Gary Lineker against the West Germans, it’s the World Cup semi final in Turin. The year is 1990 and 1000 miles away a six year old me has snuck out of bed and is watching several thousand Englishman going loopy on the television, while the triumphant cries of my Mother, Father and enviously, my older brother, carry up through the ceiling from downstairs. That moment is my first conscious memory of football, and although I’m sure it started at an even younger age than that, that to me was when my infatuation began.
Since that glorious English defeat at Italia ’90, I’ve spent far too many hours and far, far too much money either playing or following football, it’s been a constant part of my life for as long as I’ve known. No matter my age though, and I know I speak for millions of others here too, but away from the domestic scene – the rainy afternoons playing on pitches like ploughed fields and the bitterly cold evenings watching your team get beaten by Crewe Alexandra – there is an event that can stir up excitement like no other and to be quite honest, is the epitome of any wannabe footballers dreams. The World Cup. From Mini World Cup in the school playground and filling Panini World Cup sticker albums and creating wall charts in my bedroom, to getting up at ridiculous hours of the morning to watch World Cups from the other side of the world and then drowning your sorrows as England fail at penalties (again), they have always and will always hold a fascination for any football fan across the globe.
And now here we were, at an actual World Cup. Brazil 2014, and we were at the iconic Maracana in Rio de Janeiro for a World Cup Quarter Final, Germany against their old foes France and my god, we were at an actual World Cup. For the first 30 minutes or so, I sat there opened mouthed. Not just at the setting and not just at the occasion but also at how incredibly fortunate we’d been. The tournament had always been a planned bookend to our trip, it was one of many excuses that we’d made to ourselves for even coming to South America at all, but we’d never been absolutely sure we’d actually get to a game. After five months backpacking round the continent, we’d scheduled our arrival back in Brazil for mid to late June and the plan was to try and see some games along the way – arrangements had been made to see Japan vs Colombia in Cuiba, coinciding the game with a visit to the Pantanal, and we (I say ‘we’ – it was probably more ‘I’) had hopes to get tickets on a trip up to Salvador in the north east, but then I went and broke my leg. Two weeks in a Bolivian hospital put an end to all of these plans, and as we watched from a 12″ screen from my hospital bedroom, there was disappointment at what we’d missed, of course, but we weren’t quite finished yet.
On this occasion you see, we were lucky enough to know people in the right places. Jamie’s Aunt & Uncle were based in Rio as they worked upon the World Cup, so not only did we have a home to recuperate in, but they managed to pull a few strings for some tickets. It’s not often in life you get opportunities like this, and so with complete and utter gratitude and a life time of being indebted to them both, we found ourselves at a World Cup Quarter Final. As for the game itself? Well you can read any match report online for that, it wasn’t the prettiest affair, but just to be there – with the atmosphere, the anthems, the colour and the noise – was incredible. As the roar of ‘Deutschland! Deutschland!’ and ‘Allez les Blues’ reverberated around the Maracana it was a definite ‘pinch yourself’ moment, and it just confirmed my love affair with football and why I’d been so infatuated with World Cups for so long. It was a once in a lifetime experience.
We’ve been lucky enough to have a few of those over the past few months too, which brings me nicely onto my second love, which is travel. In a world where the likes of Instagram and Facebook feed you an onslaught of murky brown filtered photos of people’s lunch from around the globe, and when the Internet can transport you to any landmark, anywhere, in an instant, the need to actually go and see places for yourself is quickly disappearing.
“Why spend money and time going to see something thousands of miles away when you can just see it on Google images from your home?” my friend Greg once asked me, “You could buy a new car with that, or get a mortgage”.
Well I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, Greg, and we could have done both of those several times over with the money we’ve spent on travel. But then that doesn’t make for great memories in 30 years time, does it? I’d rather not be telling my grandchildren about a lovely little Ford Mondeo I snapped up when I was in my twenties you see, I’d rather have something more interesting to tell.
Like when we came face to face with the snarling dragons of Komodo or watched wild Orangutans peer at us through the canopy of a Borneo rainforest. Of swimming with Giant Manta Rays, Turtles and within rainbow covered Corals, coming within inches of man eating Sharks, watching a superpod of Dolphins ride the waves or a group of Killer Whales from the beach. Experiencing the majesty of the ancient temples of Ankhor and Borobudur, discovering cities lost to the jungle and prehistoric ruins buried under sand. Standing atop a mountain or a desolate hillside, with the wind in your face and not a soul around for miles, trekking through valleys and forests, in the shadow of volcanoes or alongside beaches so perfect they make your toes curl.
I’d rather have seen the blazing hands of a thousand drummers at the carnival in Rio, where the colours and noise overwhelm you, and the bewildering sights and sounds of an unexpected parade on the streets of Sri Lanka or Peru. The Giant Tortoises of the Galapagos or a family of Giraffe silhouetted against a blood red African sky, finding a Kiwi in the darkness of a New Zealand forest or watching Andean Condors rise with the morning sun. I look forward to telling them of the people we met along the way, of the strange customs and languages of a hundred different cultures and of the foods we tasted that were so foreign to our own. I think that’d be a better story to tell.
But most of all, I look forward to telling them all this with Jamie by my side, just as she has been through everything we’ve seen. Through not only the unforgettable sights but the horrific cockroach ridden hostel rooms as well, where for every magnificent sunset we’ve seen there’s been a hundred bumpy bus rides in between. So on one of our final evenings of this trip in South America, where we’d experienced so much and had so many new stories to tell, we made our way down to the beach in Rio de Janeiro to take in just one more South American sunset before we went home. And there, underneath a paling pink sky and beside a low evening tide, I got down on one knee and I asked her to keep seeing new things with me for the rest of our days.
Oh, and she said yes.