Football and the rising sun simply don't mix, says Al Needham. The 2002 World Cup was all well and good, but it should never be allowed to take place at that time of the morning again

Once upon a time, the World Cup was like a dog. A big, fluffy, waggy-tailed dog who would wait for us to come pegging it out of the school gates. It would wait patiently for us. We would make time for it. All our friends loved it, and would talk about it incessantly. It was heartbreaking when the dog went away, but we knew it would be back another day, wagging its tail and licking our faces.

Then, when we grew up, the World Cup became a beautiful new par­tner who we would meet in pubs and spend cosy late summer afternoons on the settee with. All our friends would admire them as much as we did, and they introduced us to many new ones. Again, it was desperately tragic when they went aw­ay, but we knew that one day we’d be reunited in a Grease-type scenario.

But this summer, things went horribly wrong. The World Cup became a vicious, temperamental half-dog, half-human. It dragged us out of bed and demanded our total attention, making us miss the train to work on a daily basis. Then it would harry us out of work be­fore our dinner hours and snarl at us if we even thought about going back in before it had said its piece. It kept us away from our friends. It denied us lie-ins at the weekend. And in the evenings, just when we needed it, it disappeared, assumed to be foraging around bins.

The 2002 World Cup might have been one of the most surprising, well-organised and violence-free tournaments ever, but as we all know, the World Cup is far more than a month of live football. It’s the only truly communual sporting event in the world, where schedules are upended, relationships strain, others are forged, and people come together in a manner not seen since the final scene of The Day After. After England beat Colombia in 1998, for example, I got my mate to pick out the hardest, potentially most violent bloke in a Leytonstone pub and I went over and hugged him. If I had done that at any other time, I would still have sovereign ring imprints across my face. That’s what the World Cup is like.

This one, on the other hand – and I use the term only in its non-NWA sense of the word – was an absolute bitch to follow. We’ve all heard about the impeccable manners of the Asian people and their eagerness to please – so why couldn’t they have been a little less selfish and played the games at 3am their time to please, well, me?

Early kick-offs were such a novelty at first. On the one hand, you were guaranteed that only the hardcore would be in attendance at the local pub and there’d be no bandwagon jumpers – and anything that keeps GMTV off the air has got to be a good thing – but most importantly, getting served in a British pub at 7am had a tang of the exotic about it. And no way was I going to miss out on being a part of social history. However, this meant sitting in a deserted pub that still stank of the previous night’s debauch watching Ireland and Cameroon with six others, while the cleaning lady kept asking us to put our feet up. By the time England played Swe­den to a half-full pub (everyone else was either sweating over a barbecue or had left town to avoid the Jubilee), the novelty had worn right off.

Looking back, there was only ever going to be one game that felt like a World Cup should, and that cre­ated anything approaching a community spirit: Eng­land v Argentina. All the others were watched with a creeping suspicion that something wasn’t quite right. The Nigeria game should have been a time for quiet satisfaction at a job well done, not squinted at on a mini-telly on the train to work, hearing the howls of frustration from commuters with radios as we went into tunnels. The Denmark game should have sparked off a celebration that would last well into the night – but it finished way too early and I sparked out on the settee all day. Brazil? It should have been the very pinnacle of the summer, with a slow, intense build-up – but my mates had to drag me out of bed and we sat there, too knackered to care.

Non-European readers are perfectly welcome to chime in here that the experiences above happen to them at virtually every World Cup, and they’re right. But we Brits already have Wimbledon when we need a harmless summer afternoon diversion. Roll on 2006.

From WSC 186 August 2002. What was happening this month

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