Blissful ignorance

Al Needham remembers a time when foreign clubs, footballers and national sides were a complete – and enjoyable ‘ mystery

We live in a world where (barring the news, and even only every now and again) we are devoid of surprises. We hear singles on the radio months before they’re released, which go straight to No 1 and immediately fizzle down the charts. We download films and American TV shows half a year before they come out over here. By the time a video-game comes out, anyone remotely interested in it knows what it looks like, how it sounds, what you have to do in the final level and how to cheat at it.

This is all well and good, but when it comes to football, there has to be a line in the sand, and I’m drawing it out right now. Simply put, I want a complete ban on international football for this season. I like being able to bore people about the comings and goings of La Liga as much as the next man. But all this rampant internationalism is making a right dog’s arse of the World Cup, and it has to stop.

Permit me, if you will, to take you back to the sort of World Cup build-up that existed in pre-satellite days, when three (and then four) channels kept all but the most important (and mainly domestic) games at arm’s length. On the Saturday after qualification games, Football Focus and On The Ball would devote approximately two minutes to non-home nations’ games (three, if a Russian goalie had decided to sit on the crossbar and break it, or if a South American referee was kicked half to death). Then they would flash up a board that showed the list of qualifiers.

And that was it. Nothing else. International club football was slightly better served, but only as long said foreign club was playing a British team or if ITV couldn’t find a reason to show Von Ryan’s Express again if they made it to a non-British final. But not that much better. Unless you read World Soccer, you didn’t know who had won the Bundesliga that season. Unenlightened times, maybe, but every four years there was a delicious upshot; teams and players seemed to pop out of nowhere, shock the world, and change everything.

In 1970, you might have heard that Brazil had improved a bit since being clogged out of the World Cup in ’66; having not seen them since then, your head must have spattered the wallpaper when you did. As with Johan Cruyff in 1974. We knew all about Maradona long before 1982, but bar Argentina’s friendly with England in 1980, you never got a proper look at him. And until you did, you’d look at players in your Panini sticker book and wonder if Paul Breitner was really as vicious as he looked, or if Falcão was really pronounced Foul Cow, as you hoped it would be. Ignorance, forced or otherwise, was bliss. The entire face of the game would change, once every four years, like clockwork.

Nowadays, thanks to a process that began with Channel 4 following Gazza in Rome in ’93, we know too much. We have endless channels punting out the major leagues, and the internet hoovers up everything else (as I type, I’ve got Aland v the Faroes on YouTube). This is undeniably a Great Thing, but because of it, the only thing vaguely resembling the shock of the new in a World Cup this century is seeing the players we already know about in different shirts. We’re no longer shocked by the sight of great players bursting onto the scene; the only surprise is when they underperform. And that’s no fun at all.

The genie is never going to return to the bottle, particularly when it comes to the Premier League. But this season I’m refusing to take notice of any football activity that’s not happening on this island until June 11, 2010, and you’re more than welcome to join me. And if not, please don’t tell me anything about Ronaldo in Madrid unless it goes excessively, deliriously, entertainingly wrong.

From WSC 271 September 2009