Every four years, when the World Cup ends, I make a promise to follow the players I’ve come to know, or the ones I’d forgotten about for four years, until the next tournament; but I never do. It’s not that following the Premier League, the Bundesliga, Serie A, La Liga, or Ligue 1 is difficult, even in the United States: matches for all these leagues are on television each week. Instead, I glance briefly at the scores in the Monday papers. When the Champions League reaches the semifinals in spring, I pay slightly more attention, and might look back to see who were the losing quarterfinalists. But when it’s always the same teams by now, who can keep track of whether it’s Juventus or Chelsea that Real Madrid is playing? Finally, in May, I’ll watch the two Finals, the FA Cup and Champions League, on TV. Otherwise, football has failed to maintain my attention, and I broke my promise to myself.
Truly, I like only the World Cup, which I’ve watched since 1974. The ‘80s, my late teens and college years, were a big Cup-watching era for me, when I loafed around my Dutch childhood home and took in practically every match from 1982, 1986 and 1990. With a Belgian father and that childhood in the Netherlands, I tend to always have a team in the tournament. When the Netherlands fails to qualify, as happened in ’82 and ’86, and again this year, there is invariably a solid—even ‘golden’—Belgium to cheer on; those ‘86ers were semifinalists, too.
I think what I’m saying is that I don’t like football leagues or football seasons. I like only the occasions where something is at stake, a knock-out match and a big tournament. Does that mean I don’t really like football? Certainly I admit to a distorted view of the game: the only players I rate are those who did well in two to five matches in the World Cup, regardless of their reputation from long club seasons where, I’m told, the standard of play, coaching and teammates is consistently higher than will be found in any speedy end-of-year event.
And so I see France’s Olivier Giroud as useless, while Croatia’s Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic, or Uruguay’s Edinson Cavani, are the goalscoring match of Messi or Ronaldo. When I encounter a player I haven’t heard of before, I’m sceptical: who are all these young men on the England squad that reached the semifinal? The only names I knew, and then only recently, were Harry Kane and Ashley Young and maybe Jesse Lingard. I remember players from four or eight years ago, and wonder why they aren’t playing—they were so good then, and surely four years hasn’t aged or wounded them at all, even if they crossed the invisible line into their thirties.
Even nuttier, I think of players whom I know to be retired – from international football at least – and wonder what’s happened to them. Why aren’t they in Russia? The French player of the post-Zidane era I really liked was Franck Ribery, who did a lot in the 2006 World Cup (and a little in the national ignominy that was France in 2010), and who still plays club football at the highest level, for Bayern Munich (I checked). Ribery is 35 years old, and the reason for his not being on this squad is easily Googled, but I want to see him on the pitch, which must be one reason I fixate on poor Giroud, a lumbering attacker in his place.
A perspective like this makes me a rotten correspondent or barroom expert; it just makes me a fan like millions. But with each World Cup, I gain a richer history of the game. Many commentators I have read have seized on France’s last Cup-winning team, les bleues of 1998, and traced the line from then to now: how, on each occasion, a diverse team made up of the sons of African or Muslim immigrants, born and raised in the French banlieues, took on the world – and won. This year the commentariat are more restrained, aware that the brief euphoria of victory and hopes of a peaceful, prosperous, cosmopolitan future for France didn’t last, while typing that we shouldn’t expect it to be different now, post-2018, with all the problems that remain in France (and all of Europe) concerning immigration, integration, mobility, and opportunity.
But because of my quadrennial cups dating back to 1974, I know something more than that: French football didn’t begin in 1998. Just a short time before, the French team were glorious, tragic semifinalists in 1982 and 1986; and European champions in 1984. They had the best midfield in the world: the four horsemen Platini, Giresse, Tigana and Fernandez. Fernandez and his parents were Spanish immigrants; Tigana, born in Mali to a French mother, is black. There were other leading black players on that team, from Guadeloupe and Martinique. Other European national teams of the time didn’t have as many, or any, black players, until the end of the 80s and sometimes even later. France was a pioneer, and those teams were magnificent, nearly world champions.
There’s nothing in that assertion to explain contemporary French politics or society, but it’s a part of the picture that watching the World Cup for 44 years expands for one particular observer who isn’t bogged down by the comings and goings of domestic football. Even as an American, the United States is never a team I have been interested in. It was nice, actually, to have them not qualifying, and avoid the media onslaught of footballing mediocrity match-by-match until the inevitable early elimination. The World Cup is a good way to not be reminded regularly of America—especially important when it is Trump’s America—to imagine a world happy and occupied and thriving without it.
Watching the World Cup in America, on American television, I haven’t had quite that privilege. But I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the men in the pubs and restaurants watching matches are half my age, bearded, tattooed and hip, like the players on the field, sporting Arsenal or Paris St. Germain jerseys. Following European football closely throughout the year, they are the real fans, the better fans, the more patient and focused fans. Besides knowing more, they remember more than I do, but my memory is longer. I have something on them, after all. As global hipsters, they may get to be in Paris for fun and dancing when les bleues win it all, but I got to be a boy in a small country when the national team lost it all, two Cups in a row, 1974 and 1978, each time to the host. I got lasting character—didn’t I?—they, merely ambient pleasure. If the World Cup didn’t break your heart at least once in early life, you didn’t live.