It's the World Cup: I love the World Cup.
In this bleak and heartless universe, where life is just a vehicle for the expression of pain and where death is a godless and eternal void, the World Cup is a genuine ray of light and burst of colour. Temporarily, we can put aside the crushing misery of our daily lives, and revel in a festival of football, and glory in the sublime achievement of mankind to organise this global event that overtakes an entire nation and captivates billions of diverse individuals across our spinning heavenly body. For a whole month, magic dances and we are all enchanted by the dazzling spells conjured by the feet of a few hundred supremely blessed athletes. If you - yes, YOU - are not touched by the World Cup in some way, then you are not fit to be a member of our species: please leave mankind immediately.
Truly, there is nothing quite in the same realm. Sure, the Olympics may have more participating countries, but it only takes place in one city rather than across a nation, is far less focussed and has no building storyline or theme (except of "unity"...), and the best sport featured - the 100m - takes place in the first few days meaning the weeks following are all downhill. The World Cup is focussed only on football, with recurring heroes and villains, impossible moments of drama, bitter injustices, outstanding skills, and a rising level of excitement and tension as the tournament draws to its brilliant and ultimate conclusion to crown one team only as the Champions of Earth.
Even those not normally partial to football are touched and stroked by the World Cup. My mother, not known for a close interest in the beautiful game, openly enjoys the tournament, and will include it in her conversations and even watch the occasional match. It is a worldwide event, coming round for only one month every four years (that's one out of every forty-eight months, or 2.1% of time itself) and this rarity of occurrence makes it even more special.
Indeed, as is often regaled during social converse, you can track your life by World Cups. Looking back on each tournament and where and how you watched it, the progress of your life can be observed. The first tournament I can remember is Italia '90. Aged 11, I wasn't really into football then, and didn't watch many games, but I recall being on a school trip to Holland, and hearing the result of the opening game, a massively surprising 1-0 victory for Cameroon over Argentina. I bought a poster of the Holland team while there, and watched most of the later games, back home in Dingwall. Dingwall was the scene also for USA '94. This was certainly when the World Cup came alive for me. My abiding memory is of the (instrumental version) of the Bernstein's West Side Story song "America" being used as the BBC's theme, and my whole family tapping furiously in vague rhythm every time it came on, and eating a grand curry for the final, where poor Roberto Baggio blazed his penalty over the bar to give Brazil the cup. I watched loads of games, mostly on late at night, and that was it: aged 15, I'd fallen in love for the rest of my life.
Fast forward then to me at 19, and an Aberdeen University student, studying (rather improbably) biochemistry. Of course, by the start of France '98, the university year was over and the vast holidays of the undergraduate had begun. The majority of the games that tournament were watched at home, in my conservatory, shared with the likes of Green and M. Fraser, on what was considered a rather swanky TV back in that past millennium. The opening game was Scotland vs Brazil, obviously a big event, and made even more memorable by the tremendously misjudged gesture by my deviant friend, H, who appeared wearing a Brazil top. This did not go down at all well, and H has never really lived this down. I may have had a short-lived diddy evening job at an off-licence that summer, but can't remember if it interfered with the football - I have a feeling I may have missed a few games because of it. Regardless, the final took place at the same time as "T in the Park", and with a large crowd of bohemian youths/neds, I watched France beat Brazil 3-0 on a big screen, to the surprising delight of the masses.
My favourite World Cup was next: Korea/Japan 2002, aged 23. As well as being a brilliant tournament, full of surprises and upsets, it also was the premise of a self-set challenge to watch every single game of the tournament, but without compromising my lifestyle. My job then was evening work washing dishes at Estaminet, which was my post-university career for a couple of years. My lifestyle then was basically that of a total waster. I would finish washing dishes - or rather "washing dishes" might be more accurate - at 10pm, and then go out almost every single night and get myself into a state of absolute intoxication. As the games took place, in UK time, between 6am and 2pm, some nights I couldn't even go to sleep as the football would be starting. Even when I did sleep, it would only be for a few hours, as every day for almost three weeks I would have to be up by 6 or 7am to watch the first game of the day. Hours of football then followed, and then I'd have to go to work. And then further intoxocation. It is no understatement when I say this was all very bad for my health. After three weeks there was a blessed two day break from football, but by this time I was visibily gaunt. I had barely slept in that time. The World Cup final was an interesting twist. It took place at noon on Sunday - and, astoundingly, my work decided to put me on an entirely unprecedented ten hour shift, 12-10pm. I thought they were surely joking, as I only ever worked evenings, 6-10pm, but they were gravely serious and said I'd be fired if I didn't turn up. As it transpired, they had brought in a few TVs for the final, to show in the bar, and were expecting a few people and thus extra dishes to be washed (they were wrong). Anyway, I got around this by smuggling a TV into the kitchen, propping it up on a sink, and very slowly grating a large block of cheese for two hours while watching Ronaldo score two goals against Germany. This successfully completed my mission of watching every single game that tournament (although I was barely conscious or coherent for much of it).
Aged 27, I had just returned from two years living in Korea by the time of Germany 2006, and had just started a new job - the job I'm doing to this day. My intention was again to watch every game, and I almost succeeded. What failed me? The World Cup itself, as I went over to Germany for a week to watch two games - South Korea 0-2 Swiss, and Swiss 0-0 Ukraine (Ukraine won 3-0 on penalties). While there, I watched loads of games on big screens, in Cologne and Hanover, but it was the actual transit between UK and Germany, via Holland, that took place during the games that resulted in missing a few. The rest of the games were either watched at Justin's, or at work. Still very new, I was on base every day for training. Except training in these days came in the form of using your own initiative, as it was termed, or "speak to someone else" as it might be put in plain English. This suited me very well, as after speaking to people in the morning, and perhaps actually doing some real training, in the afternoon I would hide myself in an obscure unit, set up an elaborate "test" with some electronics and let it run while I watched the football via BBC or ITV internet streaming. I watched the final at a friend's parents' house in the country, after being invited for a weekend-long barbecue. This barbecue/party invite was entirely independent of the football, as that group of friends had no real interest in the most important sport and tournament in human history, so I had to watch the thrid-place match alone, but we all watched the final together and thoroughly enjoyed Zidane's glorious finale. I believe this barbecue has since become an annual event; however, as I behaved quite badly I've not been invited back since.
And so we arrive to the present day, aged 31, mature and wise. I was deeply worried before this tournament as I'd not booked any holidays and there was a real fear that if I was sent away on a job, depending on the nature of the job I might miss a considerable amount of football. Although sometimes I spend vast swathes of time on rigs or in hotels just to hang around, I also sometimes have quite a lot to do. In the case of the latter, sitting down for two hours of football three times a day would simply be unthinkable.
Happily, I appear to have got lucky, and my current stint in Norway is extremely accommodating for watching the World Cup. I'm on night-shift, 7pm to 7am, which means that the first two games of the day (1.30pm and 4pm, Norweigan time) can be watched before I start work. It does mean I'm only getting about five hours sleep a night (8am to 1pm) but I can live with this. The evening game (8.30pm) is marginally trickier as I'm on shift, but fortunately the bulk of my time is currently spent monitoring data in a remote unit where I'm little disturbed. The internet here is utterly fantastic - the fastest I've ever seen in my life - and so this means I've been able to stream the matches.
Yes, streaming matches online has very much become a flavour of this current World Cup. Although I have the option to go to the rig's "Blue Room", a cinema-like set-up that shows the games, I've mostly been eschewing that to watch them either on my own room's TV or on my laptop. This is because for the first game of the day, I'm still so knackered I can't get out of bed, and because online I can get English commentary. Sometimes. Streaming games online is becoming somewhat of an art, a juggling act, because it's all so unreliable. Most of the sites I try simply don't work or require dubious downloads, and some manage to show only seconds of footage before freezing. Happily, I've hit upon a few winners. The improbable iraqgoals.tv is a gem, and shows a mixture of BBC, ITV and Australian TV commentary, and I watched part of yesterday's Italian game via it, with Italian commentary. I've discovered another site with loads of links, mostly useless, but I've managed to watch ESPN coverage from it once, and it handily links to iraqgoals.tv. There's worldfootball.us, a new discovery, and - Justin, you'll love this - justin.tv, which promises more than it delivers, but did help me to watch the England-USA game hours after it had actually happened. The England-USA game is the only one I missed live, as things were incredibly busy then while dealing with a minor crisis and so two hours of football was definitely out, but I managed to see the highlights plus the second half, hours later.
Of course, the quality of internet streaming is awful, though better than nothing obviously, but this adds to the flavour of the whole tournament for me. Sometimes it freezes or stops and I can't really make out the individual features of the players, but I can still see clearly what's going on and every day is a challenge as there's never any guarantee as to which website will be working, and Norweigan TV (on this rig) only seems to show certain games. But that's half the fun of it, desperately trying multiple websites just before kick-off, and then having to switch after half an hour when the chosen one gives up.
I think I'll probably have another week of this before heading back onshore where, one would imagine, it would be much easier to watch games, especially as the volume of games decreases. With luck, if I'm not whisked away to yet another job, I might get to watch the second half of the tournament in Edinburgh, in pubs, drinking, as opposed to watching it alone drinking the alcohol-free beer supplied on the rig (which I'm quite getting into, if truth be told). As long as I get to see all the games though, I really don't care where I am, or how little sleep I'm getting.
A word, finally, on this year's World Cup itself. Isn't it rubbish? The quality of football has been pretty dire, and the games dull to watch. I think it'll improve, as things warm up, but watching a series of 0-0s and 1-0s is not entertainment. No, and especially when soundtracked by that damn stupid trumpet. If you're going to let a few hundred (? thousand?) people blow some bloody atonal one-note trumpet for the whole game, almost entirely drowning out the natural ebb and flow of the crowd, why not just rig up the stadium speakers and blast out the bee-like buzz at full volume and save everyone the effort? This awful trumpet is becoming an absolute blight to this World Cup, making the games unpleasant to have to listen to, and making it impossible for the viewer - and, I'm sure, the actual crowd - to get into the feel of the game. Football (as well as many other sports) is very much driven by crowd atmosphere and so to drown out cheering, booing, singing and chanting by some blasted ugly horn that drones incessantly for the entire duration of the match creates a weird feeling for the game that affects both fan reaction and I have no doubt the football quality itself. The trumpets are continuous and aren't "played" in reaction to the game's events, rather just blown for the sake of making a racket, oblivious to the action.
These trumpets are obviously the bane of South Africa 2010 and in addition to the half-empty stadiums (seemingly caused by terrible infrastructure and traffic gridlock rather than poor sales) and propensity for the crowd to Mexican wave at every opportunity, I do fear that this may end up being the poorest World Cup in my experience. I hope I'm wrong. And I especially hope that God reveals Himself and cuts off the mouth of every person playing these trumpets.
Regardless of my trumpet-hatred and the poor football so far, my love of the World Cup is totally unshaken and each night shift I look forward to going to bed just so I can wake up the next morning, ready for hours of football. Tomorrow (well, today technically) is New Zealand vs Slovakia, The Coat of Ivory vs Portugal and Brazil vs North Korea. Now, just look at these three ties and wonder in awe at the majesty of this tournament.