Franklin Foer wrote a brilliant little book “How Football Explains The World” about five years back where according to him he tried to “use soccer – its fans, its players, and strategies – as a way of thinking about how people would identify themselves in this new era” of globalization. I don’t have any grandiose theories to offer like Foer so superbly does, but the game of football definitely is one that makes you look at the world in a new light. It is perhaps the simplest, most primal and yet most complete sport we have. One
where skill and strategy both figure and success (despite the financial excesses nowadays) still is a merit thing. It is also a game that I have a deep attachment to. It was the first sport I saw on television, it was the first sport I ever watched a competitive match live in a stadium and it was also the first sport for which I had bought the equipment – the soccer ball, of course. My first viewing of a sport on television was in 1986 when I sneaked over to a neighbour’s house and caught the glimpse of a certain Diego Maradona in the World Cup in Mexico. As a 5 year old kid, I hardly knew anything about the game but something hooked me to it as I sat wide eyed in front of the colour television set (one of the only ones in our 20 family neighbourhood!). Argentina scored a goal and they showed the replay as a red ‘R’ blinked on the top right hand corner of the screen. I was so absorbed, I paid no attention to the fact that the plate that had been handed to me with an omlette on it now lay sideways in my hand at a perfect 90 degree angle to the floor. Existence of gravity had meant the omlette was also at a 90 degree angle to the plate by virtue of it being on the floor. An offer for a second omlette was made and I was about to politely refuse when my mother stormed in with a look on her face that would be seen years later on the faces of mothers in Sony TV’s series “Missing”. I had only caught about half an hour of action but it had left an imprint deep enough for me to try out a few kicks in the backyard. That is the magic of this game. It almost flows through your bloodstream, its charm acting like adrenaline that pumps you up. If you see a tennis match or a cricket game, believe me you won’t have the same intense feeling to try out a forehand crosscourt or a cover drive. There is some kind of magnetism about the game that galvanizes the skill in some, arouses extreme excitement in others and even manifests as an evil influence amplifying the violent side in some (remember the English hooligans?).
India may be a cricket crazy country but I grew up in a football crazy (extended and joint) family. One of my cousins and my youngest maternal uncle were regulars in the district football league and attending their matches gave me a closer feel of the game. I was allowed into dressing rooms before and after the games, and even have witnessed brawls developing
right before my eyes there. But it was the contrast of their playing positions that helped me truly appreciate the beautiful game for what it is. My cousin was a defender and my uncle a midfielder (or sometimes a striker). Listening to their discussions about both aspects shaped my perspective on the game. Back home, football pitches are not in great condition and most of the times, two village teams will clash on water logged paddy fields just to pass the time as the monsoon blows over. The conditions are brutal, slippery and dangerous.
Yet, some primal force keeps them going at it in those conditions. And as World Cups used to approach the excitement reached fever pitch. It was the most globalized of phenomenas on display back then when globalization was yet to be a buzzword. Learning the names of countries you’ve never heard before (admit it, if you like me have seen the 1990 World Cup, you didn’t know where Costa Rica was, either), or noticing the foreign names, the people and the festivities. Every World Cup offered a glimpse, a window held ajar into a colourful and diverse world. The emotional connect at a humanity level was instant. I can guarantee you that I havent experienced anything such with either the Olympic Games or even cricket.
My journey with the World Cup began with those 30 minutes of what I was later told was the final, in Mexico. By Italia ’90 I was a more regular watcher aware of the existence of other leagues in countries and their clubs. (Today’s generation who get almost every major European league beamed live on their TVs would perhaps have no idea of the pleasure of catching an English Division I match highlight between Nottingham Forest and Blackburn Rovers on “Gillette World Sport Special”.) This was the tournament that made me realize what a fan goes through. Influenced by Maradona lore, I had backed Argentina at the tournament and they rode a most unlikely roller coaster to the final. I missed most of the quarter final (against Yougaslavia) and the entire semi (against Italy) because the games started way past my bedtime. During that world cup and beyond I voraciously consumed every page of a
Bengali magazine, “Khela” my uncle had very meticulously archived. As the history of the World cup became more clearer I understood why Brazil were such a big deal and why the Germans were so consistent. It was immense fun and incredibly empowering to understand the world this way.
USA ’94 arrived and I got a crash course on why the Americans have never got around to loving soccer much. More importantly, I found my back up support team (the first choice was Argentina, of course!) – Italy. The Italian style of defence heavy play was the perfect Yin to the Yang of Argentina’s flamboyance, and my football vieweing spirit found a perfect balance there somewhere between attack and defence. Italy tragically lost the final but I was more than happy to back them again at France ’98. Brazil could not repeat their title winning feat of four years back and a superstar called Zidane emerged. With the advent of sattelite television I got my first taste of football analysis that wasn’t on print.
But the most crazy time I had was during the 2002 World Cup in Japan and Korea. I was doing my MBA then and had no access to a television to watch the matches. But thank God for the liberalization. It was McDonald’s outlets and Coffee Day cafes that became the viewing places of choice. The most anticipated clash was Argentina vs England after their epic encounter in 1998 and I grabbed the best seats at a Cafe Coffee Day outlet at Connaught
Place. And then went ahead and spent a week worth’s pocket money on my order of coffee and sandwiches. Almost on cue as the food arrived, the cable connection developed a snag. Stuck with a platefull of expensive food, I cursed myself for not choosing the McDonald’s next door. I did choose a McDonald’s at Green Park for Argentina’s next match but watched wide
mouthed as they were knocked out of the torunament. I was so shocked after the match was over that I kept vacantly staring into the television with the french fries going cold in front of me. A waiter came over to my table and asked if I was going to finish the fries or no, and I held up my right hand as if to say, ‘Not now,I’m grieving’. The McDonald’s misery was completed when during the Germany Korea semifinal a gentleman approached me and a friend of mine to ask how the match was progressing. We proudly proclaimed that even though it was 0-0 Korea were whooping German ass. ‘I’m from Germany’ was the next response. Great! We had just managed to irk a 6’3″ German. Finally I decided the Brazil Germany final needed a change of venue and chose the upmarket Barista in South Extension Part II. Well, my string
of rotten luck continued as we lost power exactly in the window when Ronaldo had scored.
And then came Germany 2006. A world cup I got to watch on my own terms – no dependence on neighbour’s TV, no sleep time issues, and thankfully no more McDonald’s and Cafe Coffee Days. But more importantly, it was the genesis of my blogging. Yahoo! was heavily promoting its blog site on the world cup’s official website and I decided to give it a shot. Watching each
match and posting random notes on them became an addictive pastime and thanks to Orkut, the social network of choice then, I even had readers around! The passion carried on, and here we are, four years later, with me back to blogging on the world cup.
That’s sort of how football explains my world. As I have grown up with each World Cup as a marker, I’ve learned about the beautiful game and about life. If the 1990 World Cup kindled the idea of passion for a fan, the 1994 edition shaped my ethical perspective (the Maradona drug scandal was a really testing time, since I almost idolized him). The 1998 edition taught me the importance of being fundamentally sound while the 2002 edition taught me how to juggle priorities. Football can teach you a lot because there is perhaps some gene in us that binds us to the game.
One week to go. Let the beautiful game begin.