Jon Mackenzie begins his World Cup diary with a sense of an ending at the beginning.
‘The remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were’ – Marcel Proust
The World Cup began with an ending for me: this morning we buried my granny.
Born in 1928, her life extended beyond the history of the competition which, in turn, must now go on its way without her in attendance. When Héctor Castro scored in the eighty-ninth minute in the Estadio Centenario to secure a 4-2 win and the Jules Rimet trophy for Uruguay, my grandmother was two years old, the humid atmosphere of Montevideo seeming every bit as distant as it was fom the verdant suburbia of Chester in which she grew up. As a 17-year-old Edson Arantes do Nascimento, known more affectionately as Pelé, made his debut appearance at Sweden 1958, Granny was now thirty years old and had two kids. Eight years later, England won the World Cup beating a West Germany side who had made it to the final after beating the Soviet Union at Goodison Park, just down the road from where my granny now lived. As World Cup after World Cup slowly unfolded – Johan Cruijff’s totaalvoetbal, Socrates’ best team to never win, Diego Maradona’s mazy dribble, Roberto Baggio’s penalty miss, Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt – every single moment was woven into the same tapestry of history in which my gran’s life was also threaded. But as the 2018 World Cup kicked off in Moscow, that thread was noticeably conspicuous by its absence.
At times like these, it is natural to slip into reminiscence. It was Aristotle who described the human being as a zoon logon echon – a creature of the word. Using language, we like to narrate our world to ourselves in a bid to come to terms with a reality that stand over against us. In the case of our own lives, we tell stories about who we are, making sense of things and giving meaning to our existences and the existences of others. As we construct these narratives, we pick out the pieces that best fit the story we want to tell and, in some cases, we even make up parts in order to smooth over the plot holes or cracks in the storyline. The memory is a wonderful thing. Harold Nicolson describes in vivid detail the scene of a railway accident in Russia which ‘until recently was the first thing that I remembered’. In fact, when he recounted this memory to his mother, Nicolson found out that ‘I had got it all wrong’. While the accident had indeed happened, the vivid details turned out to be false and, in any event, the young Nicolson had slept through the entire proceedings.
Similar things happen for us when it comes to the World Cup. In many respects, the competition takes on a new valence for us as we narrate it back to ourselves after the fact, melding together the events of the tournament along with variegated facets of our lives at the time the tournament is played. As a nine-year-old, USA ’94 seemed to me to have been the greatest phenomenon known to man. It is only when I have gone back and rewatched some of the games from that World Cup that I have come to realise that much of the romanticism that I have for that particular iteration of the tournament is as much my own doing as the protagonists involved.
There is a sense, though, that this narration of our lives and the lives of others is as much about self-preservation than anything else. Both of my grandmothers suffered decline in their final decades: the one suffering from dementia, the other suffering from various forms of bad health. In both cases, by the end, it was hard not to let the abiding memory be of that grandmother at the final stages of the natural body’s own undoing. The narrative was necessarily written and rewritten with an eye to the past, remembering both before the ravages of time had unleashed itself on them. It was only then, viewed through the lens of a more positive past, that the present could be helpfully interpreted.
In the case of the history of football, it can sometimes feel as though we are witnessing a similar decline. Today’s fixture, sardonically labelled El Gasico, did very little to veil its blatant pandering to despotism, corporatisation and vested interest, neatly summed up by that trifecta of evil – Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Vladimir Putin and Gianni Infantino – hobnobbing on the touchline. At times like this, it is tempting to adopt the classically liberal view of history as universal. But in the case of World Cup history, this is certainly not true. However bad things were in the past, they were never quite as bad as they are now.
Which isn’t to say that we shouldn’t enjoy the World Cup as the spectacle that it clearly is: the sins of the forefathers are not passed on to the next generation, as it were. But there is a sense in which our narration of the tournament follows the same pattern that we adopt as our nearest and dearest enter the twilight years of their lives: it is at that moment that we start reinterpreting the present in the light of the past, reading the here and now against the background of a more positive history which prevents the present from becoming overwhelming.
I hope you all enjoy the World Cup. For those of us who have lived through its development over the last few decades, it is hard not to be excited by what is the pinnacle of international football. However, it is hard to ignore the truth that the World Cup is entering its twilight years. And so, as we do in all areas of our lives, let us keep telling the stories about a happier past so that the present does not overwhelm us.