Spain 1982: The Belgrano, Battiston and a bag of bottle tops

I watched my first World Cup in 1982, on a small back and white screen on a Royal Air Force base in Cyprus. Given that the local commentary was all Greek to me – see what I did there? – I’d always turn down the volume and switch on the BBC World Service on the radio. The picture and sound were nearly always out of sync, but it was all part of the fun. Bryan Robson’s goal for England against France, the dramatic stomp-off by the Kuwaiti team – also against France – and the infamous Nichtangriffspakt von Gijón between West Germany and Austria would create indelible memories.

Spain 1982, and the mascot Naranjito
Spain 1982, and the mascot Naranjito

Then there was that famous night in Seville when the Nationalmannschaft would overcome a 3-1 deficit to defeat the French – a match that had everything from Harald Schumacher’s infamous challenge on Patrick Battiston, a trademark Klaus Fischer bicycle kick and the tournament’s first-ever penalty shootout. It’s strange, but while I often forget things I might have done last week or even that very morning those moments from thirty-two years ago when I was an ten year old just turning eleven have somehow found a permanent place in my memories.

I may forget where I might have left the shopping list, but the sight of Uli Stielike collapsing to the ground in despair and, just moments later, Horst Hrubesch skipping towards his team mates is something I will never forget.

If I could have asked myself back then if I would be as obsessed with this month-long festival of football thirty-two years on, there probably would have been a laugh and an answer along the lines of “I’ll probably be doing grown-up things”.

As if. I do have a proper job, drive a nice car and am in a stable and happy relationship with another real, living human being – one who this year will be wearing the mantle of World Cup widow – or should that be Weltmeisterschaft-Witwe – for what is now the fourth time. When that moment comes, I like many millions of others will be but a child again. Panini stickers. Replica kits. Sitting all hours one can find in front of the television set, even to watch talking heads discussing what the England WAGs have been up to.

In 1982, my younger brother and I were obsessed. There were no Panini albums readily available to us on-base expats, but we did manage to find a load of locally-printed material covering the tournament. Let’s say that my working knowledge of Greek increased tenfold: I quickly got to know the names of all twenty-four competing countries in almost perfect Greek, and with my already being able to count to ten I was soon able to rattle off the scores as well. I never thought I’d have to use the number ten, but Hungary would happily oblige.

Ουγγαρία δέκα, Ελ Σαλβαδόρ ένα. “Oogaria dekah, El Salvador ehna”.

In addition to the many leaflets and booklets, there were also the bottle tops. Yes, the bottle tops. During the build-up to the tournament, the Pepsico company in Cyprus had run a promotion where, underneath the little plastic protective shield on the inside the top every bottle of Pepsi, Seven Up and Mirinda – Pepsico’s version of Fanta, not a misspelling of an overrated Brazilian who once played for Newcastle United – you could find one of the flags of the competing countries. Never had peeling away a little piece of plastic provided such a thrill.

Everywhere we went we engineered an opportunity to win a new flag. If we were offered a Coke or a Sprite, we’d ask for a Pepsi or a Seven Up instead. At restaurants, we’d ask the waiter for the bottle top or chase them as they clink-clanked on the floor. It took us a fair while to complete the full set, but we got there in the end.

Twenty-four bottle tops, twenty-four flags, and twenty-four more Greek words permanently etched into my then ten year-old brain.

In those days before electronic gadgets – OK, we did have one of those rather cumbersome portable Space Invaders contraptions – kids were far more creative. And believe me, we were incredibly creative. During the Falklands conflict just a few months earlier we had made squadrons of paper aeroplanes and constructed a large ship – dubbed the “Belgrano” – out of a number of cardboard boxes, which was then duly battered by a number of sharpened pencil torpedoes and and finished off with a salvo of empty Sodastream gas canister “bombs”. It stood to reason that during the World Cup we would play… World Cup. With the bottle tops.

The premise of the game was easy. One just had to rank the teams according to an arbitrary seeding into four pots of six, place the the bottle tops upside down, shuffle them about in the bag and conduct the “draw”. Once the teams were all sorted into their six groups of four, we’d get the pencil and paper, and it would be game time. Again, the premise was wonderfully simple. Each team had an assigned number of “flips”, and if the bottle top landed flag side up a “goal” was registered.

This went on for as many minutes as required – often in the moments just before dinnertime, which annoyed our mother no end – until the groups were settled. The second round mini groups of three were then determined – in line with the official schedule, of course – followed by the same process. The semi-finals and final had a two additional “extra time” flips should things go that far and then, if all things were level, there was the penalty shootout. I don’t think I need to explain how we went about doing this.

I can’t begin to think how many bottle top tournaments we must have played. When added to the tournaments we’d play on the grassy area or Bondhu behind out street, the summer of 1982 was nothing but football.

I have already mentioned a number of memorable matches, but this wasn’t the half of it. From the opening meeting where Belgium – wearing a classic red Admiral kit in the same style as Wales – had beaten Argentina through to the ultimately (for me at least) disappointing final in Madrid, the 1982 World Cup produce a number of unforgettable moments. I even recall putting my conditioned Cold War mentality to one side in cheering on the Soviet Union against Brazil, even though everyone at the time had been making a point of buying Brazilian corned beef instead of the Argentinian variety.

There was David Narey’s strike against the Brazilians, Scotland’s one bright moment in the tournament – apart from a flattering 5-2 win over minnows New Zealand. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge’s hat-trick against Chile. Zbigniew Boniek’s second phase hat-trick for Poland against Belgium. Diego Maradona’s petulant red card against Brazil. Italy v Brazil. Lakhdar Belloumi’s winner for Algeria against the Mannschaft, a moment that remains stuck in my head in spite of my desperately wanting to scour it away with the brain bleach and a Brillo pad.

I could keep on going.

The match of the tournament however had to be the semi-final in Seville’s Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán, an encounter that had begun sedately but slowly come to the boil as the warm Andalucian night closed in. A German advantage from Pierre Littbarski’s goal after seventeen minutes was neutralised just nine minutes later from the penalty spot by Michel Platini, but after some fifty-five minutes all hell broke loose. German ‘keeper Harald Schumacher clattered into French substitute Battiston with a challenge that even the most hardcore fan of the Nationalmannschaft would cringe at for years afterwards, and the blue touchpaper had been lit. Dutch referee Charles Corver waved play on, Schumacher remained on the field and took the resulting goal kick, and the unfortunate Battiston was stretchered off having decorated the pitch with three of his teeth.

It was honours even at the end of the regulation ninety minutes, but the start of extra time saw things explode into life. It was well past my bedtime by now, and with the next day being a school day this was really pushing the limit. The problem was of course be exacerbated by our being an hour ahead of Spain; as the referee signalled the end of the ninety minutes, it was less than half an hour to midnight. What made matters even worse was the fact that in Cyprus our school day started at horror o’clock.

My brother had already been packed off to bed, but I was somehow able to persuade my father to see things through to the end.

I soon started to regret this decision. France quickly scored a second and within a blink of an sleepy eye had netted a third, and it looked as though I would be spending the next day mulling over a semi-final defeat with less than five hours sleep. Then, just three minutes before the end of the first period of extra-time, Rummenigge struck with a crafty finish. When Klaus Fischer completed the comeback with that special bicycle kick three minutes into the second fifteen-minute period, it was well past midnight. 3-3.

Then came the penalties.

Penalty shootouts continue to provide plenty of excitement, even with my having seen many of them over the last thirty-something years. However the World Cup semi-final in 1982 was the first time I would witness this curious duel from twelve yards, a contest that in the space of just ten minutes would provide that stark dividing line between the most glorious ecstasy and the deepest, darkest, soul-flattening pain.

At the time however, I had no real comprehension of the emotional impact of the Elfmeterschießen.

Alain Giresse took the first French penalty, and calmly put it away. The bearded Manny Kaltz stepped up to level the scores, and both Manuel Amoros and Paul Breitner kept their nerve. Up then stepped Uli Steilike to take the Mannschaft’s third kick. Just moments later the gritty sweeper was in a heap on the ground, an inconsolable mass of black and white being hauled to his feet by the steely-eyed and clearly inhuman Schumacher. However, it is during these moments that you need a man impervious to pressure, and Schumacher almost nonchalantly kept out Didier Six’s effort. Pierre Littbarski levelled things up again at 3-3, but Platini beat the German ‘keeper from the spot for the second time to put the French one kick away from the final.

Rummenigge in turn held his nerve to level things up again at 4-4, and Schumacher – rubbing it in as everybody else’s pantomime villain – was on hand again to deny Maxime Bossis as the advantage swung back to the men in white. Up then stepped Hamburger SV’s blond bruiser Horst Hrubesch to deliver the final blow in what had been a titanic encounter. I was left with just over five hours of sleep, but I don’t think I got more than two.

After the breathless drama in Seville the final in Madrid was more than a little flat, and it felt as if the air had been completely sucked out of the German team as they succumbed to a rampant Italian side. Rather than dwell too much on the disappointment of defeat however, I replayed those final dramatic moments in Seville in my head again and again.

I’d then clear the desk, and empty out the bag of bottle tops.

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