The film Frost/Nixon captures brilliantly the moment of Nixon’s almost self-inflicted condemnation. The “trial he never had” was made more extraordinary by the uniquely televisual way in which it unravelled. The momentary widening of David Frost’s eyes, the near-imperceptible knitting of his brow, Nixon’s uncomfortable shifting in his seat: it was a moment in which politics and television became inextricable.
It’s difficult to say when football’s relationship with television came of age in a similar way (a pretty sturdy bet might be the 1994 World Cup, a tournament bookended by hyper-televisual penalty misses), but it’s easy to picture how the international football landscape looked prior to that always well-defined process of globalisation.
Clearly it was the sort of bleak, brooding, uncharted affair usually reserved for dinosaur movies and Wigan Athletic home games. In 1966, Johan Cruyff shook off his shroud of mist to administer a 5-1 thumping of Shankly’s Liverpool. Pelé, of course, lurched from the gloom only every four years. Without the proliferation of televised football, the build-up to every international or continental tournament would carry with it an extra dimension of exotic anticipation.
Then the self-contained cultures of football started to be undercut by concepts like branding, marketability and Oleg Salenko. The game is now a global cultural mode, and it’s impossible to imagine a modern international tournament replicating that sparkle of the unknown.
Or perhaps it isn’t.
Seventeen years after the 1994 World Cup, the United States is hosting another tournament. The CONCACAF Gold Cup is a regional competition for the national teams of North and Central America and the Caribbean, and it’s made me think again about the ubiquity of global football.
Take Cuba, for instance. Every member of the Cuban national team plays his club football within the domestic league, about which relatively little is known (or, at least, about which I know relatively little). There was a degree of intrigue around the team that took the field in Dallas for the tournament opener. My northern European eyes were seduced by their technical dexterity, their slick mastery of the central third of the pitch.
That mastery, as it turned out, came at the expense of any influence in the other areas of the field. Cuba lost 5-0 but I, a child of the late eighties, was already hooked on the anachronistic frisson of watching a team from the ether. It’s the same story with El Salvador: Rodolfo Zelaya’s free-kick golazo against Costa Rica was more thrilling than if David Beckham or Lionel Messi had done the same, not because it was better but because I had no idea who he was.
And Canada! What a spectacle. I already knew the names of the Canadian players, indeed had watched most of them play for their clubs. But I’d never seen the national team before, and it seemed far more exotic than a side featuring a man named Terry Dunfield has any right to be. It felt like I might have been watching Mexico ’86. By the time Canada brought on Jonathan Beaulieu-Bourgault of the retro-tastic Preuβen Münster, I was already smitten with the Gold Cup.
With all the qualifiers and caveats that such a statement entails, I don’t lament the advent of the television and information age. I love nothing more than watching and learning about football wherever it’s played, and that’s easier now than ever before. But, as someone whose experience of football lies exclusively within the shiny and marketed, the Scudamored and Blatterized, stumbling across this piece of low-key romanticism is a rare treat. So please, for the sake of Cruyff and Pelé and a biannual few weeks of old style wide-eyed incredulity, never tell me who takes free-kicks for El Salvador.