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Christmas Comes Every 4 Years

By GEORGE VECSEY (NYT) 975 words
Published: May 23, 1982

JIMMY NICHOLL's living room was the biggest on the block that summer of 1966 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. ''We had a house, and the rest of the buildings were flats,'' Nicholl recalls. ''Our living room became a little bit of a bar, with all the neighbors dropping by to watch the games on television.''

The games were soccer, the most popular sport in the world, and they were played in England. People in Jimmy Nicholl's neighborhood were ecstatic as England beat West Germany to win the World Cup, a heady combination of the Olympics, a month of Super Bowls, Saturday Night Fever, the Presidential elections and Carnival.

''If you were 9 or 10 years old like me and my friends,'' Nicholl recalls, ''you didn't dream about playing in the World Cup. Your first ambition was just to play the sport.''

The dream formulated later for Nicholl, and now it will come true. At 25, he will be playing in his first World Cup next month in Spain. A member of the Toronto Blizzard of the North American Soccer League, Nicholl is flying home to Belfast today to join 21 teammates recently selected to represent Northern Ireland.

''It's like Christmas but it only comes once every four years,'' he says. ''Not that many people ever get to play in the World Cup.'' Nicholl is among three N.A.S.L. players who will be in Spain when the games begin in Barcelona June 13. (The United States and Canadian national teams again failed to qualify.) David McCreery of the Tulsa Roughnecks will also play for Northern Ireland and Teofilo Cubillas of Fort Lauderdale recently went home to Peru to prepare for his third appearance in the cup.

Because the tournament was expanded from the traditional 16 teams to 24 this year, many smaller countries are getting a chance to participate in the six regional brackets around Spain. Algeria, Honduras, Cameroon, Kuwait and New Zealand will be playing in their first World Cup; Northern Ireland had not qualified since 1958.

Jimmy Nicholl was a baby in 1958 but he remembers the crowd gathered in his living room in 1966, and he finds a good omen in those games. ''Of course, I remember England beating West Germany in the finals,'' he says, referring to the famous 4-2 overtime victory on a disputed goal.

''In my house we always supported Manchester United,'' he remembers, referring to the English team that rebounded from an airplane crash in Munich in 1958 and became a sentimental favorite around Britain. ''Naturally, we rooted for England, with all those United players. But the game I remember best was North Korea against Portugal. Nobody knew anything about North Korea but they came in there and scored two goals before Eusebio got started for Portugal.

''Portugal won, 5-2, but I remember thinking to myself, 'North Korea, they made it to the quarterfinals and they nearly made it to the next round.' Now I think we can be like North Korea. We can beat somebody.''

Like most world soccer fans and players since 1930, when the tournament began, Nicholl's life has been punctuated by World Cups every four years, the way Americans' lives are annotated by Presidential elections. Nicholl was a student at the White House Primary School in Belfast when Geoff Hurst of England scored the goahead goal against West Germany in 1966. The ball bounced off the bottom of the top post and landed smack on the goal line, but was ruled a goal.

''It got more competitive when I played in the Boys' Brigade in Belfast,'' he says, ''and then in secondary school. I went to Manchester at 14, signed as an apprentice at 15 and turned professional with United at 17.''

Nicholl moved to the higher-paying English First Division in Manchester, and could remember watching Argentina, the home team, winning the 1978 cup, as England did 12 years earlier.

''The games were on the television at midnight or 3 in the morning,'' he says. ''You'd go out, have a couple of beers and come home and watch the games. Argentina-France. Argentina-Italy. Great games, great football.'' He used the world name for what Americans call soccer.

Now, of course, the deepening conflict over the Falkland Islands casts a shadow over games. England and Argentina have been at odds in soccer since a brutal World Cup game in 1966, when Alf Ramsey, the English coach, said he was looking forward to playing teams that did not behave like ''animals.'' He later apologized but the statement has not been forgotten. There had been a possibility that all three British qualifying teams - Northern Ireland, Scotland and England - would not go to the World Cup, but officials announced last week that they would definitely go, and began assembling the three squads.

''I was talking to my father in Manchester the other day,'' Nicholl says. ''He hears some people are having a rough time of it on holiday in Spain. The Spanish feel the same way about Gibraltar that the Argentines feel about the Falklands, so it might be a bit touchy over there.''

British soccer fans, with their worldwide reputation for rowdiness, could be a disturbing factor in a tense political setting. But the latest word is that all sides will converge on Spain in three weeks.

In the meantime, Jimmy Nicholl and David McCreery have gone home for a tuneup match against Wales and the training camp at Brighton, England.

For two other members of the Tulsa Roughnecks, the final cuts by Northern Ireland were heartbreaking. Victor Moreland and Billy Caskey had been members of the 40-man squad. ''Everybody wants to represent his country at the World Cup,'' Caskey says. ''I thought I had a chance because I played in a lot of games back home. I'm 27 and this was my last chance, I think. Well, I'm not the only one. You look at Georgie Best, he never played in one. Not many players get to play in the World Cup, and now I won't, either. It would have been a great thing.''

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