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A Life with the World Cup

 Posted by on June 28, 2014 at 7:04 am  Germany, Italy, Spain, The Ball is Flat
Jun 282014

Germany 06: I started blogging around this time, right before World Cup 2006. I was working at a school, and 5 days before the World Cup started I found out that I was unceremoniously being transferred to another school. Summer break had started but here I was packing crates from 6 years of teaching. It took me twice as long to pack as I was watching the matches from my classroom at the same time.

South Africa 10: Four years later and a lot had changed. I was a father again and recently married. My eldest who was a short fourth grader before Germany had grown into a tall eighth grader with a budding mustache and a teenager’s attitude. My inquisitive preschooler was now a third grader; still curious but taller and more independent. I inherited a stepson with a black-belt in karate and a deadpan nature. My Grandfather passed. My Mom moved out and my elderly father had grown ill. I wrote a daily column for La Liga Weekly and recorded a weekly podcast with my best friends, and yet not much had really changed. I was moving again, to yet another school, and the World Cup had returned.

Some people measure their lives by very personal landmarks. Graduating from school or getting married, the birth of a child or getting a promotion, but one of my personal recurring landmarks is the tidal return of the FIFA World Cup.

Flashbacks: I remember 1978 in Argentina clearly. I remember the final, broadcast on Spanish television here in the States. I was 12 years old. The one before did not even hit on my radar: 1974. I was 8 years old and as I have mentioned before football was clearly, positively, not my sport, but there was something that captured my imagination there in the stadium in 1978, seen through the filter of our black and white television: Cesar Luis Menotti’s long hair and the cigarette permanently attacked to his lip, urging his Argentina side on against the Cruyff-less Clockwork Orange of the Netherlands at the Monumental in Buenos Aires, with the flags waving, the confetti and the people screaming. I had no way of knowing that people were disappearing in Argentina and the Military junta was cracking down on its political opponents throwing them off helicopters into the River Plate. I was 12 years old and I was in love with the spectacle, blinded and unaware of its real costs.

1982 in Spain, I loved my Italian neighbor Rose at 16. An Azzurri fan, her dark hair in a tight ponytail, Italian and exotic to a sheltered kid from the suburbs, and I became an Azzurro too learning about Paolo Rossi and their improbable win in Spain and his hat-trick against Brazil. She grew up and grew out, met a guy in a band, and forgot I ever existed, but I still remember Paolo holding the cup.

In 1986 I was 20; a teenager no more. I was working as a teacher’s assistant and marking time, looking for a break in life, and I almost let the excitement pass me by. That little 17 year old with the magic left foot on the news from 1978, the one who waited in vain for Menotti to call him up, was all grown. His name was Armando like me, well at least his middle name, and all the talk was how he had missed the World Cup back then but that this was Diego Maradona's stage and that this was his moment. It couldn't have been more true. I never saw his famous goal, the great one where he knifes through the English defense like butter, but I did see the other one, the infamous one. It left an awful taste in my mouth sure, that Hand of God goal, but worse yet was the reaction from the media. How quickly they can turn on a player, adored to vilified in the span of minutes. All these years later and nothing really changes does it?

1990 was in Italy, and I was 24 years old, a great generation of players had come and gone and another set to replace them. I remember images: Van Basten’s skill, Gullit’s dreadlocks, Lineker’s goals, Gascoigne who cried, Klinsmann who dived, and above them all the divine ponytail of Roberto Baggio and again Maradona, who cursed his home fans, the Neapolitan faithful, for whistling at the Argentine anthem. Germany beat Argentina and I thought how lucky were the Germans and how dreadful they played. It was a sub-par World Cup but I remember thinking to myself that I might not see any of these giants of the game like this in their prime ever again. Time waits for no one.

Four years later I was married and the World Cup was here in the States, the final played just 20 minutes away from my house; everything is 20 minutes away from everything else in Los Angeles.  I was sitting in a Red Robin restaurant in Pasadena, California home of the Rose Parade with one television on and no one else watching the most exciting penalty shoot-out I can recall. Brazil beats Italy and Roberto Baggio couldn't get away quicker from the heat and the pressure and the burden of losing a World Cup final in a place like this, oblivious to his pain, after skying that infamous last kick.

1998 was France and the best player of his time was French, my namesake had retired into a cocaine haze the World Cup before, and the stars were aligned and the United Colors of Benetton, or Le Bleus had won it for Liberté, égalité, and fraternité. A country that prides itself on equality had problems at times accepting the changing face of the nation and drew together on the inspiration of players with the names of Djorkaeff, Zidane, Lizarazu, Boghossian and Karembeu, their names were Basque, Senegalese, Polish, Algerian, Armenian, Pacific Islander or from the Antilles, and all of them equally French. In a time of ethnic cleansing so fresh in the memory, happening “three doors down” in Europe, it was inspirational to see the French putting their slogans and mottos to practical use. It was something I whispered to my two year old son. Sad that we can't ever be bothered to live by those rules over time.

2002 was in Japan and Korea. My son was 6 and his younger brother was 6 months old and my 11 year marriage was disintegrating. We were all falling, reeling still from September 11, and it was a comfortable feeling that some truths were universal. Brazil would qualify, even if they struggled, and they would find a way to win. The home squads would do well, even at the expense of heavy favorites like Spain and Italy, the losers blamed FIFA, corrupt referees or the weather; and everything, all of it, was all too eerily familiar.

Brazil 14: 2006 felt like the end of a chapter. Italy finally won again after years and years of near misses. I finally won the office pool after years and years of near misses and I wondered if Rose even remembered me after all these years. 2010 felt like the beginning of a new chapter; a new job, a new marriage, a new son, a new stepson and a new outlook on life, but it's never quite so easy. Life is complicated. Some things are gained as other things are lost. That two year old from France 98 is now in college and the black-belt starts next year. My toddler from Korea/Japan 02 is now almost as tall as I am. My youngest was born right before South Africa and will start kindergarten right after Brazil. My mom remarried, my dad is still ill, and I still record a weekly podcast with my best friend and her step-dad. I also realized quite by accident that I enjoy writing about football, but life is more chaotic and unmanageable than ever; like this World Cup in Brazil for that matter.

Some people measure their lives by very personal landmarks. Mine is measured in four year increments, the 10 World Cups in my memory, from Argentina to Brazil over 36 years. I am excited to see what memories this World Cup will leave for myself and my family and I will mark time yet again in Russia in 2018, Qatar in 2022 and beyond if permitted.


The Ball is Flat

The Ball is Flat is a website and podcast devoted to the Beautiful Game. Football, Futbol, Fusball or whatever you call it, it is the game that divides and unites us. The Ball is Flat's mission is to cover European football with an eye open, the heart in motion, and the brain colored with the right amount of cheerful cynicism. Read more:

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