournaments.
I was born in March 1971, nine months after what most people regard as the first modern World Cup, where Brazil with their canary yellow shirts, cobalt blue shorts and luminous skills coincided perfectly with the new technicolour age of television. By 1974, as a three-year-old, I was unaware of Scotland's glorious failure in West Germany.
Yet by Argentina in 1978 I was beginning to fall under the tournament's spell. I had the sticker album, the progress chart on my bedroom wall and the dog-eared Top Trumps. I was hypnotised by the various flags, memorised the exotic names, so that I can still recite out each page of the Panini albums in order, can still rattle out all the groups and all the results. Having been banished to bed early, I remember watching through the slats of the louvre doors into our living room at Lomond Crescent in Beith as Scotland beat Holland. I remember my dad celebrating Archie Gemmill's goal with the neighbours, one of whom had broken his new television set when venting his frustration at the results against Peru and Iran.
By the time of the final we had gone on our annual holiday to Cellardyke in Fife and I was catching what I could on a tiny portable black-and-white television we had taken with us at my behest. Yet when my dad offered me the chance to watch the final in the pub overlooking Cellardyke's harbour with him, having somehow secured special dispensation from the landlord, I declined and told him I wanted to go and play football with him instead. He accepted this ruling graciously and only now, as a dad myself, do I appreciate how he must have gritted his teeth and silently cursed the caprice of his seven-year-old son.
That incident at least proved I still had some resistance to the pull of the World Cup. By 1982, any such notion had gone. I was 11 by then and my interest had gone over the edge into an obsession. Every preview book I could get my hands on was devoured in our new home at Balmoral Road in Elderslie and my sticker album was bedraggled before the tournament in Spain had started. I had a belt with Naranjito, the tournament mascot, as its buckle and I would later wear it, superstitiously, to every exam I sat right through school and university.
I don't expect to be happier again in my life than I was that summer. Watching what seemed an endless supply of football with my dad and Michael Donn, my best friend then and now. Everything seemed to fall into place, the games were timed perfectly for a primary pupil. There was a set straight after school finished, then another set before bedtime and there were several excellent teams jostling with each other for greatness in front of my eyes.
Scotland were tantalising and entertaining in the initial rush of matches. They scored eight goals in their three group games but also conceded eight and went out on goal difference to the USSR. It would become a theme of the tournament, that those who attacked gloriously would eventually impale themselves on cannier sides. Either Tele Santana's Brazil of Socrates, Zico, Falcao and Junior or the France side that Michel Hidalgo had constructed around Michel Platini, Jean Tigana and Alain Giresse would have been worthy winners of any World Cup. It was an era when midfielders were king and elegant playmakers such as Platini and Socrates loped about the pitches. Everyone wanted to be them rather than strikers as I recall.
Yet it was Paolo Rossi, an arch predator, who would gun down Brazil and take Italy on to the final. I mourned Brazil's elimination for days and was just coming to terms with it, when France were also eliminated, nefariously, by West Germany. Jupp Derwall's side were the villains of the piece after the skullduggery of their infamous Anschluss with Austria to eliminate Algeria, then Harald Schumacher's forearm smash which almost killed Patrick Battiston, the French defender. Yet they were another essential part of the mix. If I was annoyed with Italy for eliminating Brazil, I was furious with West Germany for their treatment of France. I became an Italian for the final and demanded revenge. My 'new' country duly obliged.
For every World Cup since I have waited again for that same magical feeling in vain. Of course, I have still enjoyed them all but never quite as much. The matches in Mexico were on too late, Italia 90 was too negative and USA 94 was a combination of both. I travelled as fan to France 98 with my friends and covered Germany 2006 as a reporter, both treasured experiences, yet I have never quite been able to recapture that summer of 1982. I now realise it marked the last act of my childhood. It remains elusive, something just beyond my reach, much like Scotland found qualifying for the second phase of the finals.
Douglas Alexander, chief sports writer, Sunday Times Scotland.
Memory added on August 2, 2011
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