Watching the World Cup from America: The French injustice

Matt Stead

Read Peter Goldstein’s thoughts on 1966, 19701974 and 1978. By 1982, he’s all lawyered up.

 

I hated being a lawyer. I hated it from the first day. But after passing the bar examination in 1979, I stuck it out for about three years. That meant – one more reason to hate it – I was fully employed in the summer of 1982, without any time off to watch the weekday World Cup matches.

But you did get two weeks’ vacation per year, and I had scheduled one of those to coincide with the opening week of the tournament. Except, to my eternal shame, not for that reason. Instead, I travelled with my roommate up the California coast to attend the 1982 U.S. Open golf tournament at Pebble Beach.

Since this is Football365, I should say I regretted the choice, but in fact the Open was the most glorious spectating experience of my life. We saw all the greats up close. We followed Jack Nicklaus (a god among men) for four rounds, cheered him on unreservedly, and watched him make an extraordinary charge on the final day, only to lose to a spectacular chip by Tom Watson. A true heartbreak, but one I wouldn’t have traded for anything, except maybe a spot in the stands when the USA wins a World Cup Final. (Not that I have anything to worry about there.)

Mesmerized by golf, I had no thoughts for the World Cup. I caught a few highlights from the games in our hotel room, whatever San Francisco television thought worthy to show. I figured I’d catch up when I got home. Hard to believe I could ever have been that casual about it.

But I slipped back into obsessed mode very quickly. One of my chief obsessions, then as now, was to root against the host team, no matter who it happened to be. After consecutive wins by West Germany 1974 and Argentina 1978, it was clear the home side had a considerable advantage, and so I preferred any team in a less favoured position.

In Spain, the host side never threatened to win the tournament; in fact, they needed that “considerable advantage” (wink, wink) to get out of the first group stage. Without an unlikely penalty against Honduras and an outrageous penalty against Yugoslavia (which was missed, whereupon the referee allowed a retake), they would have gone out early.

I remember those incidents only vaguely – what I remember much better is a FIFA official saying it was important for the hosts to get into the second round. Some years later I was researching tournament history, and found the originator of that quote. Guess who the FIFA official was. Your friend and mine, Joseph Blatter, then an obscure functionary, eventually the shame of world football.

On the pitch, Italy offered another outstanding winger, the marvellous Bruno Conti, my player of the tournament. Like Franco Causio in Argentina, he thrilled with his ball skills, creativity, and elegant movement. He had more pace, too, and in the final, West Germany just couldn’t handle him. He won a penalty in the first half, was part of the build-up to Marco Tardelli’s epic celebration, and made the third all by himself.

Causio and Conti had turned me onto Italian football, and for once I was happy at the result of the final. But, like many across the world, I had been devastated when Italy put Brazil out of the tournament. I had been too young to appreciate Brazil in 1970, but Brazil 1982 were the last of the great entertainers, the most exciting side I have ever seen. Eder, Socrates, Falcão, Zico, unforgettable names, all coached by Tele Santana, apostle of the jogo bonito. I celebrated Falcão’s superb strike against Italy, which momentarily put Brazil in the semi-finals, by running around my living room with my arm raised in triumph.

There were other, less spectacular rewards. I rooted 10-man Northern Ireland home against the hosts in the group stage. As a CONCACAF member in good standing, I watched Honduras give a fine account of themselves, falling only at the final hurdle to a late penalty against Yugoslavia.

Eventually came the semi-finals, and the celebrated France-West Germany match. You know the story: Battiston and Schumacher, extra time, the late German rally, penalties, the great injustice. It was a match for the ages – and if, like me, you were fortunate enough to be watching it on Spanish International Network, you experienced one of the great moments in football broadcasting history.

The announcer was Gerardo Peña, a man whose football commentary bordered on the metaphysical. With Spain and all the South American sides eliminated, the one hope for beautiful football was France, with their wonderful midfield of Michel Platini, Jean Tigana, and Alain Giresse. Spanish-language commentators rarely hide their bias, and although he never distorted what he saw, Peña was clearly on the side of Les Bleus.

It was extra time, with France already leading 2-1, when Giresse scored to put them two up. Surely it was over. The good guys had won. Peña exulted, joyous in triumph, spiralling into ever more poetic praises, winding up with the ecstatic cry: ‘el futbol nunca puede morir!’ (‘Football can never die!’). Just brilliant. To give him credit, when Klaus Fischer eventually equalised for the bad guys with an overhead kick, Peña managed “un gol memorable, un gol para la historia!” (‘A memorable goal, a goal for history!’). But for me the Giresse call is as immortal as the sport it celebrates.

In the end, despite the golf and the lawyering, I had seen most of the important games (thank you, VCR). I would never again prefer another event to the World Cup. Oh, and three months after the tournament, I quit my job. That had nothing to do with football, but unbeknownst to me, I was headed toward a life with summers off, and would never again have to miss a match. In fact, in 1986 I saw all 52 matches—and even one more…

Peter Goldstein