Editor’s note: This article comprises excerpts from “Eight World Cups: My Journey Through the Beauty and Dark Side of Soccer,” by George Vecsey, a contributing sports columnist for The New York Times. This year’s World Cup begins June 12 in Brazil.
The World Cup could never get better than this, but I had no way of knowing it in 1982, my first time.
The wicked sense of humor of a higher power assembled the greatest talent in one place: Brazil, with three past championships; Italy, with two previous titles; and Argentina, the defending champion. Only one team would advance to the semifinals.
Every World Cup has a so-called Group of Death — the most competitive cluster in round-robin play — but that tournament included a second round of group play. This was not a Group of Death; this was a Group of Mass Extinction.
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Recently appointed a sports columnist, I had suggested to my editors at The New York Times that I cover a chunk of the World Cup. They knew little about this strange sport and its emotional crowds, but they approved my proposal. Because the United States was not in it, they told me to go for the second round and stay through the end.
I followed the first round on the Spanish International Network, watching tiny figures flitting across the screen as I twisted the antenna for more clarity. I gleaned a few basics from rudimentary wire-service reports. Some days, I would wander over to a newsstand in Times Square and pick up European papers and clip snippets on soccer. In other words, I was unprepared.
By the time I flew into sunny Barcelona, Spain, everybody in the world knew that FIFA was stuck with a mammoth miscalculation. It had placed two second-round groups in the magnificent city that nurtured Dali and Miró, the city transformed by Gaudí, but one group would play its matches at Camp Nou, with its capacity of 115,000, while the other group was in Sarrià, a funky little stadium nicknamed La Bombonera (The Candy Box), which held 44,000.
Because Argentina and Italy had performed below expectations in the first round, they were matched with Brazil in the little stadium while that stolid collection of Belgium, Poland and the Soviet Union had qualified for Camp Nou. The schedules were set in stone, with no room for flexibility.
The first World Cup match I saw in person was June 28 at Camp Nou, with Poland beating Belgium, as Polish fans waved Solidarnosc (Solidarity) banners, supporting the labor uprising going on at home. Even with this nationalistic fervor, Camp Nou was tepid.
The next day, Sarrià quivered with life. The stadium is long gone now, but I remember it as crammed into an urban neighborhood, a version of baseball’s Fenway Park in Boston, at least before the park was yuppified. On three mad days, Sarrià was home to the greatest group ever assembled.
The first match was between Argentina, the defending champion, and Italy, which had been racked by a recent gambling scandal. Paolo Rossi, a fleet forward, had been suspended for almost two seasons but was conveniently reinstated in time to compete in Spain. The Italian players were smarting over criticism from their three lackluster draws in the first round. Rossi had failed to score, and there were calls for him to be benched.
The media seats at Sarrià were close to the field, the 10th row or so. After watching from up high at cavernous Camp Nou the night before, I was thrilled to be able to see the features of the players, like the long hair of the Argentines, as they stood for their nearly four-minute-long national anthem.
It is often a mistake to judge teams on their national stereotypes, but the World Cup is an international event, with players representing their homelands, and carrying all the baggage of whatever is in the news. The nasty skirmish between Argentina and Britain over islands off the Argentina coast, alternately known as Las Malvinas or the Falklands, had begun April 2 and ended with Argentina’s surrender June 14. Who really knew how the battles, the sinking of ships, the deaths of countrymen, affected the players?
As the anthem played, I watched Diego Armando Maradona, Argentina’s tempestuous prodigy. He was famous for having cried when he was left off the 1978 Argentina team at age 17 because the coach, César Luis Menotti, had thought Maradona was not ready. Host Argentina won the World Cup without him.
Now Maradona was standing in Sarrià, all 5 feet 5 inches of him, with thick curly locks. The hope of Argentina, a marked man in every sense.
Shortly before this World Cup, Maradona signed a lucrative contract with Barcelona, the powerhouse that played at Camp Nou, and he was under intense pressure to justify his cost. Barça shareholders had already seen him play in his new home in the first round in a foreboding 1-0 loss to Belgium. Sarrià was enemy turf, the home of Barça’s Catalan rival, Espanyol.
Maradona would be marked by the Italian defender Claudio Gentile, who, I was told, was nicknamed Qaddafi because of his looks, his birth in Libya and his nasty tactics on the field. When the match began, I could hear — hear! — the thud of Gentile’s boots on the shins of Maradona. The Romanian official waved a yellow card at Gentile in the first minute, but that did not deter him from hacking away at Maradona, whether or not the ball was nearby. The cynical tactic was closer to the bullring than the soccer field, and Maradona began to retaliate and was shown a yellow card in the 35th minute.
Maradona began making outrageous flops on the manicured lawn of Sarrià and the referee awarded a free kick after one egregious foul by Gentile. The aggrieved Maradona took the shot but sent it over the goal. His knees bent. He clutched the back of his neck with both hands. He despaired operatically. The Barcelona crowd was not sympathetic. He was having a bad start in his new town, and he knew it.
Gentile’s close-order combat was part of the gritty Italian defense catenaccio, the chain or bolt. Italy had not won a World Cup since 1938 and was mocked by fans of other teams, who said Italy’s methodical defenders did not know what to do with the ball once they stripped it from marauders, but here they responded with stunning counterattack, with skill and speed beyond my comprehension.
I had played soccer badly at Jamaica High in New York in the mid-’50s and had been touched by the classic documentary, “Goal!,” about the 1966 World Cup in England. My most recent exposure to the sport had been to watch the aging Cosmos, former stars ending their days like beached whales on a foreign shore. I had never imagined the sport could be conducted at such a pace, bing-bing-bing, like a pinball on speed.
When Italy and Argentina were attacking and counterattacking, I was not able to follow the touches, the names and numbers, as they moved over more than 100 yards up and down the field. Italy won, 2-1. The hacking of the little bull from Argentina had paid off.
“Soccer is not for ballerinas,” Gentile said.
After the match I wondered why I found myself charmed by the brash intrusion of the Italians. Perhaps it was a memory of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who read the Sunday comics on the radio during a newspaper strike when I was a youngster. Or perhaps I was recalling my neighbors across the street in Queens, who kept homemade wine in casks in the basement and spewed pungent Italian curses in their kitchen; plus, they often fed me a starter bowl of pasta before I headed home for my own supper. The beautiful girl in my homeroom in high school. The college bar, summer of ’58, when the jukebox played Domenico Modugno warbling “Nel Blu Dipinto di Blu,” and everybody in the warm beery night sang “Vo-la-re, oh-oh. …” I’m a New Yorker. Therefore, I’m part Italian.
Of course, anybody who follows soccer also becomes part Brazilian. On a day off in Barcelona, I was taking a walk along Las Ramblas, the ancient leafy park with curved tile pathways that undulate like the river that used to trickle down toward the harbor. Hearing a rumble of drums and horns, the shuffle of feet, the throaty roar of Portuguese, I spied a moving mass of varied colors — 20 or 25 musicians, singers, dancers and fans, bobbing their way through the Gothic Quarter, in a slow samba beat. Carnival in July. Their hair styles ranged from blonde to Afro, and many of the women wore abbreviated outfits. Brazilian fans do not fight. They shake their tambourines and their bumbums, making strangers want to dance in their wake.
I had my epiphany: Brazil, with the warmth of Pelé, the three championships, the samba beat, jogo bonito (the beautiful game), was the heart of the sport.
My assumption as a novice was that Brazil would surely win the tournament. I took myself to Sarrià on July 2 to watch Brazil play Argentina, the best soccer rivalry of the Americas, in their third World Cup meeting.
My first glimpse of Brazil was of players going by soccer nicknames like Óscar, Júnior, and Zico and, on the bench, Roberto Dinamite. (Three decades later, I admit it, I still relish typing these names.)
The gods came out to play in blue shorts and yellow jerseys. The ball came rocketing from the goal line to a willowy shaggy midfielder named Sócrates, who sent a quick little tiki-taki pass to a teammate, took a couple of slide steps, received the ball in return. Then Sócrates dispatched a laser pass to a teammate with curly locks named Falcão, who raced forward, dodging, evading, keeping the ball in front of him, before unleashing a long floating ball toward the goal, where it was met by the forehead of a human projectile named Zico, who sent a cannonball soaring a few inches above the crossbar.
This was some entirely new sport, a blend of ballet and geometry, quick triangles appearing and disappearing, instant decisions by athletes on the move, so graceful and independent, performing intricate maneuvers with a round ball, on the fringes of their feet.
Who were these people? My new mentor, Enrico Jacomini from The Associated Press, filled me in. Sócrates had graduated from medical school; his philosopher’s name was not from soccer but rather had been given him by his classics-minded parents. I assumed that Falcão — Falcon in English — was also a nom de futebol in the Latin soccer fashion, but in fact his full name was Paulo Roberto Falcão. He played like a bird of prey and looked like a rock star.
The Brazilians played with a different style from Italy or Argentina, flicking the ball back and forth, a form of love on the green grass. Clearly, these Brazilians were not bound by definitions of position. They were footballers.
By the time Brazil concluded the 3-1 victory, Maradona was no longer on the field. In the 85th minute, he made a fool of himself by kicking Batista square in the groin, with the whole world watching, and was ejected. The jeers in Sarrià were a predictor Barcelona was not Maradona’s city.
Poland tied the Soviet Union, 0-0, to reach the semifinals. Then on July 5, the whole world crammed into Sarrià for the decisive match between Italy and Brazil. Brazil had a better goal differential than Italy, which meant Italy had to beat Brazil to advance.
Brazil began taking jaunts down the touchlines, because that was the only way Brazil knew to play. Italy slammed the bolt shut, with Antonio Cabrini, a left back, racing down the left sideline, lashing a left-footed cross that hooked violently until it met the forehead of Rossi, streaking down from the right. Bizarrely open, Rossi had plenty of space to blast the ball past Waldir Peres for the 1-0 lead. The match was five minutes old.
With the match tied at 2-2 in the 74th minute, Rossi scored his third goal for a 3-2 lead. In the closing moments, 40-year-old Dino Zoff stopped a shot and groveled as he snagged the squirming ball, inches from the goal line, and soon the match was over.
Several years later, Rossi published a book entitled “Ho Fatto Piangere Il Brasile” (“I Made Brazil Cry”).
After that Group of Death, everything was going to be anticlimactic. In the first semifinal at Camp Nou, Poland had nothing left without Zbigniew Boniek, who drew a foolish yellow card against the Soviet Union (and was suspended for the next match), and Italy prevailed, 2-0, as the galloping Rossi scored both goals. Later that day, I repaired to the Hotel Ritz to watch the West Germany-France semifinal from Seville on television.
In the 30-minute overtime, France scored twice within eight minutes, but the French players blithely surged forward toward disaster, like musketeers storming a castle. “Once tontos!” the bartender blurted, pronouncing it “ON-thay tontos,” in Castilian. I can still hear him.
The bartender was right. West Germany took advantage of the Gallic nonchalance — or maybe it was weariness — and scored twice, and then won on penalty kicks, inevitably.
Ninety thousand people packed into the Santiago Bernabéu stadium in Madrid for the final between two-time champions. The Italians were aggressive and confident and deep, replacing two injured players, counterattacking against West Germany for a 3-1 victory and its third championship. So unloved by their own fans at the start, the Italian players cavorted on the field, after being greeted by King Juan Carlos of Spain. I was at the center of the universe.
I covered eight World Cups from 1982 through 2010 and — as any parent will say — there are no favorites. I have never thought of myself as an evangelist, never passed myself off as an expert. Millions around the world know more about the game than I ever will, as some remind me in caustic emails. Maybe because I discovered soccer relatively late in life, I see it with fresh eyes, a fresh heart. I love the difficulty of it, the kaleidoscopic surprises, with a growing appreciation for the history and the strategy.