Friday 27th September 2013 at 6:47AM
They say travel broadens the mind, but it’s equally clear that a lack of peregrination can also narrow it. However positively the Northern Ireland Tourist Board promotes that beautiful area, many from my generation still struggle to cast away images of the troubles. Our pictured visits are filmed in shaky, grainy black and white, while those who return from a visit speak in colourful tones: rich countryside, warm people.
My sister took her honeymoon in South Africa a few years back. Now in spite of being a regular and enthusiastic traveller, I’ve never been there. So my kids experienced the contrast of having a Dad extolling the virtues of voyaging on one hand, while, on the other, worrying that scenes reminiscent of Michael Caine’s demise in Zulu might curtail my sister’s trip to the Rainbow Nation.
But now, having watched the World Cup media coverage, the matches and some roving video diaries from a sports reporter friend of mine, I recognised the earlier symptoms of a contracting mind.
My determined broad-mindedness also affected my perspective on England’s chances. Like most of my countrymen, I put my tenner down with my heart, but then I put another tenner down on Spain, because, having lived in Spain, having learned to speak Spanish and Catalan, having married a girl from a Barcelona family and having two kids who look just like her (imagine the relief), I have the same misplaced confidence in La Roja as I do in England.
The World Cup comes around every four years. For the likes of Brazil, Argentina, Germany and Italy, it represents an expected source of national glory, while here in England we greet its arrival as if it were a nasty bout of flu – infrequent, inevitable, unavoidable and unpleasant.
In Spain it’s much the same. From Luis Arconada’s fumble in the 1984 European Championship Final to capitulations to South Korea and cynical defeats by the Italians, it’s been a series of straightforward qualifications followed by a master class in the concept of ‘lulling someone into a false sense of security’.
There was a difference this time though. Spain had finally overcome their ability to self-destruct and won Euro 2008. They were installed as second favourites behind Brazil. I confidently tuned into their opening game against Switzerland. Here was a team who have only lost one competitive fixture from the last 36. What could possibly go wrong?
The following day my son came home full of woe. His school pals had spent the day ridiculing Spain, taking the Mickey and pointing out just how much better England were. I told him not to worry. Spain would do much better than England. If I’m honest though, history suggested otherwise.
After the opening round of games all concern about South Africa’s ability to stage a major international tournament had evaporated. The BBC dispatched a camper van to various deserted points of the Cape, making it appear that the locals had been tipped off earlier that an inane journalist was soon going to be asking stupid questions in the area while ITV relied on Adrian Chiles’ every day humour and natty colour combinations (as long as it’s grey). The politics to one side, the tournament had begun.
Two words then entered the lexicon: vuvuzela and jabulani. The former swept into the consciousness like a swarm of furious wasps. ‘Huddersfield Town tried that for the Millwall league match’ I explained to my family, who immediately made plans not to visit the Galpharm Stadium any time soon. The jabulani, meanwhile, stoutly refused to acquaint itself with the goalposts, taking every free kick as an invitation to float off into the ether. It did, however, allow itself to be remotely controlled by Bob Bradley’s Uncle Ted (Block D, Row 23) in the case of one Robert Green.
But we were hooked by the names. Tshabalala sounded like the chorus from a Rubette’s song, while we had to wait until the final to conjure up the images suggested by Mr Braafheit. Waldo Ponce had us in paroxysms of mirth, recalling Motty’s famous commentary in Euro 96 ‘The Germans break out with the ball again … Kuntz.’
But inevitably it came down to England and Spain. Any defeat in a World Cup tournament leads the media into all sorts of profound questions – and that’s to be expected – but the simple fact that were beaten by the better team, playing better football in a more flexible formation, seems to have been forgotten. We’re not rubbish, we’ll get better, we just need to learn. It’s always been like that.
But Spain? One by one my son’s friends tried to change the topic of conversation as their idiocy became clear, while I advised caution. After losing to the Swiss, every game was effectively a knock out match. 2-0 was followed by a 2-1 and then a run of four 1-0s that took Spain to glory.
Iker Casillas made a terrific save to deny Roque Santa Cruz and then produced heroics again in the final to deny Robben. After the final, his girlfriend, a sports reporter in Spain, interviewed him live on camera. ‘I just want to thank my family, my brother …’. He broke down in tears. His novia suggested that they discuss the match instead. ‘I just want to do this’ he said, leaned across and gave her the biggest kiss ever. We watched through dampening eyes back at home.
The 2010 World Cup promised us a revelatory perspective on South Africa, helping to right some of the social injustices visited on the Rainbow Nation in the past. It delivered. But what made it even more special was that justice was done on the field of play too – and for a family with many of its deepest roots just south of the Pyrenees – that’s the memory that endures.
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