It may not be a first memory, but every football god fearing fan is indelibly impressed by that one moment, or one sequence of arbitrarily strung events, that has fostered an eternal love affair with the world cup. The alluring quadrennial has the memory-imprinting power of a first kiss. One can conjure up the event and its particulars on demand without so much as a stutter, and the memory evokes a giddy feeling that is immune to ridicule.
For me the love affair began during the 1994 world cup when I was 13 years old. Which is ironic, really. I’m Portuguese, and in Portugal, football challenges the church for Sunday bragging rights, and that particular world cup was held in the US, perhaps the only country where “soccer” is eclipsed by three other sports. Still, Gheorghe Hagi’s masterful 40-yard chip against Colombia was enough to nurture in me a passion for the sport that has been described as both obsessive and infantile – especially by my brother, who nevertheless found himself chewing his fingers off in the summer of 2006 as Cristiano Ronaldo stepped up to take the penalty that would shatter England’s world cup dreams.
While Hagi’s goal reigns supreme in my world cup memory bank, USA 94 provided me with many other significant world cup mementos. The most shocking event that summer, and perhaps the most horrifying in world cup related history, was Andres Escobar’s murder, which rumor has it was in retaliation for the own goal he scored against the US that helped seal Colombia’s fate. Fittingly, the US became the beneficiary of Colombia’s demise, shocking the world with their progression to the second round, where they met, and challenged Brazil, the eventual winners. Everyone had expected the US to roll over and become the first host team to fail to make it out of the group stage, but Eric Wynalda’s supremely taken free kick against Switzerland helped prolong the streak that continues to this day. Romania – Argentina was perhaps the most entertaining match. A back and forth affair that established the imperious Hagi as one of the best players of the twentieth century, and earned him the moniker, “Maradona of the Carpathians.” Interestingly, Hagi could have played against Maradona himself in that game, had the latter not been expelled from the tournament when he tested positive for ephedrine, which certainly explained his meteoric weight-loss. Like all great world cups, 94 had its fair share of dark horses, but none made as much noise as Bulgaria – who became my surrogate team after Portugal failed to qualify, again – led by the temperamental Hristo Stoichkov, and my favorite player and Sporting Lisbon captain, Krassimir Balakov.
The final between Brazil and Italy wasn’t so memorable in itself, even though it included players like Dunga, Romario, Bebeto, Marcio Santos, Baresi, Maldini, Signori, and the Pony-tailed Buddha, Roberto Baggio, who had single-handedly carried his countrymen to the final. It was the only game of that particular world cup that I wasn’t able to watch to the end, thanks to a tremendous thunderstorm that hit the Perigueux region of France – where I was vacationing with a friend at the time – and forced the bar where I was watching the game to close. I was able to make it back to my summerhouse in time to hear the incredulous radio announcer bemoan Baggio’s infamous spot-kick miss. The next day the local paper displayed an enormous front-page picture of the exhausted Baggio, on his knees, clutching at his face while the Brazilians rushed Taffarel, who didn’t even have to make the last save. My friend never forgave me for that thunderstorm, and upon arriving back in Portugal he disposed of me as quickly as Baggio’s miss-hit ball reached the stands of the Rose Bowl.
This year’s world cup will be someone’s first world cup. It will certainly provide thrilling moments and cause inexpressible heartbreak; it will deify a match-winner, who will be bestowed with the love of a nation, and vilify a player who will be flung into abject misery and will forever personify defeat; it will yield at dark horse that will win the affection of millions, and raze potential candidates, relegating them to the annals of world cup disappointment. All these inevitabilities will spark a passion that will prove inextinguishable, and will serve as the springboard for many seemingly ceaseless diatribes extolling the game’s virtues, and deploring the decisions of coaches and players alike. To the very lucky ones, South Africa 2010 will mark the beginning of a life-long love affair, and not what the less fortunate will call an obsession.