In 1998, I started to watch football. I was 11 years old. It was the now-legendary World Cup 98.
France. Brazil. In Paris. With Zidane. A young Henry. Barthez. Blanc. Petit. Deschamps. Leboeuf. Lizarazu. Epic.
I’d watched a few of the games before that and found it interesting. Netherlands versus Croatia was noteworthy. But the finals were magical. I remember my aunt’s living room and popcorn that day. I’d heard enough to know Brazil were the favourites; that a lot of Brazil fans thought the French had the officials in their back pocket; and there was a ridiculous rumor that Ronaldo was intentionally slipped something to induce his fit.
But all that chatter washed away in the sea of crazy supporters and incessant camera flashes. The crowd was electric. Laurent Blanc kissed Fabien Barthez’ head. Zidane was Zidane. And I could feel the win right then and there. You know the rest… Ronaldo played, 3-nil, and rousing renditions of “Allez les Bleus” in Paris.
I was hooked. The magic of what the French did never faded. Fast forward a couple months, to one of the most memorable football seasons ever. I was 12 and found myself liming with a bunch of girls in school who were into sports. That’s right. Girls who liked cricket and adored Brian Lara (we’re Trinis after all, but he was also the greatest player ever). Girls who liked football and got excited when a player nutmegged defenders en route to goal. When we ducked classes, we’d run to the Audio Visual room to watch football. And it was there my football fandom kicked into second gear.
The Manchester United treble was the sort of thing that you couldn’t stop talking about. Especially in Trinidad, because Dwight Yorke was our boy (well our boy from Tobago). I mean, joint top goal scorer in Europe that season, and skills to make your jaw drop. Fox was replaying that CL final every day, it seemed. Comebacks make for great viewing. And you never tired of the Yorke-Cole’s partnership. Solskjær, the Nevilles, Giggs, Schmeichel, Beckham, Scholes, Keane, Stam. In retrospect, that was perhaps the start of the “super-club”, i.e. a club with lots of money, lots of global fans and lots of players with magic feet. A club with a brand you could cash in at the bank. The big 4 in the EPL struck fear into the hearts of all opponents and played football to make you weep with joy. Bayern Munich was huge. Deportivo la Coruña were a decent side. Real Madrid was making magic with one star, el Capitán, Raul. And Hierro, Morientes, Helguerra were legendary. Not a Galáctico in sight. Iker Casillas was 17 and had to take the bus to training when he became a regular on the first team. We all had a crush on him. Luis Figo was like a Portugese Zizou, beats in slow motion.
The girls were divided over Inter or AC. Inter over AC, anyday, thank you very much. Roma and Juve were tricky opponents, and who didn’t like the Italian team? With their penchant for modelling and Gattuso’s crazy never-say-die/ I-will-damage-you mentality. It was golden. His shocked expressions when he got a card were Entertainment 101. Zidane and Trezeguet played for Juventus, so the Old Lady gained my fandom easily. Liverpool won me over with Steven Gerrard, a player I have immense respect for. Still a bit of a Kopite… Kuyt and Carragher are tireless. And I was huge on Nando ’til the move to ‘the other London club’.
Arsenal had The Dennis Bergkamp. And what an introduction it was to him in the 98-99 season. Freddie Ljungberg, the magician. Men like Vieira and Desailly. Tony Adams. A young Anelka. Back then AFC had JVC on the front of the shirt and played at Highbury. Ray Parlour. Seaman. Ashley Cole. AFC’s leading goalscorer (yes, I like to refer to Henry in this way). I don’t want to start talking about Arsenal much longer because that will inevitably lead to a (long) discussion of the 03-04 campaign. Much more epic than the treble; if you ever thought you admired the Gunners before, you fell head over heels that season. Pires, Wiltord, Reyes, Sol Campbell, Keown, K. Toure. Lehmann. Lehmann… what a character! They were amazing enough to get their own name: The Invincibles. Absolutely nothing like the style of play we saw that year. (Funnily enough, that season we got both van P and Cesc… go figure.)
Nowadays, football is different from those first days for me. We’re firmly in the era of the “superclub” or as Wenger calls it, “financial doping.” Football is big business and a useful prop in the world of politricks. (Just look at the suits inextricably linked to AC Milan and Galatasaray.) Goalkeeper’s shirts no longer have a ton of little random shapes splashed across them in 6 or more random colours. The shorts have gotten longer (thank God). Becks doesn’t have platinum blonde locks in a new style every week. Freddie’s is no longer that beautiful red. Oliver Kahn isn’t dropping our jaws by stopping sure goals. You can stalk your favourite players on Twitter. Correction… Follow them on Twitter 🙂 .
But the things that really matter have stayed the same. A free kick is still like a penalty for Beckham. Derbies are still the highlight of the season; be it London, Madrid, Milan, Manchester, Merseyside or the Superclasico. You still jump off the couch when someone lobs the keeper on his line. The Dutchmen’s Total Football philosophy is still cranking out amazing players, though none ‘fly’ quite like The Dennis. The transfer season is like the most enjoyable soap opera ever, with players courting clubs and vice versa. Everyone feels a little dull in the international break (unless you’re Irish this year). You still feel nostalgic for Zidane when you see anyone score a volley after turning a couple hapless defenders in slow motion. Well, I do 🙂 And Balotelli’s picked up where Beckham left off. Always some players like Sergio Ramos and CRon who think their in GQ shoot. And the characters of the game keep things spicy… Tevez v Mancini, Balotelli v Mancini, Wenger v Mourinho, Sepp Blatter v Our Collective Common Sense etc.
To a large extent, I can still enjoy football like I did in those days before I had loyalties. These days my loyalties are with Real Madrid and Arsenal (in no particular order). And I will always love France, of course. That’s where it all started.