CAPE TOWN – Every four years, I become a time-traveller. My mind spins me back through the years to football World Cups of old. Importantly, much like the passage of time, I don’t remember the actual tournaments all that well; instead, I remember moments: special moments which linger and bedeck the walls of memory.
It’s just the way memory operates. We see, hear, taste and experience so many things, but, often, it’s that one song that gets the skin to prickle; it’s that one person who stands out from the rest; it’s that moment of rarity which continues to resound and stays with you forever.
We’ll never really know what it is that makes certain things important for us, and forgettable to others. But that is the nature of individual experience, in that there are moments that charge the emotion and, like merry leeches, are indelibly attached to the memory. And here we are again, in that four-year cycle, joyfully anticipating the start of the 2018 World Cup in Russia, and ready to add some more moments to those spots of time we cherish.
So, for purposes of this column, I guess it’s an opportunity to spend a while with my memories, to take down a few such moments from the wall, and re-live why they were so special. It’s also a chance to eschew the usual suspects, like Diego Maradona’s astounding individual goal, Zinedine Zidane's infamous headbutt, 38-year-old Roger Milla’s goal exploits for Cameroon in 1990, the tears of an emotional Paul "Gazza" Gascoigne , Maradona’s Hand of God, or that famous Marco Tardelli celebration in 1982.
Instead, I’ve picked out four moments of individual brilliance - because, while it is a team game, and will always be so, it’s usually the exceptional, unique touches of wonder at such high-profile events that keep us coming back for more.
Saeed Al-Owairan Remember him? The Saudi Arabian forward scored what is considered the second best goal ever at a World Cup, second only to Maradona. It was the 1994 tournament, in the United States, when Al-Owairan went on an amazing solo run, gliding past a host of Belgian defenders to net a quite spectacular goal.
Scotland’s Archie Gemmill has always been one of my favourite footballers - and, in the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, he produced a splendid moment of magic; it’s still as fresh as if it happened yesterday. The pint-sized, combative Scott scored against a high-class Dutch side, slaloming beyond three defenders and manufacturing a delightful chip at the end of it all to net a quite astonishing goal.
And, then, there was the genius that was Johan Cruyff. Today, tricks of skill, craft and quick feet are commonplace in football - but, at the 1974 World Cup in West Germany, it was almost unheard of. It was the innovative Dutchman who gave notice of what was possible with ball at feet when he first introduced the world to the famous “Cruyff turn”. Sweden’s Jan Olsson was the luckless defender who confronted Cruyff on the left flank; the Dutch magician, with his back to goal, faked a cross and then flicked the ball with the inside of his foot in the other direction, to easily slip past the defender.
The final moment, of course, has to go to Dennis Bergkamp. For anybody with ambitions of being a professional footballer, technical ability is paramount. The game is, first and foremost, about control; if a player tries to control the ball, but it spurts a few inches ahead of him, then he may as well stick to amateur football; the ball has to be dead at the feet. Dutchman Bergkamp demonstrated the type of control and technical skill required at the highest level when he scored a breath-taking goal in the 1998 quarter-final tie against Argentina: Frank de Boer’s long ball found Bergkamp cruising into the penalty area, and the first touch was just pure poetry, with all the silk and mastery of a line from a TS Eliot poem - his foot was like a jar of glue. With the brilliance of the touch, he was able to cut inside the defender and engineer the requisite composed, clinical finish.
I guess if you’re too young to have seen any of these moments, there’s always YouTube. Go and watch, enjoy, and then settle in when the next instalment of football’s greatest show gets under way this week.