The big guy ruled in the schoolyard. The handsome guy got the girls. Those with well-off daddies got to go places, wear nice clothes and possess the latest toy. Swots won the academic prizes. Football was beyond the reach of boys who had something going for them. They couldn't manage the ball. The ball didn't know who caressed it. There was, there is, only one certainty: this simple toy was only useful if treated with respect. To the clumsy, mean, handsome, rich and powerful, the ball was a torment, failing to respond to idle suitors who sought only to trifle with its magical promise.
The ball rewarded imagination. The ball would succumb, could be mastered, if you took time to get to know how to use it as a means of self-expression, a way of establishing an identity of your own in a world where your voice, your personality, would not otherwise exist. Football is, at its most beautiful, the game of the dispossessed.
I grew up in the Fifties and spent almost two decades in modest pursuit of my dreams as a journeyman professional in England. For me and others of my generation, one of life's great sorrows has been to witness the material world move in on our private domain. The powerful, greedy and stupid for whom the game remained a mystery worked their way in, to the point where they could influence and ultimately destroy football as we had known and loved it.
The most menacing intruder was the coach. The gross businessman had always been there bathing in reflected glory, but he could be held at bay, fobbed off with a seat in the stand, a handshake and a photograph. Football is still infested by such men who have, for example, the power to order that the World Cup be contested, as this one has been, in a climate that is desperately inhospitable. But the quality of the football we have seen these past four weeks proves that the game can survive the attentions of its rulers.
The presence of Brazil and Italy in the final of this tournament is, however, most profoundly satisfying because it tempers a conviction that the battle for football's soul, has not, as those of my generation had feared, been won by limited men in track-suits.
If football is not primarily about individual self-expression, it is barren, deprived of its most cherished virtues. The story of a generation, most cruelly manifest in these islands, concerns the hideous destruction of a beautiful street game by coaches with dead spirits and sterile minds.
The importance of the World Cup is that this great examination paper serves as testimony for one side or the other in the struggle to decide what our game is all about: winning, as some would claim, or a noble crusade in which winning matters as long as it is not at the expense of football's most inspiring value. Too many World Cups have betrayed the game's glorious origins. Too many European Cups have offered succour to the bullies and planners.
Coaches would deny the existence of great players, as the joyful expression of individuality is a threat to order. And because there are no great players, we need the coach and his plan. The first principle of coaching is the submission of individual gifts in service of the greater good: the coach's view of how best to win.
That is how and why those of us born in a more innocent age and into a world where football was a religion whose commandments were idealistically observed by great men such as Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, Jock Stein and Bill Nicholson have ended up worshipping false gods, men like Jack Charlton, George Graham, Graham Taylor and Howard Wilkinson.
This World Cup has offered magnificent rebuttal of the assertion that there are no great players. Blinded by parochialism, football men in these islands have long despaired, believing that football had entered a dark age, the track-suit era, in which the little man's voice was silenced. But the reality of the British game was not the real story.
Elsewhere, men of vision, intelligence and character, latter-day Busbys and Shanklys were writing a new score for the old game. In this composition, we see a brave attempts to reconcile the gifts of the individual to the requirements of the team.
In Italy, Brazil, Africa, the Arab world. In South Korea, and most spectacularly, in Bulgaria and Romania, the little man still counts, harmony has been achieved between player and coach, football has evolved, grown up, moved on. The game as played by virtually all who contested this World Cup is the one we used to play when we were growing up: music rather than noise.
Hope that the cherished ancient values of this glorious game can still prevail here is vested in Manchester United and Kenny Dalglish. And like every child with character and dreams, men like Dalglish, who have clung to a romantic vision of the game, will watch enthralled as the final act of USA '94 is played out tonight.
If Brazil win, we can be certain that the renaissance is more than an illusion. If Brazil win, so much that is rotten will be exposed for what it is: the belief that you can't trust players; the conviction that the magical spirit of a little man like Romario is mere whimsy which you indulge at your peril; the insidious proposition that soccer's future has something to do with Vinnie Jones, the playground bully as hero, more to do with him that with the child Bebeto; the ugly contemporary gospel, on which the coach depends, that tactics are the means by which a satisfactory end can be achieved rather than the Old Testament, as preached by Busby, that teaching, the wisdom no diploma could confer, was about enabling great players to tell you what they knew.
If Brazil win, George Graham and Jack Charlton will matter less, the compromises they urge on us will be less eagerly consumed, for we will know that there are great players who are winners, who can be trusted and must be nurtured. Victory for Brazil will diminish the track-suit in your street.
Victory for Italy will not be entirely inappropriate, merely disappointing. Italy have been valiant and tenacious. Arrigo Sacchi's team have proved their courage. Tenacity and courage are cherished values in this story . . . but not in the end what tonight should be about.
The worth of any tournament can only be assessed at the end, when we see the champions and reflect on the means by which glory was achieved. Look at the photograph alongside these words, see the joy on the faces of these great little men, life, sport, culture as it should be, the dispossessed playing beautifully.
Football has always been the game of those who didn't have, or didn't belong. Playing beautifully is the only revenge. That's why football is such a noble calling in Brazil, a nation where poverty has not robbed the people of their most treasured aspirations, their appreciation of beauty. For the Brazilian people and their kindred spirits in every corner of the globe, football tonight will be more than a game. But then it always has been. In this religion the ball is truth, the player god, the coach the devil, Romario and Bebeto defiant crusaders, for a cause we thought was lost. Like life, football is romance or it is nothing. Watch tonight and hope the good guys win.
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