Are We Too Savvy For Letchkov Moments?

Do we know too much about football to truly enjoy a World Cup? Fans now face ridicule for a lack of knowledge in an age when we're drowning in information...

Last Updated: 16/06/14 at 12:48 Post Comment

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Everyone has their favourite World Cup memory, a moment of clarity amidst the blur of childhood, an instant in which the majesty and magic of football shine brighter than almost anything else had done before or will again. These are the times at which obsessions are irrevocably entrenched - never again will things, or you, be the same.

The World Cup was traditionally the ideal breeding ground for such lines in the sand to be drawn, because it always contained that element of wonder so difficult to find in the comparative monotony of club support. Even at a young age, the expectations and norms of domestic football are very quickly established through familiarity, but once every four years this was blown out of the water by a game that seemed the same in name alone, a Technicolor version of our daily bread.

My World Cup epiphany came on July 10 1994, in the form of a diving header from Yordan Letchkov, a man who looked older than my own father. This was a Bulgarian team, of which I knew next to nothing, beating the might of Germany - even at eight years old I could appreciate such a significant disruption of football's typical hierarchy. The world champions had been beaten by a team that before USA '94 had never before won a World Cup match.

What made that Bulgarian team so special was precisely the fact that I knew so little about them. Names such as Letchkov, Borislav Mihailov and Trifon Ivanov seemed so exotic that it seemed unthinkable that they could be reaching the World Cup semi-final in a tournament for which England had not qualified, and my footballing innocence left me open to being wooed. To add to the excitement, the Bulgarian players seemed just as surprised at their success.

At that point in time, a lack of knowledge of World Cup teams was still seen as a sign of innocence. Research tells me that my beloved Letchkov, Mikhailov and Ivanov were playing for Hamburg, Mulhouse (in France) and Swiss team Neuchatel respectively, but that didn't matter one jot at the time. Hristo Stoichkov was at Barcelona and revered in hushed tones, but even he had a sense of mystery surrounding him. This was a time when our knowledge of European football had to be gleaned almost exclusively from the pages of World Soccer magazine.

Now, however, things have changed entirely. Whereas before there was a sense of excitement in admitting that you hadn't heard of a player, now there is a badge of honour decreeing that supporters must claim extensive knowledge on everyone and everything. What was once deemed as innocence is now naivety or stupidity.

There are Arsenal fans that have watched Joel Campbell throughout his time in Greece, Liverpool fans sure of how Emre Can would fit into their system and United fans who 'knew last year' that Daley Blind was the answer over Luke Shaw. We have a bizarre, backwards scenario whereby supporters claim to know everything whilst many pundits seem to take delight in demonstrating very little knowledge. Suddenly everyone's an expert except the 'expert'.

I was sat in a pub watching the England game on Saturday evening and witnessed a man being mocked by his friends because he admitted he wasn't familiar with Italy's right-back Matteo Darmian. It was as if he had announced that Wayne Rooney should play in goal or that not taking Rob Green to Brazil would limit England's chances. Darmian is 24 years old (which I had to double-check) and plays for Torino - it is okay to admit that he's flown under your radar.

"People today are in danger of drowning in information," author Idries Shah once wrote. "But, because they have been taught that information is useful, they are more willing to drown than they need be." That seems to ring true.

Extensive television coverage, Football Manager and the vast swathes of information available online are partly to blame, but these are merely symptoms rather than the cause. We are a society in which not having an answer is deemed unacceptable, a culture in which saying "I don't know" is an admission of weakness rather than honesty.

The most enjoyable match of this World Cup so far, for me personally, was Uruguay's defeat to Costa Rica, simply because it caught me totally unawares. A team without glowing reputation had overturned my expectations, and it felt refreshing to watch with open-mouthed amazement - Spain's cataclysmic defeat to the Netherlands generated similar feelings. Rather fittingly, Oscar Duarte scored a wonderful header for the Costa Ricans; my Letchkov moment had returned.

Before the goalscoring madness of Brazil began, there was a lingering sense that recent World Cups had flattered to deceive, failing to match up to the misty-eyed magic of yesteryear, but perhaps it is us, rather than the tournament, that has changed.

In drowning ourselves in information we have inadvertently removed much of the air of mystique and magic that World Cups used to provide. That is why so-called 'hipsters' are forced to constantly seek new horizons for their enjoyment: football's mainstream has become an increasingly wide river.

Daniel Storey - follow him on Twitter

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