2002 World Cup- My favourite tournament that I never watched

Weekends have changed a bit.

For everyone in various ways, but for football fans, things are particularly strange. There’s no B list singers attempting top bins on Soccer AM, no accumulators (unless you’re an expert on the Burundi Premier League) and no Match of the Day. In the midst of a global pandemic these things are irrelevant, but they represent significant upheaval to many weekend routines.

It’s wall to wall nostalgia in the sporting world at the moment. Premier League Years on the hour every hour isn’t a bad way to spend a day off uni. Nostalgia pieces also fill the pages of newspapers and sports websites the world over. If there’s nothing happening why not write about the past? I’m giving into the cultural zeitgeist and recounting my own tales of yesteryear, starting with the 2002 World Cup.

I was 4 years old when the first and only World Cup held on Asian soil took place, so my memories are bound to be a little sketchy. However, this tournament always sticks in my mind and I feel I remember it quite well. This was the Republic of Ireland’s third World Cup appearance and up to present their last. Their team featured Robbie Keane, Shay Given and Damien Duff, back in the day when Irish players were Premier League stars. Before the tournament I had never heard of any of these players, I’m not sure I’d really watched football before. I got to know them in time, not through their on pitch performances, but through their faces on stickers.

2002 will forever be the World Cup of stickers for me. Even to this day if I hear the word Panini I think of stickers rather than the Italian lunch dish. My brother had been collecting stickers for the tournament and day by day they began to consume the house. For reasons still unknown to me, we were willing to invest in stickers but not a book to hold them. My brother and I had a solution to this problem and made my bedroom door the de facto sticker book. I can’t imagine my parents approved but the door quickly became a who’s who of world football.

The action in Japan and South Korea was ongoing with Ireland snatching a draw against Cameroon and Miroslav Klose bagging a hat trick against Saudi Arabia. These are facts I only learned in retrospect as my focus wasn’t on the tournament at all. I was imagining my own tournament from the variety of faces that adorned my door. Each packet and each sticker was an education as I knew none of these players or the countries where they came from. Unbeknown to me at the time, these stickers were providing me with an education beyond my P1 curriculum. I used to stare up at the strange names from unknown places, they became a riddle to unsolve. Hernan Jorge Crespo, Jerzy Dudek, El Hadji Diouf, how were these names to be pronounced?

The tournament was still on as school was coming to an end and I thought I’d impress my classmates with my newfound knowledge. Football had never really been my thing and I wanted to show how much of an expert I now was. I thought I knew the name of fellow ginger and Man United midfield maestro but I was quickly shown up. His name was not pronounced Paul School-ees, my first punditry embarrassment came at an early age.

The school holidays came and on a family trip to Lifford (yes we chose to go there) I was starstruck at the sight of a familiar face. At a filling station in top of the awning that covers the tanks, I saw a face from my door. “Mammy, is that Shay Given?”, I remember asking from the back of the car. I think my young mind was amazed that these people existed beyond my bedroom door. Looking back it’s not everyday you’re in the hometown of a World Cup star while the tournament’s taking place. It’s not something anyone in Ireland, north or south has experienced since.

As I’ve said, this tournament was leaving a major impression on me without watching any of it. I learned about the row between Roy Keane and Mick McCarthy at Saipan. They both seemed like scary figures at the time and in many ways they still are. I was left with the impression somehow that McCarthy was the bad guy. I may have been confused by the man with the Irish name and the thick Yorkshire accent. The sagas, excitement and chat that surrounded this tournament were just as important as the matches themselves. The odd glimpse at the TV while playing with WWE action figures was as far as my viewing went.

The difficult times brought about by coronavirus have reminded us of the role sport plays in our lives. Whether it’s flicking over to Sky Sports News, watching your local team or randomly watching biathlon on Eurosport, sport takes up a lot of your time. It acts as a punctuating mark in life. You can remember what you were doing on a random Saturday because of the match that was on that day. You remember who you went to the pub with and what you got from the Chinese.

These things are more significant than they seem. There are definitely more important things than football but our interests help build our personalities and determine our careers. Without the stickers on the door, I may not have developed my love for football or interest in geography from being introduced to all those flags. An experience that seems incredibly minor can have more of a lasting impact than you could have imagined.

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