The Day They Knocked Down The Palais

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.


  1. Nice article.
    I think there's certain degrees of this desired exoticism of yours. My favourite tournament of the last few years was the 2007 Copa America. It was fully televised on sky, albeit always around midnight, and there was the perfect blend the relatively unknowns like Venezuela and Bolivia to educate and the likes of Riquelme, Messi, Robinho and Alex who I knew but always wanted to see more of. There's a limit to how much Villareal, PSV, Barcelona and Real Madrid you can legally watch (before Sky showed every single Barca and Real game). It was also comforting watching as a complete neutral.

    Not sure I'm quite at your levels of exoticism yet. Think I sacrifice a bit of the charm of the unknown for a slight expectation/guarantee of quality.
    Amazing reflecting back just 10 or so years ago pre-internet how different things were. Half an hour of CNN world sport everyday was how I found out what Ronaldo was up to at Barcelona or who PSG had just signed. Miss that half an hour and I was in the dark.

  2. The first World Cup I watched was 1990, I was 10 years old

    I knew who West Germany were, I knew about Brazil, Holland & England but when Cameroon took the field against Argentina in the opening game they may as well have come from the moon.

    The utter shock and incredulity of Cameroon defeating Argentina was amazing. To reach the quarter-finals was incredible. From a perception (if not a real) point of view the equivalent these days would be for Cuba to reach the World Cup quarter-finals.

    It's odd to look back at that Cameroon side to see a lot of their players were playing at a decent level in France, they were no mugs.