Book Review: And Gazza Misses the Final
And Gazza Misses the Final by Rob Smyth and Scott Murray
Published by Constable
Our final regular post of 2013-4 and before a summer break sees us maintain the World Cup theme of recent missives as Mike Gibbons reviews Rob Smyth and Scott Murray’s invocation of the spirit of Italia 90. Mike is co-author of the recently published Danish Dynamite, reviewed for us in these pages by Damian Mitchell while he can be followed on twitter at @mikewgibbons.
Ask anyone interested in football about their memories of the World Cup and they will invariably stare off into the middle distance as a wave of nostalgia washes over them. It all comes back; goals, glory, characters, controversy, injustice, drama and some truly woeful haircuts. As with any event on the scale of a World Cup, there is the tendency to condense these quadrennial memories to fit neatly into a narrative arc from the opening game up to the final, edited as ruthlessly and conveniently as is required. Like when we remember life, an awful lot gets left on the cutting room floor.
In And Gazza Misses the Final this is one of the things the authors Rob Smyth and Scott Murray seek to address. The book takes twenty-one of the most iconic games in the history of the tournament and recreates them as if they were happening live, in the minute-by-minute format the authors made famous at The Guardian. The reader could scarcely be in safer hands; Smyth and Murray had perfected this craft long before watered down imitations started to pop up all over the internet. Unlike in football itself the initial masters of this particular game have never been usurped, a fact this excellent book bears out.
Of course, this isn’t the ‘live’ experience as the matches have already been decided long ago. Although there are some knowing, ironic nods to future events included the authors resist the temptation to go overboard and strike that balance just about right. Absent for obvious reasons but not missed are comments from the intended audience, and although there are contemporary cultural references included they never feel unnecessary. What does remain is the style; whether it’s the guilty yet visceral thrill of it all going off between Italy and Chile in 1962 or hauling Jimmy Hill over the coals for his less than impartial take on England-Argentina in 1986, the lilting, lyrical description of events ensures that you stay engaged regardless of your familiarity or otherwise with the events being described.
The first game covered is the famous encounter between Brazil and Uruguay that settled the 1950 World Cup. Many fans will know some of the legend — two hundred thousand were packed into the Maracana, a dreadful mistake by Brazil’s goalkeeper Barbosa gave Uruguay the winning goal — but the authors have reached deep into the ether to retrieve the details of that famous day and recreate it in full, which will bring it to life for the majority of readers for the very first time. It’s brilliantly done, as is the opening preamble to the next game – the aforementioned Italy-Chile match in 1962, the Battle of Santiago. It’s well known that they fought, but perhaps what’s less well known is why. This hook works throughout the book, even with games you might think you remember vividly.
During the heady summer of 1990 I like many others was absolutely consumed by the World Cup in Italy. Yet when I read this book I didn’t realise just how comprehensively England had been outplayed by Cameroon in the quarterfinal only to win, and then four days later look West Germany in the eye as an equal before losing on penalties. That’s not how I remembered the pattern of either game at all, but that’s what happened. The introduction to the book promises a faithful, as-it-happened coverage, ‘unencumbered by received wisdom or retrospective thinking’, and certainly delivers. The selective memories of the English get a stern examination here; might many England fans be a little less aggrieved by Maradona’s Hand of God in 1986 if they were reminded that Terry Fenwick could easily have been sent-off on four separate occasions in the same game?
When the really famous moments arrive there is no clumsy signposting to precede them. Sure, you can track Harald Schumacher’s rising blood pressure before he commits the most infamous foul in World Cup history on Patrick Battiston in the 1982 semi-final between West Germany and France, but that is a genuine, unbiased account of events. Elsewhere Paolo Rossi’s hat-trick against Brazil in 1982 appears as much of a surprise on the page as it did at the time, and Archie Gemmill’s breathtaking goal that created an all-too-brief window of hope that Scotland could beat Holland by the required number of goals to advance in 1978 is captured perfectly, their World Cup experience in microcosm.
Due to the minute-by-minute format this book isn’t by any means a complete history of the World Cup and doesn’t claim to be. Interspersed with ‘Magic Minutes’ that sweep together other great World Cup moments from its inception in 1930 until now, this unembellished, warts-and-all coverage of the tournament’s classic games is a fantastic and thoroughly entertaining read. If you want to start immersing yourself in the history of the greatest tournament on earth then I heartily advise you to jump in here, the water’s lovely.