Matthew Monk


 
Matthew Monk is a school teacher from the UK who has the World Cup as one of his greatest passions. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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Travellers Tales - Manchester and Liverpool, UK



    It is holiday time again, and like every year, I travel off to a new place and always manage to find myself in the familiar surroundings of some football ground somewhere. They don't change much wherever you go. The pitch is almost always the same, with the same markings and advertising hoardings blocking your view. The seats - and they are almost always seats of some kind today - are almost always the same as well. In fact it is quite comforting to find yourself in such familiar surroundings, often when everything else is so alien. You know what to do, where to go, what is going on. Everyone speaks your language, even if when the people next to you are talking words you do not recognise. It is like finding a piece of home on holiday.

    And of course nothing is the same at the same time. Most importantly, the people and events that make these places special are never the same - that is why I find them so interesting. Visiting the football ground in each new town and city I visit is more important to me than rushing straight to the art gallery or important monument in the city centre. You find out so much more about a place by going to the football ground and observing life going on around it. I have never once failed to find some crazy hanging around outside the ground, watching the grass grow or shouting at the players as they arrive back from training, and that makes the trip worthwhile. Sometimes I forget that football is not all about Liverpool - even during the World Cup. This summer I found myself more interested in watching out for El Hadji Diouf than I did in watching France implode. You see, he was a new Liverpool player, and that made him important. Forget the fact that he was African Footballer of the Year.

    Over the last few summers I have therefore visited most of the 'famous' football grounds in Europe (and a few not so famous for good measure), and have also included a sprinkling of grounds in North Africa and the US. This odyssey has taken me from Celtic Park and Ibrox, through De Kuip and the Amsterdam ArenA, to Berlin, Brussels and Paris, and on a grand tour around Italy and Spain. Only twice have I given up, defeated by wayward signposting and my occasionally lackadaisical mapreading - Atletico Madrid had to wait two years for me to find my way from Pyramides metro station, and I am still totally convinced that the Volksparkstadion does not exist anywhere in the woods of Hamburg…

    I will visit just about any ground I come across, from the huge sun-baked, open bowl of Ouarzazate in Morocco to the tiny home of FC Ieper in Belgium, but if there is a connection to the World Cup, then all the better. Currently I can only claim to have been to three final venues - Wembley, the Bernabeu and Stade de France - though my list of finals venues is adding up. And this summer I am going to add one more to both lists, by visiting the Estadio Nacional in Santiago, venue for the final in 1962. To get there, I am travelling through Peru, Bolivia and Chile, so I cannot really claim to be going to Santiago primarily to visit the football ground. That would be silly wouldn't it? Wouldn't it?

    And the prospect of this got me thinking. Just under a month ago I spent almost all my waking moments engrossed in the World Cup, watching matches and writing my polemic thoughts down for all the Brazilian and Italian readers to criticise. So how is it possible to live in a country as football mad as Britain, and hardly know that it took place anymore? Is this the same in South America, or there - where the football season should be gearing up for it's final stages - is it different and more potent?

    For me, the World Cup only really ended a week ago, when I finally brought myself to taking down the World Cup wallchart that had been proudly attached to my classroom wall, and studiously filled in by my form as the tournament went on. The physical act of taking down the wallchart is always a hard thing to do, meaning as it does that the thing we have been waiting for with such anticipation for four years is really over. I felt sad taking it down, and it really felt like an important part of my life had been taken away. Now that is daft - and at the end of the day it is just a football tournament - but I still felt that way. I tried to explain to the History teacher next door just why it was a sad moment, but she didn't really understand. I think that many people - even some of you reading this - fail to grasp what the World Cup does to the world.

    Take this for one example of the millions we could find. What else would have given the sixty kids I had in my classroom watching the opening match such a positive image of Senegal or Africa? Most of the time I spend teaching about Africa, I have to keep talking about the inequalities between rich and poor, or about under and uneven development. It is very hard in these circumstances to get a positive image of the continent across, regardless of what I say or do. But in ninety minutes, Diouf and his mates did more than I could ever do, just as the Iranians did in 1998 and Roger Milla and Cameroon did at Italia 90.

    So before I set off, I thought I would stop for a minute and think about what the World Cup means right here, in the North West of England where I live.

    In many ways, the World Cup has just been one stop on the never-ending merry-go-round that is G14 football. Two of the G14 play within 30 miles of my home - Manchester United and Liverpool - and to them the World Cup is little more than a nice holiday for their executives and a place for their current and future employees to show how good they are to the world. Both Liverpool and Manchester United are unusual among the G14 this summer, in that they are buying big, while the likes of Real, Barca and Milan wait to see what happens to their TV contracts.

    Both these two North West clubs are doing what the English press said was both stupid and unlikely - they are spending big money based on what they saw at the World Cup. To this end, Man Utd have spent £30 million on Rio Ferdinand - who has suddenly become supposedly the best defender on earth! This is based entirely on his performances against Sweden, Argentina, Nigeria, Denmark and Brasil, when he was good (and world-class) but not exactly the type of performance he has shown week-in, week-out for Leeds recently. Similarly, Liverpool have already bought Diouf and Diao from Senegal, and want Damien Duff from Blackburn. While Gerard Houillier had been tracking these players before the World Cup started, their performances in Asia have not exactly been bad for their careers.

    And - fundamentally - that is probably what the World Cup stands for here in this part of the UK. I am not suggesting for a moment that taking part in the World Cup means nothing for the likes of Ferdinand or Michael Owen, but instead that games in the World Cup Finals are now just another big game - and there will another one along in a minute. By the time Liverpool and Arsenal met to open the English season the World Cup was just another memory, it didn't change anything, and has had only a limited impact on the game as a whole. Yes, as I wrote at the time, for a month this summer the eyes of Britain were on Asia, but now they have drifted back to more pressing thoughts: the Premiership and Champions League.

    This morning I sat at Pier Head in Liverpool, beneath the glare of the famous Liver birds, looking out across the Mersey to the open sea and the world beyond as millions of people have done before me. Today though that world seems to be a much smaller place. Football is the planet's only truly global game, and the World Cup is it's most global element. In many ways it is a shame that times have changed, things have moved on, and the World Cup has lost its importance. At least where I live.

    Maybe South America, without a Champions League and multi-millionaire football transfers, will be different.


 

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