The first World Cup I fully had an interest in was 1986. I had been strangely indifferent to football until two years earlier, when the high drama of an end of season suddenly got me hooked, at the age of 8. There was Manchester United's run to the Cup-Winners' Cup semi-final, where they fell to Juventus; Watford and Elton John and their fairytale march to the FA Cup final; Liverpool and Spurs' penalty shoot-out wins in the Champions Cup and UEFA Cup finals respectively; and, most importantly there was Euro 84: Platini, Arconada, Elkjaer, Laudrup.
So it all teed things up nicely for Mexico 86. It didn't even matter that Ireland languished second from bottom in a qualifying group that featured both Denmark and the USSR; I assumed that that was the way things were (I was a bit too young to realise how close they'd come to qualifying for Spain 82). Both those teams got off to a flying start in Mexico before being cut down to size by the more constant Spain and Belgium in the last 16. Though my memory of the tournament is clearly tinged by nostalgia, I can confidently say it was one of the best, if not the best ever. It had loads of great games (and a few dire ones, of course), bucketfuls of fantastic goals, sizzling team performances from the afore-mentioned Danes and Soviets, and the Spanish, the French, the Brazilians. And there was also, of course, the man who, more than anyone else, put his imprint on a tournament: Diego Maradona. It also had one of the best finals ever, if not the best: Argentina powering to a 3-2 win over West Germany in a thriller that produced three goals in the last seventeen minutes.
But I didn't see it. Having watched as many of the games as a ten-year-old could expect to up until then (many of them kicked off at 11pm and 1am Irish time) the elements conspired to stymie me on final day. The night before a storm hit our village and the makeshift illegal deflector system that we all relied on in those pre-cable days broke down, presumably because the mast was blown down on a neighbouring hill. I was condemned to follow the match on the radio, obviously no substitute but something I was well used to in those days when there was rarely more than one live football match per week.
So I prepared to listen to it with a friend of mine. With five minutes to kick off, my Dad came into the house saying that he was going to watch it at the home of an acquaintance, who, for some reason had managed to circumvent the TV black-out. He said I could come, but for reasons that remain obscure to me, I didn't go. Maybe it was because my Dad was reluctant to bring both of the kids over to the house of somebody he wasn't really that friendly with; maybe the friend might have been persona non grata in the house (it might seem ridiculous that a ten-year-old would be treated this way, but the kid's father had plenty of enemies); or maybe I myself felt awkward about gate-crashing and wasn't terribly sure if we could both go along. I can't remember which one it was. In any case I dallied. I'm not even sure if the friend found out about the offer to watch the match but we continued listening to the medium-wave crackle of the ever-excitable Gabriel Egan relating the drama from the Azteca.
And I missed a cracker. It was only later that I saw this, in its entirety, of course:
Four years later I was in the Gaeltacht at Coláiste Lurgan in Inverin during the final of the dreadful Italia 90. A much less attractive Argentine side slouched and kicked their way to the final, shocking the Italians in Maradona's adopted home city of Naples. Germany, the only truly great side in the tournament were up against them again. I was worried that the directors of the school might have been soccer-phobes (almost any Irish person over the age of thirty can relate an anecdote of the petty attempts of GAA folk to thwart people's enjoyment of the 'foreign game'). But I needn't have. A TV was mounted in the assembly hall and we all strained our eyes to be able to follow the action (the screen was little more than 18 inches and the reception was poor). But the match was appalling. A dull spectacle marred by Argentine cynicism and a lack of German edge. Pedro Monzón was given the first red card in a World Cup final, later joined by Gustavo Menzotti when Argentina disputed the non-existent foul on Rudi Völler that gifted the winning penalty to Germany. Wretched matches have an annoying tendency to stick in your memory every bit as tenaciously as the great ones and they sear themselves on your conscience. There were many of those at Italia 90 (Ireland v Egypt was possibly the nadir) but for a final to take place in such an acrimonious atmosphere with little or no football being played was too much. Most the World Cup finals up until then had been exciting games (or so I learned from the testimonies of older people and from World Cup histories). I wanted to forget this match but I never can.
There's no way I'll be missing this afternoon's clash between the two giants.