Memories are tinted orange by total football

 

David Lacey covered his first finals in 1966 and has been to every one since, but this will be his last. Here he recalls the highlights

A World Cup final between Brazil and Germany is not a bad note on which to end. Maybe England and Germany would have been ideal, but probably it is better this way.

For English eyes old enough to recall 1966 first hand, nothing that Sven-Goran Eriksson's team might have done in Yokohama could have surpassed the events of that sunny, showery day at Wembley nine tournaments earlier, when Alf Ramsey emerged triumphant over Helmut Schon. More likely, it would have turned out to be a poor imitation.

Eriksson's England will always have Munich, just as Bergman and Bogart always had Paris. In World Cups it is England's lot, more often than not, to go out to the first half-decent team they meet in the knock-out stage, so not a lot has changed there. It was just that this time they went home with barely the echo of a sigh.

Before 1966, England seldom entered a World Cup accompanied by great expectations of their winning it. And even in the build-up to that tournament the chances of Brazil, Portugal and Hungary were rated more highly.

Since then, however, there has been an increasing tendency on the media's part to exaggerate England's prospects, knowing full well that the best they are likely to achieve is a plausible hard-luck story. Nevertheless, the team that went to Mexico in 1970 could claim to be the best in the world after Brazil, and no England side, before or since, have played as well as Ramsey's team did in losing 1-0 to the Brazilians in Guadalajara.

Gordon Banks' save from Pele will be the abiding English memory of that World Cup, although personally the most enduring image is of Bobby Moore's delayed arrival from Bogota and the bracelet business. The arrivals hall at Mexico City airport was a bedlam of reporters and photographers, yet the England captain might have been coming back from a fortnight in Majorca for all the notice he took.

No subsequent World Cup has equalled the 1970 tournament for quality and few have offered it serious competition in dramatic terms. Brazil had not only Pele in his pomp, but Tostao, Jairzinho and Gerson.

The moment in the 1970 final when Gerson swung round to restore Brazil's lead over Italy, bringing the crowd of 120,000 to its feet in a tumult of celebration, has been surpassed only by Diego Maradona's outrageous dribble through England's defence in the same stadium in 1986, and that memory will always be clouded by the Argentinian's cheaper trickery in punching the ball past Peter Shilton four minutes earlier.

England did not qualify in 1974 and 1978 and failed again in 1994, so recollections of these World Cups are inevitably more detached. If the Brazilians of 1970 were the best team to win a tournament, then the Dutch side in West Germany four years later were the best that ought to have won it.

Watching Johan Cruyff, Johan Neeskens, Wim van Hanegem and the rest of Rinus Michels' Holland team show the world a new, breathtaking way to play remains the most rewarding experience in nearly 40 years of football reporting. The Dutch should have won that World Cup final and the one after, in Argentina in 1978, but lost to the host country each time, beaten first by Gerd Muller of West Germany and then by Mario Kempes.

Nevertheless, Holland left an indelible impression on international football and no team since then have come up with a better alternative. If anything, footballing standards in World Cups have declined as the number of finalists has increased.

Unless Sunday's final proves a glorious exception, the 2002 tournament will be the first that has failed to produce a single encounter that combined exciting drama - and that South Korea have provided in plenty - with a high-quality of performance.

Spain in 1982 saw an unexceptional World Cup with a disagreeable final, yet there were superb games in the second phase involving Brazil, Argentina and Italy, and a wonderful semi-final in Seville between France and West Germany. The 1986 tournament was largely about Maradona, but one of the best games saw Belgium beat the Soviet Union 4-3.

For those following England, 1990 was a most enjoyable World Cup, a crazy switchback ride with Bobby Robson from Cagliari to Turin, where it all ended in Paul Gascoigne's tears. To watch the meek submission of Eriksson's England to a 10-man Brazil in Shizuoka a week ago was to long for somebody to try something daft, like Gascoigne on the pitch or Robson off it.

At least losing on penalties to West Germany in Italia '90 and Argentina in France '98 gave England a nobility in defeat that compensated for the disappointment. This time, the only lasting feeling was that an unexpected chance of real success had been missed.

The Japan half of the 2002 World Cup has echoed the cheerfully enthusiastic but widely relaxed mood of the 1994 tournament in the United States. Except that so far there has not even been a contest as good as the game between Romania and Argentina and the Germans have stuck around longer.

Certainly, Yokohama is entitled to expect a better final from Brazil and Germany than the drab spectacle inflicted on Pasadena when Brazil beat Italy on penalties after two goalless, guileless hours.

The principal drama of the 1998 final occurred in the half-hour before the kick-off, when Ronaldo was having a fit and subsequently played in a daze. When Paris finally awoke to the fact that France were the new world champions, the Champs Elyseés was thronged with the sort of scenes seen in Buenos Aires after Argentina's triumph of 1978.

The South Koreans, however, were setting new standards on public rejoicing long before their team made the semi-finals. And now that Italy have managed to go out of a World Cup to opponents from south of the 38th parallel as well as north, it really is time to get up and leave. It's more or less where this reporter came in.