You may have noticed, but for the last three months Premier League football has been suspended during the Covid-19 lockdown. During this hiatus, our television channels – including BBC Cymru Wales – filled the gap with classic matches from decades gone by. Nick Davies wallows in the misty-eyed nostalgia of retro football and ponders what this yearning for past glories says about a society in crisis.
In March I was struck by the dreaded symptoms of coronavirus. High fever, raging headache, fatigue… I could barely raise myself from a horizontal position for two weeks. Unable to focus on words on a page, struggling to retain enough attention or even consciousness to watch a half-hour drama, let alone a film, my choices of entertainment were limited. There was only one logical solution: highlights of Luton Town v Arsenal in the 1988 Littlewoods Cup Final, obviously.
Although no stranger to immersing myself in sporting nostalgia, it’s rare to be afforded the time and opportunity to plunge into the infinite rabbit holes of YouTube retro football clips – and yet, from my sick-bed, I was transported back to muddy pitches, rudimentary football, and the peculiar strains of a crowd greeting every goal-kick with the refrain of “Wooooooah, you’re shit, aaaaaaaaah!” From matches half-remembered to classic World Cup encounters from the seventies and eighties (all the more exciting when commentary crackled over trans-Atlantic telephone lines from faraway places like Guadalajara or Rosario), my fortnight of cold sweats was punctuated by paracetamol and flashes of Maradona’s genius.
It seems I was not alone.
With domestic football mothballed during lockdown, and the upcoming Euro 2020 tournament postponed for a year, broadcasters have clamoured for sporting content. Since late March, BBC Cymru Wales has trawled the archives for some of the Wales football team’s greatest victories, a season concluding this month with replays of each game in their remarkable run to the semi-finals of the European Championships in 2016.
The season of matches began with a monumental Welsh victory I remember all too well, having attended the game – an electric night in 1991 when an Ian Rush strike defeated world champions Germany. That goal sent my 15-year-old self into such delirium that I remember cheering so hard – the whole crowd cheering so hard – that the entire world went silent, just for a moment, before my ears popped back to hear that stunning, ecstatic roar, telling me it was real.
I’ve watched highlights of this game many times, but rarely have I seen the full 90 minutes. On viewing the action again, it’s actually a difficult watch with both teams playing football more akin to a parks league match than the slick tiki-taka of the modern game. That German side is rightly considered one of the best international teams of the past 30 years and yet a Cardiff Arms Park pitch with grass above the ankles renders them incapable of their usual incisive passing and dynamic attack play. Still, it gave Wales perhaps its greatest David v Goliath victory so none of us complained at the time. And, sartorially at least, it was a meeting of two of the finest football kits of all time: Wales’ zig-zagged shades of red up against a boldly stylised version of the German flag on their adidas classic.
Sat at home during lockdown, though, the pitfalls of watching full matches three decades on was evident. My YouTube highlights packages during illness allowed me a glimpse of the past presented at its very best – yet here, BBC Wales gave us the warts-and-all version. Aside from Rush’s famous goal, and two extraordinary saves from goalkeeper Neville Southall, there was little incident to savour. And yet I was hooked on the nostalgia.
Dr Erica Hepper, a psychology lecturer at the University of Surrey, said in 2013 that there are two types of nostalgia: personal and historical, and “in both types, we tend to use rose-tinted glasses to look back at the past and remember all the best bits over the not-so-great bits.” 90-minute replays wedge the ‘not-so-great’ elements back into the memory bank. However, for me, BBC’s re-run of the Germany game was not just about the collective historical nostalgia of Wales’ greatest single victory (pre-Euro 2016), but also the personal. These were sights and sounds I encountered personally – not just the action on the pitch, but the people in the crowd with their nineties ski jackets as well as a startling number of flat caps still worn by older spectators. Seeing it again represents memories of my Dad driving my twin brother and me home afterwards, swearing us to secrecy that we had been to the match as our GCSE science exam was the next morning and we really should have been home revising (I failed the paper, not that I cared!).
The BBC Wales choices continued with victories I attended, over Italy – a genuinely magnificent match worthy of revisiting – and, more scrappily, against Brazil. There were also triumphs over England and Scotland at the Racecourse in Wrexham and the old Ninian Park respectively. For a small nation like Wales, these were monumental achievements. Yet, for me, the poignancy of seeing these matches again was provided by more mundane observations, small sights which reminded me of the passing of time. A glimpse of an advertising hoarding promoting the 1992 Garden Festival of Wales in Ebbw Vale, or for Welsh Bitter (“Never Forget Your Welsh”), curtain haircuts bobbing around in the crowd, players lumping a Mitre Delta football with their plain black boots. Eager St John’s Ambulance volunteers sitting cross-legged pitchside, groundsmen pressing divots of turf back into the grass at half-time with their bootheels, pre-hipster moustaches under bobble hats on a standing terrace. They are memories of life as much as sport, time capsules every bit as evocative as a family album.
Is it any coincidence that my yearning for the retro football of my youth during illness preceded such a cultural wave of wistfulness? The terrestrial channels have all followed suit. Indeed, perversely, there now appears to be more football on our screens than ever before. Network BBC One has been screening two Match of the Day spin-offs on a Saturday night rather than the regular Premier League round-up, while ITV plugs its thinning schedule with the Football Classics series (despite having little football content previously) and even Channel Four has joined this rush for nostalgia, airing the entirety of the 1966 World Cup final complete with build-up and punditry as if it were happening today. Most pleasingly, BBC iPlayer has trickled out the flawlessly curated World Cup Rewind (West Germany v Italy in 1970, anyone, or the super-hip Danish team of 1986, perhaps?).
What does this sudden obsession with nostalgia say about our collective state of mind amidst an unprecedented global crisis?
Taking my personal experience of illness, revisiting the past through the prism of football was a comfort blanket – a soothing, warm-glow reminder of simpler times. It was no coincidence that many of the matches to which I returned were ones I had seen live, if not at the stadium then at least on the Big Match Live on a Sunday afternoon. A match between Liverpool and Spurs in 1989 could evoke the taste of my Mum’s roast dinners or transport me back to my grandparents’ living room perched on the arm of a crowded sofa.
Perhaps my own feelings are being mirrored in the TV schedules, though it’s interesting to note what the broadcasters’ choices say about our national psyche. BBC Wales’ season culminates through June with replays of the Welsh team’s extraordinary adventures at Euro 2016. Having been in France for that glorious summer – and, before coronavirus, all set to fly out to Azerbaijan and Euro 2020 – my memories of four years ago are still clear. In fact, having watched Wales versus Slovakia so many times since, I can almost recite the commentary. Following on from those sporadic classics from decades past, though, the return to Euro 2016 succeeds in demonstrating how much more confident Wales has become. Those old matches were splendid one-offs, moments when a tiny country leapt up for the briefest of moments to dish out a black eye to one of the big boys before returning to its accepted position of mediocrity. Even while defeating the footballing might of Germany or Italy, the crowd were compelled to ask “Are you watching, England?” as if only the grudging affirmation of our traditional colonial master mattered. By Euro 2016, the Red Wall of Welsh fans cared little for what England thought, and more about how the world viewed us. Now, as the Senedd makes its own stance over Covid-19 independently of England’s decisions, the Euro 2016 attitude seems more relevant. BBC Cymru Wales’ season of matches has, perhaps inadvertently, reflected the growth of a nation’s identity (though it should be remembered that during June 2016 Wales voted to leave the EU – an action, though, which prompted enormous disquiet among the largely anti-(British)unionist football supporters at the time).
The English commissioners have leaned towards their nation’s finest footballing hours – broadcast, predictably, to all the nations of the UK – with the 1966 World Cup final receiving two airings and their Euro 96 campaign (“Football’s coming home” and all that) played back in full on ITV and, in part, on BBC UK. The English obsession with Euro 96 is fascinating, with England playing five matches all at home and winning just two of them. And yet nostalgia has conveniently allowed only the victories to linger for them.
As well as these tournaments, the broadcasters seem pathologically obsessed with two matches from other years, with England’s World Cup wins over Cameroon in 1990 and Colombia in 2018 given three separate broadcasts each. Both are English victories over impoverished countries with much smaller populations and yet the powers-that-be seem in thrall of their magnitude. What does this tell us about the English state of mind? Perhaps it symbolises England’s peculiarly schizophrenic view of itself, as both perpetual plucky underdog and imperialist superpower all at once. Both Colombia and Cameroon prove to be technically stronger but also aggressive opponents, teetering on the edge of violence. England’s triumphs – even though they started both games as strong favourites – place them in the role of bastions of fair play, bringing justice to a global stage (with any English indiscretions conveniently underplayed on the commentary). Or are these choices a product of a precarious present, with nothing more reassuring than a reminder that England’s can-do attitude and inherent sense of fair play will ultimately triumph over an opponent as dogged as Covid-19?
“Nostalgia is a warm, fuzzy emotion that we feel when we think about fond memories from our past,” Dr Erica Hepper writes. “It often feels bittersweet – mostly happy and comforted, but with a tinge of sadness that whatever we’re remembering is lost in some way.” Perhaps this best explains this yearning for football repeats. Nostalgia wasn’t invented by coronavirus, of course. I recall a tweet during the Euros four years ago in which a Welsh fan stated he was already feeling nostalgic about the summer of 2016 – and it was still the summer of 2016! But this boom in 90-minute replays suggests a need among football fans to feel the comforting warmth of treasured victories past, of times when other more trivial things mattered more than a pandemic. Most of all, they are a chance to see heaving, sweating gatherings of people, long before any of us had heard of social distancing.
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Nick Davies is an author and critic.