Caught in the net

Al Needham attempted to fulfil a long-term ambition again this summer. He didn't manage it but doesn't really mind

Doing the Sixty-Four – watching every single game in a World Cup, as they happen – has been a tantalising yet impossible dream, but, like a solar eclipse, all the celestial forces appeared to click into alignment for me in 2010. I was old enough to live away from my parents (so no dad saying: “Get this bleddy rammell off, Taggart’s on” – West Germany v Uruguay, 1986) and mature enough not to go on dates when games were on (England v West Germany, 1990 – yeah, I know). The hosts were in a decent time zone – so no missing games due to Sunday morning lie-ins (South Africa v Paraguay, 2002) or conking out on the settee at stupid o’clock (most of USA 94).

More importantly, 2010 was going to be the first World Cup where the internet truly came of age. So the formerly impenetrable barrier that is the third game of the group stage (where you either flicked channels or wished that someone had invented the multi-screen TVs that were in Rollerball) was now smashable, with one match on the laptop, one on the telly. And being in a recession helped – no full-time work meant no missing early games. The Sixty-Four seemed to be touchable for the first time. Or so I thought.

Every day during the group stages, I fell into a routine: wake up, turn on computer, read, watch and listen to everything the internet had to say about South Africa 2010, which filled the time until 12.30, and then the first game. It was as early as Algeria v Slovenia that the awful truth dawned: not only had the internet come of age, it was also a gargantuan attention-seeking teenager. What I had been waiting for for the best part of two years turned into an endless procession of me missing the key moments of the tournament due to being unable to take my eyes off the laptop.

Tshabalala’s goal against Mexico? I was on onetouchfootball, seeing if anyone had responded to my comment that the flame for the London Olympics should be a 30-foot chip pan. Maicon’s was-it-a-shot-was-it-a-pass goal against North Korea? I was on another forum, arguing with some randoms about vuvuzelas. The dying moments of Italy v Slovakia? Missed all of it: I was looking for a link for a grocers in the area that were doing crates of tomatoes for £2, to bait an Italian mate with on Facebook.

And don’t get me started on Twitter; thousands of people I didn’t know telling me what I would have seen if I wasn’t on Twitter in the first place. I looked at the Guardian’s Instant Twitter Replay feature once, which pulled out the most used words and inflated and deflated them in order of importance. It looked like those Czechoslovakian cartoons Channel 4 used to show in the early 1980s, when they weren’t getting any ad revenue.

By week two, serious fatigue set in. Not so long ago, we used to manage with an eight-page pull-out in the newspaper, a few snippets on the radio, and Jimmy Greaves wearing a comedy T-shirt. Nowadays, the early internet maxim “Content is King” has mutated into “Content is a maniacal dictator, demanding your attention 24 hours a day, blaring out constant proclamations of what we already know or don’t really need to know”. I was already knackered by the three o’clock games, and passed out on the settee more than once.

And when it actually came to the third group games did the internet let itself down. ITV never bothered to show the other game online when it was their turn, while the BBC’s server was overloaded and stuttery for theirs. TVCatchup and its possibly-illegal ilk just about came through, but I soon learned that if you’re watching two games, you’re actually watching neither.

The run for Sixty-Four ended 15 days in. My mate was having a drink in town before leaving the country, so there is a huge Switzerland v Honduras-shaped hole in my life. I sat in a beer garden watching Spain v Chile. People were starting topics and tweeting with their actual mouths. I finally realised that the internet is, in the main, a poor substitute for what actually happens between normal people during a World Cup. And, for the first time this year, I started to enjoy it.

From WSC 282 August 2010