Not a Cup for a Hendon boy: Germany or Argentina - take me home

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Ouch, cried my wife. 'What's up?' I inquired. 'Nothing much,' she replied, 'I've just cut the top off my finger.' I rushed into the kitchen. There was blood on the walls, not to mention the ceiling.

Normally this would have been a disaster, but the timing made it almost tragic. It was June, 1990, fifteen minutes before the kick-off of the vital Holland versus England match in the World Cup. What a dilemma]

Of course I had no choice. I rushed my wife to the accident and emergency department of our local hospital (an impossibility now, since the bastards shut it down last year) and offered to collect her at half-time. Sure enough I sped back as soon as the ref blew the whistle, but she was nowhere to be seen. I cruised the local streets in our topless 2CV until a shocked neighbour said he had just seen her wandering home with her arm in a sling. The rest is history. I was rewarded for my dedication with a Final from Hell; Argentina against West Germany. I watched it, of course, but only as a duty, out of loyalty to the game. Never before - or since - have I watched a match where I so desperately wanted both sides to lose.

Now it is four years later, and another World Cup is about to begin. . . in the United States, which is akin to holding the Winter Olympics in Kuwait. Don't get me wrong: I love America and Americans. I have to - my son is one.

Indeed, when he was but a few weeks old I took him over the Santa Cruz Mountains to see George Best play for the San Jose Quakes, just as my own father had taken me across the Watford Way in sleepy, suburban Hendon to watch Wingate Football Club. Ah, now we are talking Real Football (though not, alas, as in Real Madrid).

In those days, as I said, Hendon was a quiet place. The A41 was not a motorway manque, not even a dual carriageway. Houses were protected from the traffic by lawns and rows of trees (when these were finally uprooted my brother made a bookmark from a leaf on the last tree). As winter approached I would sit beside the window in the front-room on the lookout for lorries from the North, easily identified by their snowy cabin tops.

On Saturday afternoons my father would either take me to Hall Lane, if Wingate were at home, or to some distant outpost of the London League, such as Tilbury, Bletchley, Beckenham, Barkingside, West Thurrock, or Chingford, if they were playing away.

Hall Lane was a five-minute walk from our house. At its corner was a large Express Dairy depot and stables, whence our milkman would emerge every morning with his miniature stagecoach like some homogenised cowboy.

Anyway, everyone knew my father at the ground (he was, after all, chairman of the Supporters' Club). We bought our programmes (which always contained an advertisement for his factory, Simbros, manufacturers of kitchen furniture in distant Islington) and our raffle tickets (which we never won once, in all those years), and took our places along the touch-line beside our fellow Jews.

The Arabs may have had Lawrence, but we had Orde Wingate, a rare philosemite, who inspired Israel's armed forces and, more indirectly, the eponymous football club that captured my heart. Unfortunately Wingate did not win very much else, leading the editor of the programme to note one week: 'We know that our desire is to make friends on the field of sport, but not by presenting our opponents with two points]'

He was referring to the club's motto, amicitia per ludis. Being the 'only Jewish club in the country playing Senior League Football, Wingate was founded to demonstrate that Jews could be sportsmen as well as victims. Of course, no one believed that stuff about friendship through sport; respect is what we really wanted, the respect of others but, above all, self-respect as Jews. We knew that our opponents weren't Nazis or Amelekites, but the fact that they were goyim and we were Jews gave the games their edge. We identified, not with the rabbis in Rayleigh Close or Danescroft synagogues (I, for one, accompanied my father to his factory on Saturday mornings and sniffed sawdust and glue instead of snuff and ancient prayer books), but with those 11 men on the field. Naturally we wanted victory, but we were prepared to settle for style or, failing that, whole-hearted dedication to our cause.

And that, I fear, is what will be lacking in America; the players now worship Mammon, have sworn allegiance to froth rather than the fundament, to show-biz rather than real life. When the captain of the winning team raises his arms in triumph, he will not be Moses, but Aaron, and his prize will be the Golden Calf.

As the tension mounted on those long-ago afternoons men around me lit their Woodbines or their Players and the air became suffused with the smoky perfume of smouldering tobacco. To this day I only have to smell a cigarette in the great outdoors and I am transported, Proust-like, back to Hall Lane and the promised land of my childhood. As it happens, Hall Lane is still there, but all else has changed. The Watford Way is now uncrossable. Wingate Football Club, if it still exists, has moved. The ground has been turned into a housing estate. The owners do not know it, but they are houses built upon dreams.

Clive Sinclair's collected stories, 'For Good or Evil', are published by Penguin

(Photograph omitted)