My father covered ten World Cup tournaments. He wrote about their games, glories and fall-outs with the style and flair of the polished journalist, but with the courage and gut emotion of a genuine footballer. Which he had been. He played professionally before I was born, was injured out, and strayed far. Fleet Street called. He took his talent to the Daily Mirror and the Sunday Mirror, both roaring newspapers in their day, and then on to the Independent, at its inception. His confident overview, insightful sentences and acerbic observations floored the competition, took him around the world and made his name.
It's a big-bucks game these days. It wasn't always like this. There was a time when footballing excellence as good as defined this country, presenting fair play and best-of-British values; when the working man's fun gave us something to look up to. Then money happened. Sponsorship kicked in. Premiership players became obscenely overpaid. The heart was ripped out. Isn't it always.
Though my footballing forebears are mostly dead and buried, their names never heard of by most modern fans, they were once one of the greatest British footballing families. If I felt the game's decline personally, it wasn't hard to see why. My grandfather Emlyn Jones and his four brothers, five of ten kids, all played for Merthyr Town FC in Wales before being sold to English clubs. Grandad went to Everton. My great uncle Bryn became the world's most expensive player in 1939 when he was sold by Wolves to Arsenal for £14,500. The fee caused a riot on Downing Street, what with Europe teetering on the brink of war. History repeated during the 1950s and '60s when three of the sons of those five brothers, Ken, Bryn Jnr. and Cliff, turned professional. Our family soared again, producing the most valuable player on earth for a second time. 'Uncle Cliff' was a star at Spurs. The original Gareth Bale. My father Ken Jones turned out for Southend United, Swansea and Hereford before becoming a writer in 1958, and eventually the Voice of Sport.
Football gave in to corporate investment and gentrification. But where there was once dignity, there is precious little these days.
If the FIFA World Cup has a purpose beyond showcasing competition between the best on the planet, it could be to remind us not only of how beautifully the game can be played, but what it represents. Like baseball in America, the one constant down all the years has been our national sport. It marks time. It's why the tournament matters. It reminds us, as the writer said in the movie 'Field of Dreams', of all that was once good, and could be again.
People will come. They will flock to living rooms and kitchens and back gardens and sports bars and streets on Saturday afternoon, clutching beers and bottles and bags of crisps, and reaching for burnt offerings from barbecues; they will waft into private members' clubs and to giant screenings in leisure centres, fine refreshment on tap. A quarter-final is a quarter final. We may not be spared. The best team on the day will win. Gareth Southgate's knighthood is perhaps assured, not only for having galvanised a clutch of boys into achieving what has long been impossible, but for having restored diminished dignity; for having moulded a role-model team; for having inspired pride; and for revealing a glint of a foreign country, our distant collective past. We did things differently there. We won. We are winning now. Whether or not we lose.