We are all on work experience for the first two weeks of the group matches; my friends, my crush, me. My placement at an audio studios allows me the odd afternoon “off”. Technically we are still working: in reality, the sound editor and I watch the games together. One afternoon, he tells me we are sacking off early: we leave at half time of the Brazil-Ghana game and he takes me to a nearby Brazilian restaurant in Soho. Upstairs, in a poky, unadvertised bar, what seems like half of London’s Brazilian population are crowded around a TV watching the game. The air is smoky and I am surrounded by unfamiliar Portuguese; it should be forbidding to a teenage girl but it sounds friendly and welcoming. Somebody offers me some crisped bread and the sound editor nods at me; “Enjoy!”, before disappearing for the rest of the night.
Brazil dance circles around Ghana; 3-0, Ghana are out. I have never known football-watching like it; people crying and singing and hugging. I join the contents of that room as we spill out to Leicester Square where there are what feels like hundreds more people in yellow and green, dancing and singing, people playing drums and passing around cocktails. I’m not yet old enough to legally drink but there seems no reason to trouble anyone with this, and besides, I’ve never tried a caipirinha before and they’re good. The night we beat Ghana, I traipse home around 9pm: it is the one evening I hear my Dad express football-related heartbreak. Ghana played better, he laments, but this is what the Brazilians do, it’s just showy, flashy. But I am enthralled.
My cousin comes to visit the week after; we don’t know yet but this year will begin the cycle of us seeing each other every four years. My work placement finishes; although my crush and friend has a three week placement and I spend a week continuing the journey into London just to share the train home. And though I never see that studio again, I return to that cafe, and Eduardo and Miguel become sometime friends: they play me footage of the momentous 1970 Brazil final, show me Jobim songs and introduce me to Orfeu Negro, still a favourite film today. They instill in me a love of Brazilian football and culture (and, of course, people) and from then on I cheer them like the national team I have never had.
A few weeks later, the beautiful team are out to France; I sit sullen in my parents living room as my cousin mocks me for wearing a Brazilian flag to a losers party.
University summer. I have just started dating my first “proper” boyfriend, and we are passionately in the first throes of a relationship. Days are duly noted as miracles; our passion is tempered only by our devotion for the World Cup. I live in New Cross; lodging with Sally and Jeremy, but they are largely away on an opera this time of year. One day my boyfriend and I buy a paper (we honest to God buy a paper) so that we will have not just the World Cup supplements, but the huge fold-out poster that comes with it. We blue-tack it to the wall of Sally’s spare room and diligently write out the results of every match.
Sally finds it amusing; after so many conversations about art and love and London, she is only now learning I love football. “You can’t possibly enjoy this??” she asks one night as I sit focused on the settee, settled in beside me ostensibly for me to explain the joys of the game to her. After 12 minutes I am too caught up to keep narrating. She ends up so bored she leaves the room and begins to sort through a pile of books on the overstuffed shelves; still the only time I saw her do this willingly.
My boyfriends watches the games in pubs around New Cross, without me. During the qualifiers I was rooting noisily in all of our favourite student pubs, boring anyone around with my now in-depth knowledge of the Brazilian team’s history. But now I am with somebody and I am not sure what the football-watching protocol is with somebody you love. He prefers to watch the games with his mates, and it is too early for me to feel comfortable around them, so I split the games between Sally’s settee, my laptop, and the pub with my own friends. In the mornings, my boyfriend and I write the scores on the map and read the highlights on BBC Sports over tea and toast; such mundane domestic bliss I’ve never known. That’s the real thrill of World Cup, for me.
One morning in bed, he produces a present from his bag: World Cup 2010 Top Trumps. We continue to play this game long past the World Cup itself: in trains around the country to meet each other’s parents; on an early morning flight to Paris; by a canal in Berlin, hungover. The cards become more and more creased and subject to interrogation from us as each new game alters the stats, although the unflattering picture of Robben never ceased to be amusing. In the years to come after we break up I’ll wonder, from time to time, not about him, but about the fate of those cards, and what they meant to a stranger out of context.
Single again, I am back to my usual tricks; my encyclopaedic knowledge of the Brazilian World Cup team is scoring me goals in bars all of London. I watch most of the qualifiers with my housemates, getting into long drawn out analysis with Tom, but for the actual games I am around the world. After the first two days of group stages, I leave London. Sally texts me whilst at the airport to say she’s aware it’s “the football” this year, and she won’t be watching any matches but am I proud of her for clocking the occasion at least?
Internationally, I experience football as a minority sport. I am in Egypt when England go out. The game is broadcast live in the hotel and we leave the huge theatre with a hundred other disgruntled Brits, a dark blot in the middle of everyone’s holidays. We remain sullen until the morning after when the North African sun and all-inclusive breakfasts lift our spirits.
The quarter finals I watch in New York; in a dingy, shady sports bar in Brooklyn, accompanied by an old school friend. For the semi’s I am in Oregon. My mother, Auntie and Uncle enjoy the sunset in the garden, a balmy summers breeze and homemade ice-cream. Meanwhile, I am cooped up in the back office, watching alone, heart racing, on a small computer screen. It is here that I am crushed as my beloved Brazil are shamed out of the tournament they are hosting. 7-1. Even now it weighs heavy. After the match I sit alone in my Uncle’s office chair, remembering caipirinhas in Soho and the now-closed cafe where I first heard Bossa Nova. And then I head out to the sound of crickets and the yellow grass blowing on the hill, to the joy of family members passing around bowls of sugar and love. Despite the many, many football matches I have watched alone, that one felt the most lonely of all.
My cousin and I are at a festival the day before the final. When my cousin and I are together, every four years, things tend to get out of hand. This year, we are headed to a festival, where I am in no way available for the 3rd place play-off, but partway through the evening I realise a boy whose been following us all day has a 4G connection. I demand he Googles the result. Ten minutes later, the group leaves to find an open bar tent and I sit there, half out the tent and under the stars, wearing a strangers jersey and furiously reading a live blog of the match. 3-0; fourth place.
The day of the final I wake up in somebody’s arms with my cousins car keys in my pocket. I have already made my cousin promise, multiple times, that whatever happens, however messy things get, we will be somewhere with a TV and a live screen for the final. And lo, my first thought as I wake up and feel the keys pressing into my leg is “World Cup”. I push somebody’s blond arm off and say, “I’ve gotta go, it’s the final. It’s the World Cup” and tear out the tent, disorientated and barely coherent. As I run off, I hear the boy calling me, and then responding to somebody else. His voice is deep, sonorous, and has a strong southern accent, a “drawl”. “Nah man, she’s cool, she just loves soccer or some shit. She’s going to a game. She’s late”. A muffled reply from somebody else, and then his voice again, “British. Beautiful eyes“. I smile to myself, imagining this man has got the measure of me in just one night, whereas all I will ever recall are those few words in that low voice.
I reunite with my cousin who teases me for finding myself a “redneck logger”, but after the adrenaline wears off we drive for what feels like days, years almost; hungover, exhausted, and too drained to speak, god knows what trying to get out of our systems. We arrive at a sports bar located within a quintessentially American strip mall: flat, overbearing, unappealing. The sports bar is huge and aggressively air conditioned; dark walls with neon signs. I am reminded forcibly of the one time I went to G-A-Y sober. We settle down to watch the game – already 15 minutes in – in a booth around the weirdly muted “soccer” screen. Bizarrely, there are at least 8 other screens showing games of all sorts: tennis, American football, baseball, golf, and so on, but I only have eyes for the soccer. As we offload our bags and sit down on cool plastic, a man brings over a jug of water, and I realise I’ve been holding my breath since I woke up.
“Could you turn the sound on please?” I ask, and the server nods, and as I turn to focus on minute 16 of the game I feel my lungs filling up and finally, release.
For the first time in my life the World Cup sneaks up unannounced. I see my cousin in May this year and the topic doesn’t even come up; we are older now, talk centres around historical trauma, spirituality, my impending marriage or lack thereof. In the weeks preceding the World Cup, I am juggling writing projects, show rehearsals, and two seperate teaching jobs; intermittently caring for Sally, who is now terminally ill.
I manage to completely miss the first two days of the group stages until my housemate (new) tells me his evening plans are to watch MoTD. “Yeah, World Cup is on.” I am besides myself. “What?!” He tries to console me. “Well don’t worry, it’s not like national news, but it’s a big deal for football fans.” Something inside falls out of my heart at the idea that I am not a football fan, that I have missed qualifiers, that I know nothing about the World Cup and could barely name the groups.
I watch the Portugal – Morocco game the next day at Sally’s. At this point she is still able to shift from sitting to lying down, and whilst she does not say much, she rolls her eyes at me when I tell her it’s the World Cup before giving me a thumbs up to put it on anyway. I wonder if she can remember my half-assed instructional narration 8 years ago when I was a student; but she looks tired so I do not venture asking. By the time of the final she will be almost totally mute, immobile and stationary in the hospital bed, telly off.
The groups stages pass in a flurry of being elsewhere; in work; in rehearsal; in Sally’s room; in transit. This is the first World Cup with VAR, and the first time I’ve had the official app on my phone. I make an allowance for this one app (friends are by the wayside), and for four weeks the only notifications on my phone are match updates. Many of the games are reduced to reading live blogs elsewhere or MoTD iPlayer highlights by myself, late at night, when I am unable to sleep or waiting for Ryan to get in from gigs. But there are a few memorable matches; watching my new beloved Japan at the Japan Centre – they really should have gone through – knock out two early goals; the day Leigh and James came round and we watched all three matches on the sofa whilst eating barbecue; watching Egypt go out whilst my Dad makes a curry in the kitchen to hide his disappointment. England smash Panama whilst I cry at Kelly and Philly, stressed; Brazil go out – we go out – whilst I try to watch the game on my phone in rehearsal, turning it off distracted, just accepting this is necessary, now. The next day I have a rehearsal in Soho and walk past the corner that used to lead to a small Brazilian restaurant; now long gone. Maybe next World Cup I will be able to commit to more.
In the absence of actual friends – if it’s been too busy to notice the World Cup sneak up on me, you know it’s too busy for friends – I have multiple WhatsApp groups providing analysis for each match. My Kenyan friends commentary amuses me the most, switching to the “colonisers” (England) after all the African teams go out. The French victory, when it comes, is taken as a continental win. With the Francophone trophy, we are internationally plunged into the kinds of conservations centred on race and heritage that I’ve been privately internalising for years. I watch nuance come to the surface as a diplomat and a late-night host debate loudly, publicly, blindly.
The World Cup final we watch in the living room. Adam can’t wait to turf us out, and 10 minutes before the end, some clients of Ryan’s arrive to collect their dog. It’s too pedestrian and anti-climactic to truly feel like a World Cup Final; for me, anyway. There are no hurdles; no draped flags; no hastily dashed lovers. Everyone is on their phones and talking about dinner and the stakes don’t feel high enough. I finish watching and go upstairs to read, shuffling the cards in my hand and idly wondering for a brief moment about those Top Trumps we had when I was in uni.