The world was very different place in 1998. Sandals For Goalposts was an alien-like concept not in my head; it was the era of the football blagger rather than the football blogger; African Dad and Uncle football opinions were running wild in households and in the streets; and my family was more concerned with me contracting malaria than World Cup fever.
I was living in the notoriously edgy city of Dar es Salaam, enjoying a wonderful childhood in a neighbourhood that contained a kaleidoscopic mix of Tanzanians from different tribes, Somalians, Eritreans, Sudanese, Christians and Muslims. Everyone got along. Racism, Islamophobia and classism? Pah! I didn’t know they existed.
And then there was World Cup 1998. I was, to use a Wengerism, footballistically innocent. Like a newborn baby, I wanted to absorb everything. Thierry Henry and Mustapha Hadji, players I had never heard of, had wowed me with brilliant performances within the first few days. I felt like a prolific scout, itching to discover the next best thing. My mind wasn’t preoccupied with dissecting every team selection, every goal, every major passage of play like it does now.
I didn’t know that money plus a rich football heritage, ultimately, talked. I didn’t know the odds were always with Germany, Italy and Brazil to go all the way. In my mind, it was XI against XI, man for man, an eye for an eye. Saudi Arabia, in my eyes, could trounce hosts France as long as they tried really, really, really hard and Sami Al Jaber had his shooting boots on.
I knew nothing but the handful of names that were world famous. And those around me I extracted knowledge from were none the wiser. “Which team does Beckham play for?” I asked one of my brothers during the tournament. “Which Beckham? There are two. There’s a Dennis Beckham who plays for Holland and a David Beckham who plays for England, but they’re not related,” came the reply.
Watching football, whatever the magnitude of the game, was never on the agenda for me. On a typical day, I’d come home from school at 1pm and then play football or ‘play out’ in my neighbourhood until my 6pm curfew. On weekends, it’d be a similar affair, with more football and ‘playing out’ thrown in. Watching football was for adults.
The 1998 World Cup, then, was the first time I had.a self-imposed curfew. I paid attention to a television and showed more interest in watching football than playing it. To my mother’s dismay, my father cottoned onto this early on and removed my 9pm bedtime so I could stay up to the mezzanine hours on school nights.
And how I fell in love with the game. There were countries I had never heard of, countries I had heard of but never knew what people from that country looked like. In many ways this was an awakening for me before the surge of globalisation, a peep through the keyhole that sucked me in to a fuller view.
By watching a country I had never been to, and back in those days never thought I’d go to, I felt like I had a taste of some of their culture. I could tell what people from specific countries looked like. For a long time, I thought everyone in Romania had blonde hair.
It was the Spain versus Nigeria game which lives in the memory. The notion of Africa United, that a whole continent gets behind all the teams and collectively weeps when one exits the tournament, is exaggerated and often verges on nonsensical. Abdul working in the fish market in Tanzania couldn’t care less about the performance of Morocco at the World Cup when feeding his family on a daily basis is a strenuous responsibility.
Nigeria were a different case though. Abdul from the fish market would definitely have cared about their progress. They were bestowed nationwide goodwill. The Super Eagles were entertainers and had charmed the continent with their dizzying dose of pace, poise and physical prowess during that decade. It almost felt like the average bloke in Tanzania was able to rattle off the key players in the Nigerian starting XI with ease like anyone should with a bona-fide classic team.
Such was the hype of their opening game against Spain that the daily, two-hour Quran session my brother and I had scheduled in at weekends was agreed to be cut short. This was the only time the session was cut short in three years.
Our teacher Ramadhan didn’t a have a TV at home which swung the negotiation position in our favour. It was a topsy-turvy encounter but when Sunday Oliseh’s winner flew in, the laconic Ramadhan was going ballistic. I immediately learned that only football can evoke such emotions even from the calmest of people.
That was one of the few matches during the tournament that I watched with more than one other person. For much of the tournament, I blindingly, unquestionably consumed my dad’s views on football, knowing he, rather than Mark Gleason, knew best.
1998 was, for me, the last time when African Dad and Uncle views could truly run riot. By late 1998 I had moved to England and the bitter cold had consigned me indoors, consuming the English Premier League and the Italian Serie A. Come Euro 2000 I knew my shit compared to father and could smell a football blagger from a mile off.
Nicknamed ‘Ambassador’ by the extended family for his portly figure and ability to solve familial problems, it was World Cup 1998 when I understood the origins of my father’s sobriquet were apt. “Morocco?” He would say. “They’re crazy these Arabs! They play technically great football but they can easily lose their heads!”
Back then, I wasn’t a know-it-all that had consumed the views of Tim Vickery, Mark Gleeson and Joe Durden to have all my bases covered. There were no World Cup Expert Networks or the myriad enthusiasts on Football Twitter for me to gain specific knowledge of the narratives and tactics of qualified teams.
I started the World Cup not knowing any player on the French team. I finished knowing the entire starting XJ as well as the peripheral figures. I started from a position of ignorance, and everyone around me, adults included, started from a similar position. And that was fine. The World Cup was a journey of discovery. It was a simpler time when full ignorance worked in my favour.