The Last Great World Cup?
The joys of 1986 and a tournament before everybody knew everybody
In “Coney Island” Van Morrison celebrates a glorious autumn Sunday spent on the way to a favourite spot in County Down. There is birdwatching and laughs, and Sunday papers and potted herrings. Van tells us all about it, speaking over a lush and evocative background of strings. His conclusion – “wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?”
We all need spaces like that, little bursts of perfection to get us through the day. One of mine is Mexico 86. There are three reasons.
It is, I claim, the last truly great World Cup. It also captures a blissfully happy time in my life. And in hindsight I can see the vital role it played in my future. The tournament rekindled my interest in the game and set me on a path to making my living writing about it.
I still have never been to Coney Island, in County Down or in Brooklyn, and back in 1986 I had never been anywhere. My old man lived to 84 without ever making it further than a weekend in Dublin. I was saved from excesses of parochialism by football, and especially by the World Cup. I had just turned five the first time the tournament went to Mexico, in 1970, and was too young to take it in. But I can recall the sticker album – and specifically the picture of a Peruvian, Ramón Mifflin if memory serves me well. That exotic shirt, the Andean features – it was proof that a big wide world was out there somewhere, waiting to be explored.
Come 1974 I was ready to kick every ball. I was caught up in the grip of an obsession with that tournament and the next one. The sticker album, all the games, recreating the matches in the park afterwards… Perhaps the cruel blow was that just as I became old enough to follow the World Cup, England didn’t qualify. Cruel, perhaps, but fair. It took some of the tension out of the occasion. There was none of that exhausting, gut-wrenching nervous energy of having your own team involved. Just sit back, relax and let the experience pour over you.
England were back in 1982, but by then things were a bit different. I still followed the game, still played. But it was nothing like as important as it had been. I was 17. Music was in undisputed first place. In the aftermath of punk, as the effects of Thatcherism kicked in, music seemed a matter of life and death, and armed with my bass guitar I was heading for the front line. Spain 82 was a great World Cup and I thoroughly enjoyed its many memorable moments. But it seemed peripheral in comparison with those gone by – and with the next one.
Mexico 86 caught me at the right time and the right place. Music had lost its effervescence, and my dismal attempts to be part of the scene had come to an end. I had hung up the bass guitar. And by now, just turned 21, I was at Warwick University, in a field outside Coventry. When I first went there in 1984 it was the furthest north I had ever been.
I had never even thought of going to university. I knew nothing about it and had no interest. But this was the early 80s. I left school with a job half lined up on the local evening paper – which promptly went bust. Spent the long hot summer of 83 half-heartedly looking for something. Got a job in a menswear store – which quickly went into liquidation. I had all the bits of paper, so went to university (it wasn’t just free in those days – they paid you!) with the sole aim of ducking out of the labour market for three years. There was then not the slightest pressure to achieve or do anything. It was a wonderfully relaxed way to have horizons expanded, to meet people from all over the country, from all over the world. And June 1986, at the end of the second of three academic years, was particularly laid back.
I found myself getting into the World Cup in the build-up – especially when Chris Waddle scored a cracker to beat the USSR away in a warm-up friendly. England in 82 had been solid. But now there seemed to be much more attacking potential; the lugubrious talent of Waddle, the speed of this Lineker, the flashes of genius of which John Barnes was capable. We might have a chance here!
But it was much more than England. It was watching a global event in a cosmopolitan environment. Algerian students – superbly talented footballers, by the way – cheering on their team. A group of Brazilians doing likewise. Europeans. It was as if the sticker album had come to life. I was obsessed even before a ball had been kicked.
And how could you not be hooked by the action from Mexico? Firstly, it was Mexico. As all that film from 1970 bears out, the images look fabulous on TV, as if the sun is shining exclusively for the World Cup. The TV coverage was unforgettable, too. Brian Clough was at his best – a more controlled, humane figure than the loudmouth of the 70s, but pithy with it. He had a fine stooge in the agricultural tones of Mick Channon. The former Southampton forward had two obsessions; “the boy Line-acre” and the need to “get forward”. After England’s sticky start, this was the Channon recipe. “We’ve got to get forward. The Danes do it. The Germans do it. The Russians do it.” “Even educated fleas do it,” said Clough, bringing a swift end to that little discussion.
The despair of Ian St John as Scotland failed to break down 10 men of Uruguay is another lasting memory. And the tournament was also a feast for aficionados of images put to music. If I recall correctly, the constant soundtrack for these collages was the piano break from Bruce Hornsby and the Range’s hit, “That’s Just The Way It Is”.
And the way it was worked out just fine, thank you. That is because 1986 was the last World Cup of an era. Some of the big names from around the world had gravitated towards Europe and especially Italy. But not many. This was just before European club football started hoovering up talent from all over the globe and concentrating it in a handful of clubs. The Champions League, or European Cup as it still was in those days, was not the overwhelming measure of quality. People still looked to the World Cup to divulge new tactical approaches and to make the worldwide name of a raft of players.
It was just before the ‘everybody knows everybody’ era. Part of the charm and appeal of the World Cup was the opportunity it gave to get to know the latest crop of stars. In those days you discovered them during the course of the competition. Mexico 86, then, was full of delightful surprises. For those who had not really followed the 1984 European Championship or their qualifying group (and that meant the overwhelming majority of British fans) Denmark were a revelation. I can still recall Michael Laudrup waltzing his way through the Uruguayan defence while the commentator yelled, “The boy’s a genius!” Then there was the USSR and their astonishing attacking approach. I can close my eyes and still see where banks of people were sitting in the Student Union building as we followed the action night after night.
South Korea were there – normal now, almost impossibly exotic then. We yelled ‘moonies’ at them – until someone pointed out that this was blatantly racist and had to stop. Not long after the tournament I met my first South Korean. I told him how much I had enjoyed watching his team at the World Cup, and he positively beamed. It was an important lesson in the role the tournament plays making people feel part of a global community.
Josimar of Brazil appeared from nowhere. An England fan in the crowd kept being picked up yelling, “Boniek, you bastard!” while Poland played Morocco. England saved themselves with Lineker scoring a life-changing hat-trick against the Poles, Boniek and all. That night I remember one mate being too drunk to say “Paraguay” and another intoxicatingly wondering “why can’t politics be like this?”
And because the players had not been burned out by the demands of the European club season, the magic went on and on. Rather than petering out in the group stages, the thrills continued through the knockout games. An insanely anarchic second round tie between Belgium and the USSR. Denmark imploding against Butragueño and Spain. One for the purist and the armchair fan alike – a quarter-final between France and Brazil that flowed back and forth for 120 irresistible minutes until the cruelty of the penalty shoot-out. And then, of course, there was Maradona. In the quarter-final, semi-final and final, Argentina’s number 10 hit heights that the World Cup has probably never seen before or since. An extraordinary individual talent placing his gifts at the service of the team. I could not even be angry with him for the handball goal against England. We had been kicking him all over the place! I roared on our Barnes-inspired revival and mourned that vital little touch from Olarticoechea that prevented Lineker from equalising and forcing extra-time. But after all the punishment he had taken on football fields all over the world, I found it impossible to begrudge Maradona his moment.
And all of this unfolded in front of my eyes as I enjoyed a holiday camp atmosphere. Long June days were spent lounging in the sun and playing kickabouts. There are people who know me from that time who still refer to me as ‘Viko’ – a play on Brazil’s star man Zico. I picked up the nickname during the World Cup. It is a term used by my friends, one of affection, one of respect – but, I fear, one thoroughly unjustified by my own meagre footballing abilities.
It is funny, then, that this ‘Viko’ has ended up in Brazil – which at the time would not have seemed even remotely possible. It might be less funny that such fleeting days of joyful irresponsibility should have led to their opposite – year after year of supporting a family by having to sit through endless Copa Libertadores fixtures.
Sure, there are plenty of worse places to be. But from time to time there is no harm in wallowing in those memories from 32 years ago. It always ignites a little spark, the reminder of what it’s like to be 21 and carefree. Would it not, indeed, be great if it was like this all the time?