As Jonathan Pearce so passionately exclaims in that rousing opening to the re-release version of ‘Three Lions’, ‘The crosses of St George are flying all around me’. Here we are, several weeks before a World Cup, and the iconic commentator’s jingoistic words are relevant yet again: even in mild-mannered Oxford, countless car-windows and house-fronts have already become prime prominences for conspicuous demos of pride and patriotism. Expect to see plenty more flags in the coming month too. World Cup fever is infectiously contagious, and a wide majority of our population seems severely susceptible to it.
Forgive my own ebullient excitement, but the World Cup is big news (not to mention big business). Hype hits us with the force of a freighter; we simply cannot resist the awesome power of the greatest show in world sport. Every TV advert is either explicitly about football or bears the near-ubiquitous logo of the upcoming tournament: who can watch Nike’s stunning epic (3 minutes of cinematic genius, if you ask me) without an intoxicating sense of bursting anticipation? It’s times like this that you feel sincere pity for all those un-initiates who still don’t adore the beautiful game: their lives are worse off without football, and they don’t even realise what they’re missing. If the world’s having a party, why not come along for the ride?
Football might be absolutely huge as a global phenomenon, but a World Cup launches it into the stratosphere. Over one-sixth of all living people will watch the final, and innumerable others will follow it in any way they can; even the staunchest of anti-football dissenters will rise from their ignorance for a month or so, captivated by 64 games of top-class sport. Only at the World Cup does Honduras vs. Switzerland become essential viewing, and only at the World Cup is every kick of the ball so delectably savoured and meticulously scrutinized. Nothing compares (in this country, not even a general election), and the sheer volume of media coverage is staggering. The whole spectacle’s scale and immensity must reduce weaker-minded players to slim shadows of their usual selves. Ultimately, excellence can create a legend where errors can breed a fool: an international footballer cannot escape from the eager lenses of the world.
As for those who don’t share our quasi-religious enthusiasm, you can forget any pretensions of cultural snobbery or superiority: this summer, the World Cup could contain more drama in South Africa than is in the entirety of Shakespeare, and there might be more poetry in Messi than Milton ever dreamed of. Some of the most sublime aesthetic achievements in human history have been produced on a football field, a space where sport and art can fuse and intertwine. No other sport is so regularly described in terms of its beauty and its attractiveness.
A World Cup is the supreme platform, a unique canvas for the conjuring of masterpieces: think of Maradona in ’86 (the magisterial slalom, not the satanic fist), or Bergkamp in ’98. Words cannot do justice to these moments, magnificent moving images that are etched into the popular consciousness like great songs or paintings.
This summer, be sure to enjoy every possible minute of the competition: revel in the creation of fresh immortality and celebrate with the voices of a billion fellow fans. After all, Earth’s favourite pastime is about to explode into our lives, once again, with the full-blown impact of a FIFA World Cup.