Sleepless nights and early alarms - it's time for the World Cup

12:09 pm on 14 June 2018

First person - Every four years the FIFA World Cup rolls around, and I start a new, month-long love affair with my alarm clock.

Max Towle and Emile Donovan in their podcast for the FIFA World Cup, 'Squeaky Bum Time'.

Max Towle and Emile Donovan in their podcast for the FIFA World Cup, 'Squeaky Bum Time'. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

In 2002, it was a black Casio digital radio. It had blood-red eyes, and this insistent pounding thrumming low howl, MEEP-MEEP-MEEP-MEEP, like a distorted Road Runner squawk on loop.

Apt, as it proved, for what proved to be a both pedestrian and vaguely unpleasant tournament - the defining memory of which, for me anyway, had nothing to do with football.

It was the incredible story of the Ecuadorian referee Brian Moreno, who oversaw two hugely controversial South Korean victories over juggernauts Italy and Spain, and was later convicted on charges of smuggling heroin into New York.

Oh, and haha! - England! - well, their Golden Generation went out to Brazil, apex predator Brazil, in the quarter-finals.

Emile Donovan, along with Max Towle, co-presents RNZ's "Squeaky Bum Time: a Football World Cup Podcast."

No shame in that, but quite a bit of shame for poor David Seaman, their wonderful goalkeeper, who was somehow chipped from 40 yards by a Ronaldinho free kick, and who shrank into the ground to be feasted upon by the vultures of the British press.

Germany somehow snuck their way into the final, and came up against Brazil, who were imperious. Their two wing backs, Roberto Carlos and Cafu, chuntered up and down the side of the pitch like a pair of tireless mechanical cheetahs, and their three wizardlike forwards, the Three R's, Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho who tore through the Teutons like a bad sauerkraut sandwich.

Ronaldo scored both goals in the final, won 2-0 by Brazil. Anastacia's "Boom" was the sound and by god, if that's not an indictment of early-2000s music, I don't know what is.

Brazilian forward Ronaldo kicks the ball and scores the 2-0 lead in the 2002 World Cup final.

Brazilian forward Ronaldo kicks the ball and scores the 2-0 lead in the 2002 World Cup final. Photo: AFP

In 2006 the alarm was a glow-in-the-dark pocket clock, black with cream trimming, about the size of a cricket ball with a switch at the top that you pulled up to set the alarm. It had this abrupt, nauseating high-pitched shriek, uncannily similar to the sound I make when encountered by a large spider.

My favourite tournament was the 2006 one. This was the year Italy won, and I love Italy.

They played a hell of a tournament here - especially when you consider the biggest clubs in the country, including the reigning champions Juventus, were in disgrace after being found guilty of match-fixing just weeks beforehand.

Their match against Germany in the semi-final was everything great about football - 90 minutes of unbelievable skill, a match that surrendered itself to fate and which twisted and contorted and dance like a silk blanket in a hurricane. It had everything EXCEPT a goal in the first 90 minutes, a goalless draw with a hundred chances. It went goalless for 118 breathless minutes, before Andrea Pirlo slipped a pass onto the instep of Fabio Grosso's left boot, and he curled a gentle shot inside the left-hand post.

Oof. It couldn't get better than that.

Until a week later, that is.

The legendary French captain Zinedine Zidane - one of the greatest players of all time, playing in his last ever professional match in the World Cup Final, having dragged his dysfunctional team there kicking and screaming, deep into extra time, with the score at 1-1, viciously headbutted his opposite number in the chest and was sent from the field

Italy won the shootout, to the strains of Il Divo.

And hey, you can knock Il Divo all you like, but there've been worse world cup songs.

Italy captain Fabio Cannavaro lifts the trophy of the 2006 Fifa World Cup after the final match against France at Berlin Olympic Stadium.

Italy captain Fabio Cannavaro lifts the trophy of the 2006 Fifa World Cup after the final match against France at Berlin Olympic Stadium. Photo: AFP

In 2010 I was in my first year of university, and alarm clocks were rendered useless by my powers of sleeping, which developed with remarkable speed, to the point of being able to drown out all alarms seemingly at will by semester two.

It also marked the first year the TAB offered a free $20 bet to anyone who signed up. I cannot possibly describe how exciting and strategically enticing this was to a hall of self-confident students, nor how superbly effective it was. Suddenly all the dinner table talk revolved around predictions, hours spent swotting up on players, teams, analysing match-ups present and future.

One morning, having been of less than sound mind the previous night, I woke up to discover I'd put all 23 of my hard-won dollars on South Africa to beat France in the group stages - a move of blinding stupidity which ended up netting $130.

Besides the gambling, 2010 was boring. Spain were in a period of spellbinding dominance, their Barcelona core and tiki-taka tappishness swept all before them, but there was a moment of startling villainry that would've made Voldemort blush when the Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez, one of the sport's great pantomine villains, robbed the African upstarts Ghana of their continent's first semi-final appearance when he used his hands to block a certain goal on the line seconds from full time. Suarez was sent off but celebrated wildly on the sidelines when the resulting penalty was missed; Ghana went out in the resulting shootout.

Spain won a boring final, 1-0, over the Dutch, and Shakira was the sound - and a banger of a World Cup Song it was, too.

Better than the tournament, I'd say.

Spain's goalkeeper Iker Casillas holds up the trophy on a stage set up for the Spanish team victory ceremony in Madrid on July 12, 2010.

Spain's goalkeeper Iker Casillas holds up the trophy on a stage set up for the Spanish team victory ceremony in Madrid on July 12, 2010. Photo: AFP

2014 marked the transition from alarm clock to cellphone, the iPhone 4S, and once I'd figured out how to customise alarm tones I settled on waking up to The Stone Roses' "This is the One".

I loved it at the time.

I don't anymore.

This was a weird world cup, of strange blowouts and fallen legacies. Spain were beaten 5-1 by the Netherlands in the group stages. James Rodriguez, the breakout star, scored a magnificent volley from 25 yards which crashed into the net off the crossbar.

Brazil - where the tournament was being held - struggled with civil uproar, as the country's authorities spend hundreds of millions of pounds on white elephant stadiums as her countrymen starved in favellas and the economy collapsed.

The host team held up under the weight of overwhelming public pressure, until the semi-final against Germany, when 14 highly-paid, skilful professionals encompassing the Brazillian team capitulated and were crushed 7-1 by their whirring, oiled Teutonic masters - an incredible, victimless, slow-motion car-crash the likes of which may never be seen again.

The Germans, of course, went on to beat Argentina, and Lionel Messi, in the final, 1-0 in extra time.

Pitbull was the sound. Yes, Pitbull.

I know.

Players and members of the German national football team wave from a truck after their victory over Argentina.

Players and members of the German national football team wave from a truck after their victory over Argentina. Photo: AFP

More than three billion people will watch at least some of this year's world cup.

Football the Product is dumb. It's stupid, pointless, wholly inconsequential.

It's poisoned by greed and corruption, transmogriphied from a working-class game to one where the best players are bought and sold for sums equal to some small countries' GDPs; a sport where grand historic clubs are bought and sold as playthings by oil oligarchs and sovereign wealth funds; full of prima donnas and egos large enough to have their own gravitational field.

Russia is hosting this year's World Cup. Qatar - yes, Qatar - will host the next one.

But despite all this, for us religious faithful, it's a major life event - a way of separating your life out, like distance markers on the long road of life.

And Football the Game ... well, Football the Game is beauty.

Football is a beautiful game, the beautiful game.

At its highest aspiration the sport is near-pure skill: all angles and rhythm, flow and ebb, anticipation and the interpretation of space and time.

Most tournaments don't age well. You look back at them with retrospect and, barring the moments of High Drama, they're plodding, predictable, underwhelming ... full of bore draws and broken dreams, often with an utterly predictable winner.

But in the moment - and in the moment before the moment, which is where we are now - NOTHING can beat the excitement, the expectation, the feverish excitement.

The feeling of anticipation; of the unknown; of a bunch of athletes, playing at the highest level of the world's most competitive sport, preparing to unleash their skills, and the knowledge that - for the next month, anyway - anything is possible.

Bring on Friday.

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Photo: RNZ

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