This Monday, like the other seven contingents of Brazil, Croatia, Denmark, Mexico, Serbia Switzerland and Tunisia, the Super Eagles will arrive Russia at Essentuki which will be their base camp for the World Cup.
They go hunting for glory to fatherland and will be attempting to soar higher than the previous heights. While the Russia 2018 is the team’s sixth appearance, it is will be my eighth consecutive adventure to the global show piece having been to every World Cup finals since the Italia ’90.
First World Cup experience at Italia ’90.
In the course of covering the previous seven editions. I have been privileged to meet and interact with great football personalities. I had interviewed the late former FIFA president, Joao Havelange and his successor, Sepp Blatter.
I had also interview the man I considered the best athlete of all time, the great Pele whom I first met at the hotel where most of the FIFA Executive Committee members stayed in Rome.
…With the legendary Pele at France ’98.
I met him again at the France ’98 where I was also privileged to meet the scorer of the highest number of goals in a single World Cup tournament, the Moroccan-born French player, Just Fontaine who scored 13 goals at the 1958 World Cup.
No other player has moved close to matching the feat. In fact, his 30 goals make him the sixth highest all-time scorer for France.
World Cup highest goal scorer in a single edition, Just Fontaine during a chat with him at France ’98.
At Italia ’90, most of us from Africa and some from India and South America were using telex and telephone to file reports to our organisations. By USA ’94, telex had been phased out. It was the era of telefax which was still a means of filling reports at France ’98. By then, the media centre in Paris had six desk top computers installed and I took the challenge to be among the few journalists using the computer to file reports.
It was at France ’98 that I set up my first e-mail account domiciled with www.lemel.fr. By the next World Cup in Japan and Korea, fax had become obsolete. The internet era and e-mail had come. Who knows what the means of communication will be in the next decade?
The World Cup afforded one the rare opportunity of visiting some of the great sports ground of the world – Stadio Olympico in Rome, San Siro in Milan and the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro among others.
I lack word to express my feelings after meandering though the ramps of the San Siro Stadium on June 8, 1990 to watch my first World Cup match when Cameroon beat Argentina.
My earlier melancholic mood of having to part unanticipated with $500 paled at the sight of magnificent edifice – undoubtedly, the biggest arena I ever saw and entered at the time.
Minutes later, as the teams filed out. The sight of the stocky Diego Maradona juggling a ball with his head and shoulders raised my excitement that I did not know when I started thinking aloud – “I‘ve been to the mountain top, I ‘ve been to the mountain top”, that the other media men in the gallery, obviously more experienced than I was, started wondering if all was well with one.
Going to the World Cup for the eighth consecutive time is no doubt remarkable, but there have been other media men with far greater marks.
Covering the Brazil 2014 meant that I had been to 33 countries and all the continents of the world. Russia 2018 will mean discovering another world and increasing my personal geography to 34 countries. Each World Cup brought new experience.
At Brazil 2014, I met a Japanese journalist, Hiroshi Kagawa. At 89, he was the oldest member of the press, having his 10th appearance at the World Cup since his debut at the West Germany 1974 edition and missing out only at South Africa 2010 on health ground.
Hiroshi Kagawa at Brazil 2014.
Ten World Cup appearances by a journalist is a big feat, yet, Kagawa also had a master in Luis Alfredo Sciutto, a Uruguayan journalist who wrote under the pen name – Diego Lucero. He worked mainly in Argentina.
I met him at the Italia ’90 and USA ’94 World Cup editions. He was the only known person to have attended all FIFA World Cup finals from 1930 to 1994 – a record 15 editions. He passed away on June 3, 1995, aged 94. For the achievement, he was honoured with a Medal of Merit by FIFA in 1986 and also, the School of Sports Journalists of La Plata in Argentina is named in his honour.
According to his account, his feat was initially by chance. The first World Cup in 1930 was in Montevideo, Uruguay where he lived. He attended the second World Cup, the 1934 edition in Italy, by chance.
His newspaper sent him to report on Henley’s Boat Race in England where a Uruguayan was participating. From there he crossed to France for the Roland Garros contest from where he crossed again to Italy where the World Cup was holding.
“It was like discovering the world because our Uruguay was too far from away”, he told me at USA ’94, the very last edition he attended. “At the final, I was seated close to (Benito) Mussolini (then the Italian Prime Minister and leader of the National Fascist Party), whom I interviewed sometime after.
“For the 1938 finals, I took the advantage of nearness of Spain and France since I was a war correspondent and managed to be present at the World Cup in France. I tell you, it was pure chance, because if that World Cup had been in any other place, I wouldn’t have gone. From 1950 World Cup in Brazil, it was easier as it became some kind of obligation to attend the rest of the World Cup finals”.
At the USA’ 94 which was my own second appearance at the global event, the frail Lucero in his nineties was still filling reports to an agency in Argentina where he had lived in the previous 51 years.
It is a dream that one day, one too will be able to gross 15 World Cup appearances like Lucero and the Super Eagles will also continue to soar and be successful in subsequent World Cup finals.