I have always loved the World Cup finals. The first I can remember, albeit vaguely, was the 1966 one, stopping with my father in Newtownwards so that he could look in a TV shop window and catch the score of the England - West Germany final. The first tournament I watched in full was in 1970 hosted by Mexico. I was 12 and watched all of it with my father and now am so pleased to have my 8 year old sit beside me, even more avid about the sport than I was at his age. His prediction – Holland.
From 1970 I have watched them all, although I missed most of the 1990 final due to being on a parole from prison and caught only glimpses of it while on the move from pub to pub. My pick of the lot was the 1978 one which saw Argentina, managed by a chain smoking César Luis Menotti and led on the pitch by the redoubtable “Super Mario” Kempes, emerged as victors, concluding their campaign with a 3-1 victory in extra time over Holland in the River Plate stadium.
Writing to some imprisoned republican friends in Maghaberry I mentioned the fact that this is big stuff for them. With televisions in the cells I expect those who are bitten by the bug to be glued to the set, night and day. I can remember vividly every final that I saw in the jail, beginning with the 1974 battle between West Germany and Holland. Our viewing was not without its funny moments, the most memorable being during the 1986 finals when Pat Livingstone lay on his back pawing the air in front of an English screw manning the canteen grill. His bragging rights were being exercised in salutation of the great Diego Maradona goal against England which saw the Argentine dribble from the half way line, to the laudatory words of the commentator, ‘different class, different class.’
This tournament is a hard one to call. England, great for a laugh last time round, surprisingly put up a strong performance against Italy in their opening game and were unlucky not to get a draw. If Roy Hodgson can find a way to do without his captain, Steven Gerrard, his team could find the puff to make the quarter finals at least.
While Spain can’t be written off just yet they are looking a bit like the French side of 2002 who entered as champions but were unable to progress out of the group stage. While they are unlikely to prove just as bad as that woeful French side, there is a feel that Spanish dominance is at an end and if they make it to the quarters this time around they will have found their station.
At the risk of annoying my son, Holland who hammered Spain don’t deserve to win anything. The dirty Dutch are intent on ruining the game with cynical fouling and physical intimidation, much like they plied in the final in South Africa four years ago. The other big hitter from Europe, Germany had a convincing display this afternoon against a petulant Portugal, but in recent tournaments the Germans have flourished then faltered as the finishing line was in sight. Under Löw the German side don’t seem to have the mettle to go the distance. The steely posture of Beckenbauer has yet to be replaced.
Argentina might just go all the way but strong on talent, weak on tactics, they run the risk of being coached into a dead end which is not a final.
Brazil, they took the Confederations Cup last year on their home turf, and expectations on them are high to go the extra mile. Having looked far from convincing in their opening game, carrying passengers like Fred and Hulk, they can’t rely on Neymar to pull it off for them and need to fire on all cylinders.
Time to draw this to an end – the second half of the Iran-Nigerian game is just about to kick off.