Football came to me fairly late in my formative years, or rather, I came to football fairly late.
As the 21st century blossomed into life my six year old self knew of but one sport, rugby, and of but one star, Todd Blackadder. Football, or ‘soccer’ as the game was more commonly referred to in the confines of rural New Zealand, was completely alien to me.
Bereft of a father beholden to a particular club and separated from football’s European mainland by half a planet it would take a stroke of good fortune to broaden my sporting horizons and become acquainted with the game that would go on to form the basis of a lifelong addiction.
As luck would have it I did not have to wait long.
In the late nineties my uncle’s O.E. (that’s ‘overseas experience’, for any non-Antipodean readers) had seen him traipsing around the UK. In spite of his affection for the form of football commonly on display at Twickenham time spent living in London would lead to an appreciation for an altogether more beautiful sport.
It was hard not to fall in love with Chelsea in those days, the silky sides of Ruud Gullit and Gianluca Vialli boasted some of the most exciting and gifted players to ever grace the Premiership: Gianfranco Zola, Roberto Di Matteo, Frank Leboeuf et al., and in short order my uncle was hooked.
Upon his return to New Zealand, aside from my general excitement at seeing a relative I had not set eyes upon in years, I quickly became enamoured with the two gifts he had brought back with him from Stamford Bridge for me.
The first item, a pristine blue Umbro shirt bearing the name ‘Wise’ and the number 11, was my first point of contact with the game I would soon grow to love. The second, a VHS tape with the rather unassuming title ‘The Official Review Of The Season 1998/99′, was to be my gateway into the world of Chelsea.
Fast-forward two years and my fledgling football career had taken flight. Whilst I lacked the grace and panache to emulate my VHS favourites (and a two goal haul in a single match early on was to prove an aberration) in seasons to come I would go on to forge a fairly successful role for myself at right back (alas, Dan Petrescu had little to fear from this particular understudy).
I had nearly worn out my season review tape and as a result could name scores of SW6 stars but aside from the odd piece on David Beckham’s exploits at Manchester United the club game barely merited a mention in the rugby-centric New Zealand media.
Football was no longer alien to me, indeed it had long since surpassed rugby in my estimation, but a lack of local media coverage meant that the sport was still shrouded behind a curtain of intrigue.
That curtain, thankfully, was about to be torn down.
As the 2002 World Cup loomed on the horizon an enthusiastic primary school teacher managed to mould me from fair-weather to fanatic over the course of a mere month. A Karate black belt with a keen interest in all things Asia we were primed not just on the upcoming tournament to be held in Japan and Korea but on the very Japanese language itself.
The teacher soon arranged for us to draw names out of a hat so that we could all be assigned a team to follow at random (he cherry-picked Japan for himself, naturally enough, but the other 31 countries were all up for grabs).
We were regaled with tales of the great footballing nations: the powerful defending champions in the form of France, the talented Portuguese side built around Luis Figo and the Argentinian team spearheaded by Gabriel Batistuta. I was thus overcome with a sense of disappointment when I plucked the unfancied USA from the hat.
Despite having serious misgivings about my new team, whose last outing at a World Cup had proven disastrous, I quickly put those thoughts to one side and set about creating a poster along with the rest of the class. Sheets of A2, red and blue crayons, the stars and stripes upon a green pitch; the end result was not fit to grace the Louvre but I was pleased to see it strung up along the classroom ceiling.
Armed with the ubiquitous newspaper results chart I was ready to follow the tournament as it rumbled into being.
The USA had a tough group to contend with, pitted against co-hosts South Korea, joint favourites Portugal and dark horses Poland. The stage was set, I hoped, for a graceful exit with at least one draw and a smattering of goals. For a team that returned home from France 98 with its tail between its legs, scoring only a solitary goal and losing all of its matches, I reasoned that this would be an improvement.
Poland fell to South Korea in the opening match of the group, par for the course as the home side made a strong start, but the next result was to send shock waves throughout the football world. Not only did the USA manage to rack up a smattering of goals, they held Portugal at bay to record a 3-2 victory. Qualification to the knockout stages was now a real possibility and with the toughest test on paper behind them the US could afford to feel a bit confident heading into their second match against South Korea.
Elsewhere in the tournament, France’s hopes of defending their crown had been shattered after their opening game defeat at the hands of Senegal and subsequent draw with Uruguay. Argentina’s chances of making it into the second round hung on a knife edge after their 1-0 loss against arch-enemies England. Suddenly my ‘choice’ of team was not looking quite so unfortunate.
Team USA continued their strong showing five days later by earning a creditable draw against Guus Hiddink’s South Korea. Whilst the US were pegged back by their opponents late on following Clint Mathis’ first half strike, robbing them of the chance to seal qualification, only Poland stood between them and an unexpected spot in the knockout stages.
The Poles, meanwhile, were playing the part of Group D whipping boys as Portugal rebounded from their defeat with a 4-0 romp. The scoreline did not flatter the Portuguese but Pedro Pauleta’s hat-trick had merely given them a chance to advance, they still required a victory over South Korea in their final group game.
For the US the situation was simple, a win against Poland would seal their progress: drop points and it would all be down to whether or not South Korea could defy the odds. Buoyed by the apparent brilliance of ‘my’ team I was determined to follow proceedings live on television.
My first experience of live sport from another corner of the globe had taken place during the previous year when I was awoken in the small hours of the night to watch the great racemare Sunline and her ultimately unsuccessful attempt at winning a Group One race in Dubai. Ushered into bed afterwards a dejected wee soul I was nevertheless taken in by the whole experience. I subsequently petitioned for permission to wake up and watch entire Formula 1 Grand Prix and was eventually granted the privilege on the condition that it would not affect my school work. Naturally at that age I could in practice only manage and hour or so of watching the fortnightly Schumacher procession before falling asleep.
I was disappointed to learn that the Poland-USA fixture would not be screening live (ah, the joys of New Zealand television!), I would have to be content with Portugal-South Korea but I set out to watch my first live football match regardless.
A tap on the shoulder awoke me from my slumber, ‘the game is starting.’ I bolted out into the lounge, dove into a hastily assembled makeshift bed and took stock of the scene unfolding before my eyes: the crowd a sea of red, a giant South Korean flag unfurled in the stands, Portugal looking stern and assured in their deep crimson and green kits, South Korea resplendent in their crisp white jerseys. ‘If this is international football,’ I thought, ‘I rather like it.’
Within minutes of the opening whistle the commentator relayed news of an early goal by Poland’s Emmanuel Olisadebe in the adjacent Group D fixture. Two minutes later news of another Polish strike filtered through, and suddenly my rosy picture of the USA’s hopes had become decidedly murky. As things stood the Portuguese were a draw away from advancing thanks to their superior goal difference.
South Korea looked the more adventurous side as the game progressed but they could not find an early breakthrough as their shots on goal continually went awry. Portugal’s players were seemingly intent on hacking down the nimble and flight-footed Koreans at every opportunity, a portent of what was soon to transpire.
The turning point came in the 25th minute when Portugal’s Joao Pinto was shown a straight red card for his cynical (and, quite frankly, dangerous) tackle on Park Ji-Sung from behind. Down to ten men, Portugal’s backs were now firmly against the wall in the face of the high tempo Korean attack.
Controversy soon followed as a South Korean set piece goal was ruled out for interference. JC Choi rose majestically into the air to meet a Park Ji-Sung corner but he was deemed to have impeded Portugal keeper Vitor Baía’s movement as the Porto shot stopper spilled the ball into the path of Ahn Jung-Hwan who promptly bungled it into the back of the net.
Portugal looked relieved to go in level at the break but there was to be no reprieve as Korea came flying out of the blocks when the second half got under way. Chance after chance was created, Portugal breaking on the counter now and again, but despite a draw suiting both teams on paper Korea looked markedly more interested in trying to force a result.
The US were doomed, I was certain of it. They had let me down. Then, Park Ji Sung stepped up in the 70th minute and scored one of the most beautiful goals I have ever seen in all of football. A cross came in on the edge of the box and he controlled it on his chest, took a touch in mid-air to redirect the ball and slide past his marker before firing it home through the keepers legs with his left foot and sending me into an excited leap.
South Korea had done it, they were beating Portugal. They only needed a draw but the goal made the USA’s shellacking at the hands of Poland irrelevant. Fifteen minutes later the commentator had the good grace to inform me of a Landon Donovan goal in the USA match – immaterial, but nice all the same.
That night was a pivotal one in my young life: I was suddenly hooked on football. I had caught ‘the bug’, as it were. Guus Hiddink was my new idol. Watching nightly news reports of the World Cup action, filling out my results chart every morning, hoarding newspaper clippings and bragging with classmates about the success of our respective teams – I had of course been obsessed with my Chelsea VHS tape for months but the sport had become a living, breathing, live entity.
The USA’s World Cup run would continue right through to the quarter finals, beating arch rivals Mexico to get there. Next up: Germany. I sensed in my heart of hearts that the USA’s tournament was over, I had read enough in the newspapers to know that Germany, despite their struggles, would simply be too good for them. Flying in the face of my preconceptions, on the night the USA were brilliant. Landon Donovan, however, couldn’t get the better of Oliver Kahn and Michael Ballack’s goal on the verge of half-time settled the fixture. I still vividly remember the furore over the handball on the line that wasn’t spotted by Hugh Dallas and his officiating team.
South Korea’s World Cup would continue, however. I endeavoured to stay up for their quarter final against Spain but the previous night’s excitement had left me knackered. After dragging myself through the day I pleaded with my mother to wake me for the game, she managed to get me up and I sat with my eyes glued to the screen for the first 20 minutes before tiredness got the better of me and I crashed out. I awoke to the news bulletins of Korea’s victory and watched the penalty shoot-out time and time again.
Onto the semis, I had bid farewell to the US and was now firmly backing Guus Hiddink’s team – not so much in want of revenge for the USA’s sake but because of the media buzz surrounding Korea as underdogs who had made it all the way to the semi finals. In the end, though, Michael Ballack’s performance on the night quickly turned my head and my fleeting support of Korea dissipated. I cut out the newspaper clippings the next day, Ballack had lead a less-than-stellar Germany all the way to the World Cup final and he wasn’t even going to be able to play a part in it. I fell in love with the men in white and in lieu of New Zealand, who at that point I hadn’t even seen play, I set out to adopt Die Mannschaft as my de facto national team.
In the buildup to the final I refused to take heed of the international press coverage: Brazil were the favourites, they insisted. Ronaldo was going to win the match all by himself and Germany stood no chance. What nonsense! Germany were going to win the World Cup, I just knew it, and Michael Ballack was going to lift the trophy.
My mother was reluctant to let me stay up for the final after the South Korea-Spain sleep escapade but I insisted upon being allowed to watch it live. ‘World Cup finals only come around once every four years,’ that’s the line my teacher told me to use to make her cave in. It worked.
I couldn’t be wrong, ‘my’ teams had defied the odds throughout the World Cup so surely it could happen again…
Needless to say, it didn’t happen again. My brave Germany faltered and my classmate who was lucky enough to draw Brazil out of the hat all those weeks ago celebrated a World Cup victory for his charges. I was not disheartened, however. Over the course of that month my love for football had transitioned from re-watching my Chelsea VHS tape and admiring events of the past to loving the sport as it was currently happening. A live, breathing, exciting organism.
Twelve years later I still have a great fondness for Germany, the rise of Ricki Herbert’s New Zealand has allowed me to enjoy another team’s fortunes on the international stage but I don’t have the same boyish nostalgia for the All Whites that I do for Deutschland. As Brazil 2014 approaches I find myself dreaming of a German triumph.
In the wake of the 2002 World Cup I launched myself full steam ahead into following Chelsea. All things considered it wasn’t a bad time to fall in love with the game. Regrets? Aside from the lack of sleep brought about by over a decade of early morning football watching, I haven’t got any.
Hobbies come and go, football is a way of life.