I’ve always hated football. It’s odd, really, given the sheer number of sports I watch. I’m an Olympian spectator, ruling the couch with one eye on the players, one eye on the scoreboard, and, given the staggering amount of superstition that makes up the life of the sports devotee, one outstretched limb knocking frantically against wood. I’ve wept for Formula One, rattled off obscure cricket statistics with alarming ease, prayed fervently for tennis mavericks, applauded the occasional golf tournament and set the alarm for unearthly hours to keep up with the NBA. But, football, despite the Bengali genes supposedly bubbling over with Brasilia-love, never quite worked for me.
I always blamed this on the scorelessness. All that athleticism, strategy, running around, and 0-0 to show for it? Take away the goalkeepers, proclaimed I, and we’d have some ‘proper’ games. (It’s an immature but unfailingly provocative argument that has led to many an exasperated Arsenal fan tearing their hair out.) In my boyhood, I worked as a mildly glorified bouncer in London, standing around football grounds where teams more worshipped than the Pope ran around on lovely turf, while the stands drowned in beer. Standing but a few feet away from Chelsea pummelling Liverpool, I still thought wistfully of Lord’s and gents shuffling around in pristine whites.
But, then, a few months ago, cricket dumped me. Or, was it the other way around? Either way, it was acrimonious and abrupt, the kind of break-up that results in much shattering of hearts and revamping of playlists. Sachin sparkled off into the sunset of immortals, of course, but things had frankly been souring for quite a while. The IPL, a weird league force-fed to us with merchandise-friendly stubbornness, was choking the beauty out of the sport. There were fresh allegations of match-fixing and spot-fixing, and, unlike when we were growing up as an underdog nation, now India had the omnipotent eyeballs. We are the Vince McMahons controlling the WWF cricket has morphed into. Last year’s police probes, of which nothing was ever allowed to come to light, told, among other morbidly fascinating stories, of a match wherein two teams, both paid to lose, kept trying embarrassingly hard to make a greater hash of it.
The idols have long left the building. Mahendra Singh Dhoni, cowboy six-hitter and World Cup hero, sits silent in a press conference unwilling to speak (even cursorily) about corruption in the game. And, this when nobody was bringing up N Srinivasan, his boss and a man often accused of being as corrupt as our vilest politicians. KapilDev, our other world-beating captain, recently hailed this fellow as a ‘friend of cricket’. No cricketer past or present shuns Srinivasan, and, when the media and fans start to rally against him and, by extension, Team BCCI, which we mistakenly refer to as Team India, it only lasts till India’s next victory. After India swept the Champions Trophy, less than a month after the 2013 IPL fixing scandal, the crowds and papers were back to applause. It’s sickening, this kayfabe crap.
‘Kayfabe’, a pro-wrestling term used to describe what everyone knows is fake but pretends, for the sense of narrative, is real. The IPL and all cricket — or, at least, Indian cricket – feels kayfabe. Sure, you can still watch The Ashes and sometimes feel like you just heard a snatch of Pavarotti, but all the Indian cricket fan has around him today is bestselling, mass-manufactured Miley Cyrus. And, the worst mainstream media around it. We hounded Sachin into god-crushing tedium till he ended his career and we continue to rally against corruption in op-ed pieces while reverentially filling the front and back of the paper with all things ‘cricket’. How does one watch now, with nobody to root for, with no faith even in scoreboards? The questionable Dhoni, the boorish ViratKohli… These are men with talent, but they are hard to call heroes.
So, cricket, that fickle trollop, is dead to me. (And, evidently, I’m at the stage at which I say bitter, nasty, depressingly true things about the ex.) ’Twas, then, with a 22-yard hole in my life that I started watching the 2014 World Cup.
I support Italy. Mostly because of Ferrari-red blood following years of Formula One fanaticism, but also because the first World Cup I remember watching is Italia 1990, with its weird Fido Dido-ish mascot. Cars, cannoli, Claudia Cardinale, Caravaggio, civilisation, and Corleones… What’s not to love? It’s good to have a dog in a fight, even in an inconsequential scrap, and Italy has traditionally been my loopy football basset hound.
This time, however, a certain mastiff seemed more worthy. Hours before Germany’s first game of the recent World Cup, their left-footed attacker Lukas Podolski, announced that, given the then-breaking news about Michael Schumacher, a longtime football fan, coming out of his coma and being moved closer to home, Germany wanted to win it for Michael, winning us over in that offhand but immortal way sportsmen do. Their first game was against Portugal, who they handed a 4-0 drubbing. Podolski, that smiling selfie-taker, instantly dedicated the Ronaldo-mocking win to the greatest German who ever lived, and I was sold. (My Argentina-striped wife felt this was lip service to win over fans, but I’m a sucker for sportsmen saluting sportsmen.)
To an extent, Twitter brought the Cup alive — at least for an acolyte such as myself. A constant stream of obsessive football information being hurledaround in real time bound us all into the same weird time zone. The whole world was watching telly at the same time, and Twitter is finally ubiquitous enough to substantially enhance that experience. Between the memes and the mockery, there was genuine information. People were re-tweeting what really mattered, and soon it was easy enough to pick favourites: to marvel at James Rodriguez and his preternatural fluency, to be shocked and stunned by ArjenRobben, to wish NeymarJr had a better team around him, to rise from our couches at four in the morning and put our hands together for the miraculous Guillermo Ochoa. The good matches were often played too late for sports bars in India to telecast, but Twitter turned the World Cup into one giant pyjama party. Also, everyone was glued to the screen, huddled under the same blanket. I tweeted casually about German hero Thomas Mueller, and none other than Amitabh Bachchan, as obsessed as the rest of us, tweeted his thrill back at me.
Having come late to the party, I must confess that there is no sport quite as tailor-made for high-definition television. The two 45+ minute halves are just the right length to provide both self-contained thrillers or allow for an added hour of play. The abject scorelessness (which there really wasn’t that much of in this particular tournament, hurrah!) keeps the game on a perpetual, stifling boil, players either cracking under pressure or excelling because of the squeeze.
And, when the moment comes – when a man dives forth like a swan and nudges ball into net with his forehead; when another penetrates a phalanx of momentarily helpless defenders to fire it within inches of the goalkeeper’s glove; when a dazzling cross connects with an immaculately thrust calf to leave the goalkeeper gasping — it is invariably a moment. Every single time. Even when one team shoots in seven of them in one match, they are each instances of wizardry and magic, points at which time appears to stop and everything just rhymes. Of course, as you doubtless know, it isn’t just the goals, (literally) not by a long shot. Passes, executed by a team on song, are sheer grace and coordination, lovely as a vintage Federer-Nadal rally. An infallible defensive line is a thing of awe.
What also helped in building up my interest in the game’s technicalities, I must admit, is the steep learning curve on the PlayStation’s FIFA14. Not only did I start off the tournament being walloped 3-0 by Spain but I also watched in astonishment as the real-life Belgians passed, or as the Dutch penetrated, wondering what combination of Os and Xs and L2s I’d have to hit to make those moves. By the time the Cup ended a few days ago — and, oh, how we already miss being roused by our collective raisons d’etre — my fictional version of Brazil even had Fred scoring. Ha.
It was a cupful of immense, captivating drama. The great Lionel Messi lost his smile in a cloud of heartbreak, the great NeymarJr was reduced to a bawling spectator, and the great Luis Suarez took an alarming bite out of Italy, enough to make ZinedineZidane’sheadbutt look civil. (I can’t wait to see all these guys play the leagues soon.) And, even if Lukas Podolski didn’t get to play in the final, his boys made his declaration come true.
As the confetti flew around the stadium, I gazed rapturously at Germany and those blessed boys. Because they deserved to be champions, naturally, but also at the thought of Corinna Schumacher holding up triumphant local newspapers and reading out gratuitous editorials about these heroic exploits to her husband, who is, we are told, smiling every now and then, especially at the sound of her voice. Hearing about ‘7-1’ must have made the seven-time champ grin.
RAJA SEN IS A WELL-KNOWN FILM CRITIC