Women, I seem to have got caught up as much as men in the World Cup frenzy this year. And not for the reasons you’re thinking. ‘She watches it for the hunk factor, what does she know about the game?’ What’s to know, boys, they’re kicking a ball not building a rocket! Men, foot, kick, ball, goal, goof up, penalty. Fairly straight forward stuff. What I don’t get is: men, pads, bat, hit, ball, run, catch, throw, stumps, gulley, silly point, yorker, googly, over…but it isn’t really over, it just keeps going on and on, until you fall into a coma. This here is a pucca gentlemen’s game, sent to the colonies by Her Majesty to spread the noble cause of the stiff upper lip throughout the Commonwealth.
I much prefer to watch what I call ‘ballet on steroids’, on a field where testosterone flows as freely as tears. Do I enjoy watching CR7’s six-pack, RVP’s glutes, Pirlo’specs, and Balotelli’s swagger? Hell, yes, I’m human. But am I riveted by RVP’s grace, Pirlo’s technique, Muller’s precision, Suarez’s hunger, Neymar’s confidence and Rooney’s earnestness? Like 3.5 billion other fans, irrespective of how many Xs my chromosomes carry, I utterly and absolutely am. These heroes kick, they howl, they bleed, they fall, they grapple, they grunt, they sweat, they bleed…. they keep it real. These are men in touch with their feelings, not emotionally muzzled athletes trained to play like machines. I mean, what more can be said about a game that kicks off with a paraplegic teen in an exoskeleton, using brain waves to toss the ball?
As the world watches the victory of human will over the human body, more drama and heart have been demonstrated here in the first minute than whole days of cricket. Throw in a Uruguayan physiotherapist who has skipped his chemo treatment back home to accompany his brilliant striker to the World Cup, and you have turned a rookie fan into a formidable loyalist.
Cricket is like a long chilled drink to be nursed, often over 5 long days of 7 hours each, sometimes with no buzz at the end. Slow and easy is a great strategy for bedroom antics and beachside basking, not so much when it comes to contact sport. Especially as we live in the age of widespread ADHD and 140 characters communication. Football is an intense and potent shot, a head rush in comparison. Even Hurricane (Chris) Gayle appears to be in slow motion compared to Mathis Bolly, the Norewegian-Ivorian footballer, who’s broken Usain Bolt’s over 50-metre record. And with this kind of pace comes passion. Everyone in football, the players, the coach, the managers, even the referees are animated – no holds barred. The fans are feisty and the spectators super enthusiastic, noisy and loyal. A 90-minute game is like a rollercoaster that rides the entire spectrum of emotions – you’re almost part of the game, the 12th man as they say in America.
Their very body language implies passion. Unlike their cousins in cricket, some of who carry beer-bellies into the pitch along with their bats. With sagging self-images, no wonder the cricketers need girls in skimpy skirts and pom-poms to cheer them on. And hey, what’s with calling it a ‘World Cup’ when only 10-14 countries actively participate in it? The football World Cup on the other hand, is open to every country in the world. 209 countries participated this year, of which 32 made it to the finals. The math itself spells passion, and that’s something.
If there’s one regret for me that runs deeper than Spain’s dismal exit from the World Cup this year, it is not being able to scream “Go India”, as our desi dudes pass, tackle and shoot in the world forum. There’s something soul-stirringly primal about watching your own (team) step out into the arena and face gladiators bigger and stronger than them. The fear is as intense as the pride. It’s exactly the same intensity of dismay I felt at discovering India’s last brush with the FIFA World Cup in 1950, where it qualified, but couldn’t play because the team couldn’t afford the standard issue sports shoes.
Though we can afford the shoes now, friends tell me that we are probably the only nation in the world where the quality of football has actually declined over the years. In the official FIFA listing we were ranked at a shameful 129 in 1993, two decades later we are at even worse ranking of 154. If it is of any consolation, the Indian women’s football team is currently ranked at number 50 out of the 175 that participate in international fixtures.