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World Cup Warm-Up: Paul Howard On Saipan, Spain 1982, And Messi

World Cup Warm-Up: Paul Howard On Saipan, Spain 1982, And Messi
By Eoin Harrington Updated
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You've heard it before, you'll hear it again countless times over the coming month, but it does ring true. This truly will be a World Cup like no other.

When the final whistle blew at Craven Cottage on Sunday afternoon in Fulham's Premier League defeat to Manchester United, it was hard to fathom getting in the mood for a World Cup a little under seven days later.

The crossover of Christmas and a World Cup is an utterly bizarre one to wrap one's head around but, for better or for worse, this World Cup is coming, and the football on show will no doubt get us in the mood sooner rather than later.

To get the ball rolling on our World Cup fever, we've been chatting to some faces from the world of Irish sport on their favourite World Cup memories and first up is the author of the acclaimed Ross O'Carroll Kelly books, Paul Howard.

Read on to hear what it was like to be reporting from Japan when Roy Keane departed the Ireland camp in 2002, why Spain 1982 is the greatest World Cup in his memory, and why he has doubts about Gareth Southgate ahead of this year's edition...

Paul Howard on Rossi, Saipan, and the magic of a childhood World Cup

The disruption to the footballing calendar caused by this World Cup, and its unusual placement in the run up to Christmas, mean it has not had the traditional early summer build of excitement. Though there will no doubt still be excellent football on display, it doesn't quite have the same "World Cup fever" feel as in previous years.

As Paul Howard says, "this does not feel like the time to be excited for a World Cup." The absence of tournament football from the summer schedule in 2022, coupled with the circumstances surrounding the host nation and concerns surrounding corruption and human rights abuses in the nation, it is easy to understand why so many football fans are struggling to get excited for the World Cup.

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But there is something magic about this, the greatest of all footballing spectacles, and the on-pitch action, at least, is easy to be excited by. For many fans, this will be their first experience of a World Cup - a unique one, for sure, but memories will be made during this tournament that will grip young fans across the globe. As Howard eloquently says, the best World Cup will always be the one you watched closest to your 11th birthday.

Howard remembers his first World Cup being the 1978 edition in Argentina (a tournament, similarly to 2022, clouded by human rights issues and an uncomfortable hosting situation), and the magic of the grainy, saturated pictures beamed across the world from South America:

The first final I remember watching was 1978, which was Argentina v Holland.

1978 was brilliant, because it looked different to any World Cup I'd ever seen on television before or since, and that was the great thing about the World Cup in those days. TV coverage has become so homogenised now that all World Cups kind of look the same.

In those days, they all looked different, the quality of TV pictures was different depending on where in the world it was held. Commentary down a phone line gave matches so much atmosphere.

World Cup fever had gripped Howard and, when the next tournament came around, he went all in.

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He could have picked worse tournaments to invest himself in, with so many of the World Cup's greatest players passing through the tournament in Spain in 1982.

The first World Cup I really engaged with, got the stickers, had the ball, had the t-shirt, the whole thing, was the 1982 World Cup in Spain. I don't think I missed a match in that World Cup, I watched absolutely everything.

I was 11 at the time and I've heard people say that since, your favourite World Cup is the one you watched when you were 11. I think it holds largely true!

Two matches in particular stand out to Howard, as well as one of the greatest "cult hero" teams of all time:

It was such a great World Cup, for so many reasons - but there were probably my two favourite World Cup matches of all time. I can't pick between them. Brazil v Italy in the second round, and then the semi-final between France and West Germany. Two amazing matches.

People talk about that Brazil team being the best team never to win a World Cup...I'm not sure if they were that great, they had a dodgy keeper and a striker called Serginho who couldn't score goals. But they had Socrates, Zico, Eder, and Falcao - four of the greatest players ever to play in a World Cup. But Italy beat them, and it was a see-saw of a match.

It was an amazing match, I remember being so excited watching it. I loved that Brazil team and Italy broke my heart.

Everybody, when Brazil went out of that World Cup, adopted France as their favourites.

They lost to Germany in this amazing match [in the semi-final]. They went 3-1 up in extra time and you think the Germans are dead and buried, and West Germany came back and got it to 3-3 and then won it on penalties.

A stamp from Belize depicting the iconic 1982 World Cup match between Italy and Brazil (Photo: Shutterstock)

So much of the magic of the World Cup comes from the narratives, both on and off the pitch, with Howard saying that the pseudo-pantomime "heroes and villains" of Spain '82 were what got him hooked.

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Paul Howard achieved a life-long dream of many football fans in 2002, when he travelled to the Far East to cover the World Cup in South Korea and Japan for the Sunday Tribune. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, at a World Cup infamously defined for Irish fans by the fallout between captain Roy Keane and manager Mick McCarthy ahead of the tournament.

23 May 2002; Republic of Ireland manager Mick McCarthy, centre, with players Alan Kelly and Niall Quinn, left, and FAI President Milo Corcoran, right, during a press conference to announce the departure from the squad of captain Roy Keane, at The Hyatt Hotel in Mutcho, Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile

You all know the drill - Keane jumped ship, or was pushed by McCarthy, depending on whose side you were on, and the ensuing chaos was ultimately the story of the World Cup for Ireland, despite the team reaching the last 16. Howard says that the experience on the ground in Japan was somewhat spoiled by the infamous "Saipan incident", which took the focus away from the action on the pitch.:

I covered the World Cup in 2002 for the Sunday Tribune, so I was at the final between Brazil and Germany.

When I was a kid, my dream was to be a sports reporter and to cover the World Cup. It wasn't a lot of fun to cover, as it happened - the Saipan thing happened beforehand. I spent far more time than I really wanted to writing about things that weren't happening on the football pitch.

I think I saw ten games in that World Cup - and that includes the ones that I watched on television. It wasn't what I thought it was going to be. A lot of the time I spent covering press conferences and the whole saga of "would Roy Keane come back or wouldn't he" and all that kind of thing.

Despite the lack of football seen at the biggest football spectacle in the world, there was one saving grace for Paul Howard in 2002.

Even with his focus on off-field antics, he managed to find himself at two of the most memorable occasions of the tournament, one of which was the all-time great Irish goals - one which slightly hindered the Irish press' impartiality:

Robbie Keane's goal against Germany that put Ireland through to the second round, effectively...that was a really memorable night in Ibaraki, that was really incredible.

It was unbelievable. When you're a sportswriter, you always try to maintain your objectivity, but that was one of those times that nobody in the press box could. I remember this explosion of cheering in the press box - which never happens!

At Lansdowne Road you were usually on deadlines, so you could never do anything as unprofessional as watch the match as a fan. That was a midweek match and I was covering it for the Sunday Tribune, so I didn't have a pressing deadline - I remember this explosion of excitement.

We were pretty sure we were all packing our bags after the Saudi Arabia match and then suddenly we were there for another week. It was great.

So what of 2022?

Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo will both hope to add an elusive World Cup to their trophy cabinets in Qatar (Photo: Shutterstock)

It may be difficult to build excitement in the strangest of environments running up to the tournament in Qatar but, for Paul Howard, there is one dream that would bring excitement to the world's biggest tournament, and that is seeing either Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo lift the trophy on December 18:

I would love to see Messi or Ronaldo finish their careers with a World Cup win. That's where my heart would be in this tournament. If I had to pick a team to go all the way, I would love to see Messi finish his career as a World Cup winner - not that he needs it. I don't compare Messi and Maradona and say 'well, Maradona achieved his potential because he won the World Cup.'

Between the two of them, Messi and Ronaldo, they're the two greatest players we've ever seen in the game.

It is exciting that they're both there, at the World Cup, in their doteage, and this is the last chance for both of them to win the World Cup, that's where the excitement is in the tournament for me.

An avid Liverpool fan, Paul Howard will be keeping a close eye on how their players fare at the tournament, though he says that he was secretly hoping that Trent Alexander-Arnold would be omitted from Gareth Southgate's England squad, in the hopes it would refresh him after a difficult start to the season.

That is not the only bone of contention for Southgate coming in to this World Cup - the furore surrounding his exclusion of Fikayo Tomori, Tammy Abraham, and Ivan Toney has drawn the ire of plenty of England fans, ahead of a tournament where he will be under immense scrutiny.

Doubts have been raised by others in Irish football about the gaffer across the water, and Howard is unsure Southgate will be able to deal with the pressure, or adapt when the situation calls for it - which he says was proven by last year's EURO 2020 final defeat to Italy:

After the last two tournaments...I felt that 2018 was largely down to the draw they got.

They had a great chance to win the EUROs the last time and I just thought Southgate completely bottled it tactically.

The funny thing is that the attacking talent is what stands out with England, but they have a manager who wants the emphasis to be on defence. I just don't understand that.

Italy were clearly there for the taking in the EUROs and England, if they'd pushed on, could have won 2- or 3-0. They just don't have a manager who'll think that way.

I just don't think they have the manager to take them all the way.

Howard, born in England, says that he would like to see the team do well - partly as it is the nation of his birth, and partly due to his familiarity with the team - but he also cannot deny he will enjoy seeing them knocked out on penalties once again.

England out on penalties, with one of football's greats lifting the trophy after the first ever Christmas World Cup final?

If Paul Howard's calls come through, we'd hazard a guess plenty of Irish fans would be happy enough.

It is set to be the strangest World Cup in modern times, and we must continue to talk about what is going on behind the scenes in Qatar - but, when the opening game kicks off on Sunday November 20, there will be plenty of kids and adults alike the world over, gripped by this greatest of sporting spectacles.

SEE ALSO: Quiz: Name The Top Scorers From Each FIFA World Cup In The 21st Century

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