Forgotten Goals and the Slippage of Memory



by Oliver Farry

Though I have a few memories of España ’82 – and even a brief ticker tape-strewn flicker of Argentina ’78 is lodged in my unconscious – Mexico 86 was my first ‘real’ World Cup. An unwritten rule generally dictates that one’s first World Cup is the standard all future ones are measured against (and all will inevitably fall short of – for this reason I pity anyone, even to Irish people, whose earliest memories are of the wretched Italia ’90), and Mexico ’86 was a stormer of a tournament. Maradona’s single-handed yanking of an average Argentina side to win their second World Cup; the greatest, most brazen act of cheating in footballing history (Thierry Henry is but a petit tricheur next to Diego); all the matches involving the USSR (including the body blow from which Hungarian football has never recovered), Denmark and Belgium; France v Brazil; Josimar’s insouciant missile of a shot that sailed over poor Pat Jenning’s outstretched hand; Morocco’s destruction of a highly-fancied but squabbling Portugal; and one of the best finals ever. I am fully aware of the dross in that tournament, of course – Morocco v England, Morocco v West Germany (this is probably why the Moroccans are not remembered as well as they might otherwise be), Uruguay v Scotland and Joël Quiniou’s dismissal of José Batista, the fastest sending-off in World Cup history, and the drab semi-final between the French and the Germans, which so cruelly failed to live up to the same game four years earlier. But Mexico ’86 was a great tournament. I know this because I remember everything in it. I can remember almost all the goals. Maybe this is because I just paid more attention as a ten year old or because I was just unconsciously absorbing so much more in unfamiliar surroundings, like how a toddler sponges up the complexities of language.

All the more remarkable is the fact I didn’t see the final. A storm the night before put the whole village’s illegal TV deflector service out of whack and attempts to restore it in time for kick-off were in vain. I was forced to follow it on radio instead, which, in pre-Premiership, pre-Champions League days, was not so rare an occurrence. I did see the same later, and saw the five goals enough times for them to be burned onto my retina like the outline of an image on a poorly maintained computer screen. And such is the case for many goals, in the World Cup and elsewhere – these are the goals that are inescapable, the ones that journalists call ‘iconic’. The movements – the feints, the jinks, the turns – are so familiar that you can recognise them even when stripped of their physical surrounding, like in Richard Swarbrick’s beautiful animations. These goals will be with you till your dying day.

But there are other goals that are harder to recall, or, if you do recall them, your mind has distorted and refracted them for some unknown reason – re-watching the other day Joe Cole’s superb volley against Sweden in the 2006 World Cup, I was struck by how I remembered seeing it at a different angle. I also seemed to have some recollection of the pitch in Cologne being slightly muddy, like a mid-season Football League pitch in the late 1980s. It was, of course, a vibrant green sward, but my mind had seen it differently.

Since Mexico ’86, my capacity for forgetting goals, sometimes even whole matches, has grown steadily. Most of the goals scored by France on the way to winning on home soil in 1998 are hazy in my mind (though not those in the semi-finals or final) – all I seem to be able to remember is Stéphane Guivarc’h stumbling when trying to hold the ball up for Petit and Zidane. I can remember Roberto Baggio’s equaliser against Nigeria in 1994 but not his two goals against Bulgaria in the semi-final. I can remember Saeed al-Owarain’s full-length run to score against Belgium that year but I can remember practically nothing else Saudi Arabia have done in their subsequent three World Cups. Such slippage is inevitable of course when you gorge yourself on more football in the space of four weeks than you would normally watch in half a season. There are also the circumstances – some games I watched in snatches from behind a bar when I was serving pints, some in the side bar at wedding receptions, others you don’t see at all: they might be the ‘other’ match in the third round of group games, played simultaneously, your exposure to which is limited to the half-time and full-time round-ups.

Thus some games disappear down the rabbit hole of your conscious. Sometimes even whole teams’ participations vanish – China in 2002, Poland the same year and in 2006 too, the UAE in 1990, Austria in 1998, Angola in 2006, Denmark in South Africa four years ago, all of which I can barely remember. I watch the hour-long compilations of all the goals from past tournaments that you can find on YouTube and occasionally I get an arresting jab – goals, teams, players I had forgotten about. Even players I already knew of and who I was looking out for throughout the tournament. This chasm of memory is a product of the parallax view we have of the World Cup. It looks so big from the outside, so long, so bloated and rich. But for most teams – 50% of them – it’s over as soon as it begins. They are on their way home after ten days. Since the tournament was expanded to 32 teams, it is only in the knock-out stages when it really takes off, when your mind is supple and you register things. By then, three-quarters of the games have been played. The cliche has it that the World Cup is a feast of football but beneath the excitement and the munificence, there is the dullness of mundane consumption and trying to summon up the memory of some of the goals you see is like trying to remember what you had for lunch the same day.

Piece crossposted with Straight Off The Beach