What’s it like to play in the World Cup?

David Runciman

What’s it like to play in the World Cup? I suppose most of us watching give it a passing thought but little more than that, since it’s so beyond our frame of reference (it’s not so different from Thomas Nagel’s question, ‘What is it like to be a bat?’). But for some people it’s a real question. There is a first-year politics student at my Cambridge college who grew up playing football alongside Raheem Sterling. They went to different schools in the same London borough (Brent) and were each the stand-outs in their respective teams. One year when the two schools met, Sterling’s side won 8-7: Sterling scored four of the eight; my guy scored seven of the seven. They were talent-spotted at around the same time and joined the QPR academy together. Sterling was quicker; my guy was technically more adept. Then, aged 14, he broke his hand and had to sit out a season. That was the year that Sterling progressed in leaps and bounds to establish himself as a potential star. When my guy came back he was already playing catch up. As he started to make progress he suffered a bad muscle tear in his leg, which took time to heal. QPR let him go. As he recovered he got picked up by Leicester City, acquired an agent and began to plan for a football career. They started talking image rights and international affiliations. Then the leg went again. And again. It was over. He was 16.

Luck plays a big part in what happens on a professional football field. But it’s almost trite to say that luck plays an even bigger part in what happens before anyone gets there. This student had moved to Britain from Romania with his parents when he was six; at the time his brief football career was peaking he was representing the Romanian national team in his age-group. He had an offer to sign with Steaua Bucharest but chose to stay in Britain. When his leg went he was about to commit to a scholarship scheme with Leicester that would have required him to focus on football full-time and put his formal education on the backburner. Instead, unable to play football, he decided to concentrate on his studies. He is the first kid from his school to make it to Cambridge. They have a big picture of him up in the entrance. In his admissions interview he told us about his footballing ambitions and how they had ended – he had to explain his poor GCSE results – and then he told us about Kant’s categorical imperative. That doesn’t happen every day.

I asked him how he felt about the coming tournament. He was pretty cool about it and also a little bit upset. He is very unlucky and also very lucky. If his injuries had come a year later he would have been out of education with no obvious way back in. If he had signed for Bucharest he would have found himself stranded in a place that was nothing like home. Almost all the players who came up with him through the academy system didn’t make it; almost no one does. Most of them only found out after it was too late to commit to anything else. A few are scrabbling around in the lower leagues, still hoping to get spotted and move on to better things. In the current England squad they look to Rickie Lambert as their role model: he was released by Liverpool aged 15, bounced around near the bottom of the pile, worked in a bottling plant, grafted his way back up through the leagues; now he is in Brazil and has just been re-signed by Liverpool. But almost no one has a story like Lambert’s.

My student has no doubt that Sterling’s success is about much more than luck. He was the player with all the attributes needed to succeed, the skill and the drive. He deserves to be where he is. There is no Romanian team at this World Cup (they lost to Greece in the qualifying play-offs). Romanian football is in a relatively bad way and my guy is not sorry to be out of it. And yet, of course, he can’t help thinking about what might have been. As I write, it’s not clear if Sterling will start England’s opener against Italy; perhaps not. But anything could happen to Sterling at this World Cup. With the right breaks he could be one of those players who comes back with the world at his feet. Meanwhile, my student is nervously awaiting his first-year exam results, on which some of his current ambitions rest. Let’s hope they both have a good tournament.