By that, I mean I don’t care who wins – the tournament itself or any given match. I don’t support a national team. Never have. This gives me a freedom to enjoy every match in a way I can’t when watching my club. The World Cup is a month-long holiday from the usual torments of football.
I could spin this as a spiritual thing, about non-attachment leading to enlightenment. Or get into ethnic identity politics and why I proudly fail Norman Tebbit’s infamous cricket test.
But I’m reminded of a conversation with a Glaswegian in a London pub in the 1990s.
I felt I’d made an erudite case for the pleasures of a non-supporting role at World Cups. I’d cited, among others, Albert Camus, Edward Said and Van Morrison. Yer man, who had been listening intently, informed me it was “a lot of sanctimonious s***e”. Since then, I’ve avoided intellectualising the topic.
There is a tradition of Manchester United fans not supporting England. There are many theories about this, but nobody really knows why or when it started. Maybe antagonism towards United players and anti-United flags at Wembley. Maybe the way David Beckham was treated by England fans after his red card against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup.
Maybe a north-south thing. For me, however, none of this has anything to do with it.
It’s that the once-every-four-years opportunity to see great teams and great players is something to be cherished and any kind of chauvinism sullies it. Call me a snowflake if you want, but my only allegiance during a World Cup is to beautiful football.
Don’t get me wrong: I can find myself briefly rooting for a national team because of an emotional investment. This might be: England, where I was born; Ireland, where my parents came from; Italy, where I have lived for 20 years; or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where our daughter was born.
And I’m not above sneaking aboard someone else’s victory carriage on occasion either. After watching Italy defeat France on penalties in the 2006 final on a friend’s roof terrace in the centre of Bologna, I piled down into Piazza Maggiore and joined in chanting the riff from White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army. Italian? Me? Sììììììì!
‘Rooting for’ can mean giving the full 110 per cent – kicking every ball and screaming at the TV set – for 90 minutes. But once the final whistle has sounded, I’m immediately scanning the timetable for the next kick-off. Win, lose or draw, there’s no emotional residue. Just memories. And what memories.
The first World Cup I watched was Mexico in 1970, featuring a Brazil team that for many observers remains the epitome of the beautiful game. The moment from that competition that sticks in my mind most is not a brilliant goal or a miraculous save, but a miss: Pelé’s against Uruguay. I had never seen a player dummy the keeper like that and couldn’t think about anything else for days. What kind of player would think up a trick like that?
I would ask the question again four years later when Johan Cruyff sent Swedish defender Jan Olsson out for a bag of chips with a piece of skill none of us had witnessed before.
Then there’s my personal vice: the pass. A good pass has always given me more pleasure than a good goal. A goal is the end of something. A pass is a beginning. It fires the imagination in a different way.
The World Cup has thrown up so many, including three of my all-time favourites: Maradona releasing Burruchaga to win the 1986 final; Pirlo’s no-look to Grosso to break the German will in the 2006 semi-final; and Pelé’s nonchalant roll of the ball in front of Carlos Alberto to complete the rout of Italy in the 1970 final. Pelé deliberately plays the ball in such a way that, just as Carlos Alberto is arriving, it hits a blade of grass and jumps up the four inches that miraculously transforms it from a ground shot into a volley. Or at least that’s what I choose to believe.
The fact that there was little live football on television in those days, and the BBC and ITV would show all the matches, may account for my recollection of World Cups as magical times. There were certainly few other opportunities to see the likes of Pelé, Rivellino, Müller, Cruyff, Neeskens, Kempes, Maradona, Laudrup and Platini. But that only plays a small part, because the childlike excitement of staring at a fixture list with 64 – count them, there are 64! – football matches has never left me.
From 2026, there will be even more matches, and I will probably be able to root for all my soft-spot national teams. Fifa has obligingly simplified qualification for the finals so national federations will only have to answer two questions: 1) Can we get a side out? 2) Has everyone paid their subs?
This summer, in the absence of Italy, Ireland and the DRC, I’ll find myself rooting for England on three occasions, possibly four. I plan to have a few bob on Belgium to win it, so I’ll be rooting for them too. But as ever, my real interest will be in great teams and great players playing great football, whichever colour shirt they are wearing. I’ll be looking for them to replenish my stock of memories.
And you might say I’m being sanctimonious, but I bet you looked up ‘Pelé + Uruguay + 1970’ on YouTube while you were reading this.