“What other sphere of human activity calls forth all that is most noble in men’s souls, and all that is most base? Or has so much excitement? Or more vividly exposes our strengths and our weaknesses? Boring? You might as well say that life itself is boring!”
Go on, then, how many of you assumed this quote was about sport? Or football?
If you didn’t, and would rather be out spraying your prissy roses than praying your prissy Ronaldo misses or scores, well, then, for the next month you and I will be living on different planets.
While you’re checking for blackspot. I’m there watching the Portuguese peacock suck in his cheek-bones, slick back his glistening locks and plant his billion-dollar legs just so, before unleashing a stunning free-kick to the back of the Spanish net …
It’s roses for you, and and it’s hissy Crissy for me – and every saddo but gladdo like me glued to World Cup 2018 in Russia
Actually the quote is from Imperium, a fictional biography I am reading of the very real Roman senator and politician Cicero, written by Robert Harris, and the great man himself was actually talking about politics.
But it captures something of how I feel about sport. Both as participant and spectator. How it is fundamental to my life.
And why the World Cup is so important. Even to those who just don’t know it is.
It might go some way towards explaining why many normally well-adjusted people right now are losing all reason and dignity when a goal chance is missed, or a bad tackle goes unpunished, and are being moved to unseemly deliriums of delight when a sphere of leather-encased wind nestles in the opposition’s net.
Or why stadiums all over Russia right now are a boozy, sweaty carnival of chanting, flag-waving bank clerks, bank robbers and bankrupts, and temporarily deranged planning consultants, priests and pot-scrubbers.
Only for the next few weeks they are not bound by job descriptions or what car they drive: they are all fans together.
Billions more, of every age, creed, belief and social cachet are equally enraptured on their plush living room sofas or leaking shanty stools, swaying to the unscripted but ordained rhythm of the people’s pageant. Soaring and sighing, and hoarsely pleading with the glistening but not listening referee on their TV screens.
Yes, it’s World Cup time, folks.
The very best of us and the very worst of us vividly exposed.
Boring? You might as well say that life itself is boring!
The 21st FIFA World Cup is well up and running, kicking, tackling, scoring, fouling, crying, arguing … and everything else the world’s best footballers, coaches and officials are capable of for the next four weeks or so.
And my son, decked out in his iconic Argentina jersey, is planning his 13th birthday activities around the day’s games on Wednesday. Bum cheeks grooved to the sitting room sofa and little else to worry him
Well like any burgeoning teen he has plenty to worry him, but not now, not now when spaghetti-haired Neymar and Brazil are up, playing the Swiss …
We might have to remind him to feed and release his and our beloved dog Bella though ….
I’m sitting now at my computer outpost in the early morning, in the home office beside our son’s bedroom. His very waking words, minutes ago, from his darkened room, were: “The first game is not on till 3 today Dad … it’s … which of the Koreas is the good one?” — “South”, I interject — “Yeah, them, they’re playing Sweden …”
Obsessed just like I was when I was a boy, with no pesky work or living obligations to distract from my unquestioning enchantment, and total immersion.
Like so many of un certain age, I can barely remember what I had for dinner yesterday, but I will describe with ridiculous detail the famous Carlos Alberto goal that crowned Brazil’s World Cup 1970 final victory.
A magical tournament anyway, but for a young boy watching football at its most refined and mesmeric — and for the first time in living colour — let’s just say I will never forget it.
Pele the panther, imperious Tostao, the bustling, free-scoring Jairzinho and all those Samba superstars in yellow, green and silky blue … they dwell forever blithe and lithe, forever young and perfect in my mind’s eye.
It was jarring to watch these heroes on a recent History Channel documentary, all ravaged by time and tide, but their glistening eyes still clear and boyish as they retold their tournament tales.
Why I can even remember when England were genuine contenders, and how unlucky they were to go out of that same tournament when as defending champions, don’t forget (as if we could!), they lost a two-goal lead and wilted in the Mexican heat in extra-time against the dreaded West Germans.
No Gordon Banks and poor old Peter “the Cat” Bonetti the goalkeeping fall-guy.
Bye bye noble Bobby Moore, comb-over flapping Bobby Charlton, busy Alan Ball and the rest …
And so many vivid memories attached to all the tournaments since.
Every country that has ever qualified for the World Cup finals will have their memories of those special tournaments.
Here in Ireland we have our Ray Houghton, Roy Keane and Packie Bonner remembrances, and our special favourite, the sadly monumental Paul McGrath, and those mad days of car-horns blaring around streets all over the country and that all-in-this-together-however-long-it-lasts unity and harmony across a land more used to division and separation.
For mine is a life that can be measured out in treasured World Cup moments. Only growing outwardly older and responsible in those four years between each era-defining, superlative-defying, no-denying culture-shaping series.
Already this year’s moments are lining up: Messi’s penalty miss against the mighty Vikings from little Iceland … England starting strong and then putting their fans through the mill until Harry Kane’s second saves the day against unheralded Tunisia …
Trivial and trite, or vital and life-enhancing? The choice is ours.
For me, Trumps will come and Trumps will go but my World Cup warriors and villains will live forever. And will do for my son too, it would appear.
Ireland are not in it this time, but in ways it’s for the better, allowing us to sit back and enjoy the greatest show of them all. To watch as seasoned superstars ferment their fame, or crumble and tumble as new ones rise to the challenge and take their place.
Politics did it for Cicero. I’ll go with Pele, Maradona and whoever lights up Russia 2018.
The roses will have to wait.
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