Monday night’s World Cup game between Spain and Morocco was more dramatic than we expected. (We’re dealing here with the Football World Cup, currently taking place in Russia, in case you’re not following it too closely.) Morocco took the lead, twice, and Spain equalized in the final minute to make it 2-2. At one point the commentator said something along these lines: “You can’t take your eyes off this one”. As it turned out, we could, and all four of us had. My son had left the room, my daughter was reading football news on her tablet, I was playing pinball (“The Arabian Nights”) on my new phone and my wife was solving a Rubik’s Cube, something that she has learnt, or re-learnt, in recent weeks. We would look up when things sounded interesting, and caught the replays of all the significant moments, but we could all, very definitely, take our eyes off the game.
This distracted way of watching a game (or indeed anything) is, of course, the modern way. During the autumn and winter, when “Strictly Come Dancing” is on, I generally keep up with things on Heidi Stephens’ excellent Live Blog on the Guardian website at the same time. I rarely watch the VTs, concentrating instead on the dances and the judges’ comments, and then switch back to Heidi when the scores have been given. During any sporting event at least one of us will be checking at least one device for related information. Now that we’re into the last of the group games in this year’s World Cup we are constantly checking the “As it stands” tables on whatever screen is to hand.
When did this distracted way of following events first begin? For me, in terms of the World Cup, it began in 1990, and the rest of this piece summarizes how I have watched the last 8 tournaments (including this one), and some of the technology involved.
I watched the key games of Italia 90 – those involving England or Ireland, and all the matches from the quarter-final onwards – without distraction, but for many of the group games I was doing something else at the same time. Usually this involved practising on my Yamaha electronic keyboard (which I had acquired 8 months earlier, having not played piano for many years), while keeping half an eye on the football.
Four years later (USA 94) was the first time that I was sat at a computer while some of the games played out in the background. This was before any of us had access to the Internet, so I was performing more mundane tasks on my newly-acquired 486 PC, running Windows 3.11 for Workgroups. During one game I was installing the first properly bundled version of Microsoft Office (Office 4.3, if memory serves me right) from no less than 24 (yes, twenty four) 3.5” floppy disks. Each disk would take between 3 and 5 minutes, at the end of which the screen would display something like, “Remove Disk x / Insert Disk x+1 / Press any key when ready”. I had assumed that the whole process would be finished within the course of one group game, but we were well into the next one before the installation was complete.
By 1998 I had access to the Internet, via dial-up, but the PC and the TV were in different rooms. The matches that I watched at home were relatively free of distraction, but that year I saw far more games than usual at pubs, mostly at the local Hogshead, in the brief and glorious reign of a landlord called Carl. There were plenty of distractions in that much-missed venue, and I was there for France’s win over Brazil in the Final.
In 2002 (when the tournament was held in Japan and South Korea), my wife and I had been married for less than a year, and our distractions were often caused by the timings of the games. For some of the weekend 6am and 8am starts we turned on the TV and dozed through much of the action. At the quarter-final stage we were in Spain, visiting my brother. When England went out to Brazil we were watching in a small bar in his hometown, over breakfast. We watched the Final in our bedroom, recovering from a boozy late-night birthday party near Guildford the night before. Both of us dozed off at times, but I was awake for Ronaldo’s two goals as Brazil beat Germany.
Keeping up with events at World Cup 2006 (held in Germany) was disrupted by our circumstances, holidaying in Ireland with our son (aged 20 months). My wife was 6 months pregnant with our daughter. I recall clearly some of our movements during key games. We missed much of England’s quarter-final against Portugal driving to visit cousins in Dun Laoghaire. They were reluctant to turn on the TV, but we persuaded them to do so in time to catch the end of extra-time (goalless) and England losing on penalties. Italy’s win over France (also on penalties) is the only World Cup Final that I have seen in multiple locations. We watched the first half in Callan with my godson and his family (plenty of Italian blood on his mother’s side) and then drove the 7 miles to our hotel in Kilkenny City for the rest of it, which included turning the sound down and trying to get our son to sleep.
For the 2010 tournament (held in South Africa) I was in full-on distraction mode, on a laptop and on the web for many of the games, but we watched the Final in the old-fashioned way, sat on the sofa and concentrating on the TV. My son, then aged 5, stayed up through the whole of Spain’s win over the Netherlands. We ate lots of pretzels. Similarly, for Brazil 2014 I was on a laptop or Smartphone during many of the games but consciously sat in an armchair without distraction for England’s first two games, after which they were out of the competition. For the Final (Germany 1 Argentina 0, after extra-time) the TV was on and I was in the room, but mostly looking at another screen, which is how things are right now, 73 minutes into Serbia 0 Brazil 2 in the final games in Group E. I’ve also been keeping an ear out for England’s T20 game against Australia (cricket rather than football), as Jos Buttler and co powered their way to 221. Oh look, Australia have just lost their second wicket in their run-chase, 33/2. No, make that 40/2.
I’ll be less distracted this time tomorrow for England’s final group game, against Belgium. I might not be looking at my laptop or Smartphone at all.