Decades of Soccer

By Kris Kotarski

I am a soccer fanatic. I have a favourite nation in every hemisphere, I watch league games on Spanish-language television and I use the Gauntlet to spread the word even though it has little to do with the University of Calgary campus.

One of my greatest regrets is that I’m not old enough to remember World Cups past. I never saw Pele play. I missed Johan Cruyff, total football and the Dutch Clockwork Orange teams of 1974 and 1978. I even missed Poland get third place in 1974–something my wretched stepfather remembers with great joy.

Much like other memories, my World Cup experiences become increasingly clear with age. I only have vague recollections of Diego Maradona’s brilliance in 1986, but Roger Milla’s exploits from 1990 are still vivid in my mind. I’ll try to write a few of my favourites, just to show how much fun the World Cup can be.

Cameroon is a great place to start. Everyone was a Cameroon fan in 1990–pubs were filled with song and cheer, even in my native Warsaw. Roger Milla’s run in 1990 was so unexpected and so astounding. The 38-year-old amateur led his Cameroon team to the quarterfinals with incredible goal-scoring flare and the African nation surprised everyone with their unprecedented progress.

I remember playing soccer in the street and imitating the colourful celebrations of Cameroon players. I danced with a streetlight pretending it was the corner flag, just like the players did on the pitch. I even remember my aunt dancing with me in her living room when Cameroon advanced to the quarterfinals.

Four years later, Italy’s Roberto Baggio covered his face in shame when his penalty kick cleared the crossbar in the final against Brazil. I never liked the Italians until that day. Baggio was one of the tourney’s best, but one miss defined his entire career. He was blamed for Italy’s defeat even though he led his team to the finals. I cheered for Brazil all day, but somehow, I couldn’t bring myself to be happy when they won. Baggio’s bewildered facial expression sticks with me to this day.

I watched the 1998 final in a pub full of drunk Frenchmen. While the day’s conversation started in English out of respect for the non-francophone patrons, it quickly turned to gibberish when France scored the first goal. I shouldn’t have understood a word, but when I looked at their faces, I knew exactly what they were trying to say. I looked at their smiles and their gestures and I understood the anxiety, the hope and the complete elation when the final whistle sounded. I hugged strangers, I chugged toast after toast and I watched bald men rub their heads in homage to Zidane’s two headers.

I could write more, but I don’t have time or space to say it all. I hope 2002 will bring more memories, in fact, I am certain it will. There’s nothing else like the World Cup–certainly a reason to give it a look.

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