So what if you don’t play the game? June 12 onwards, the World Cup will make a football fan out of you, says the writer.
Some people are born football fans, some achieve football fandom, and others have football thrust upon them. In my case, I think it was a little bit of all three. I was born in Kerala in 1979, but then quickly whisked away to my father in Abu Dhabi, along with my mother, as soon as I was old enough to be on a passenger plane.
You wouldn’t say it today when you see the preponderance of double chins, gently jiggling bellies or trousers with elasticated waists for stylish comfort. But I was born into a rather sporting family. My father and his brother both played a reasonably high standard of football at the university level. My maternal grandmother had played basketball for her school. (I still find this difficult to believe. You cannot find a gentler old woman anywhere on the planet. She is the wrinkled female equivalent of an orthopaedic pillow. But she insists she played basketball, and that too in short skirts.)
So naturally you would expect me to have instantly taken to the schoolyard at every opportune moment to excel at some sport or the other, driven on by the sporting genes galloping through my veins. And, of course, I would have dashed your expectations to pieces.
I did not have such genes and, even if I did, they probably sat around all day reading a book or watching a TV documentary about dolphins.
I did occasionally venture into the field of sports. But only because the sports ground was between the school building and the car park, and you had to cross it if you wanted to catch a bus back home in the evening. Or if such participation was a compulsory extra-curricular requirement.
So I would indulge in all sorts of broad jumps and human chariot races and potato races. But half-heartedly. And very very very slowly.
“Why am I running between potatoes placed in a row on the ground?” I would protest vehemently. “In what mad dystopian future world is this a useful skill?”
But I made up for this lack of practical interest in sports with a tremendous zeal for theory. And by theory I mean watching sports on TV, analysing it threadbare, and then committing it all to memory.
Some of my earliest sporting memories — they are quite vague — are of watching assorted Sharjah cricket tournaments at home with my father and some of his colleagues from work. They would sit around the TV, drinking beer and eating ‘mixture’, loudly saying that they didn’t really care for cricket and proceed to do so from the very first ball bowled to the last one where India inevitably crumbled to a pathetic Friday defeat against Pakistan.
My first proper concrete sporting memory, however, is watching the 1988 European Championships. Yes, yes, Maradona and Shilton and the Hand of God all came before that. But I would be lying if I said I remembered any of that clearly.
But Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard and that spectacular van Basten goal in the final?
I remember it in crystal-clear high-definition. I even remember — in that particular way in which childhood memory retains insignificant things with microscopic clarity — the victorious Dutch team sitting on some sort of bench, goalkeeper van Breuekelen in his blue jersey, thumping their boots on the floor as the press snapped pictures.
Suddenly I loved football. I wanted to know everything about it. I wanted to know how it was played, who played it and what had happened in its history. I wanted to immerse myself in football in every way besides actually playing it. (I tried playing football. It did not go well. At least in the beginning.)
Two years later, when Italy hosted the football World Cup, I had attained unsurpassed levels of geek readiness. I watched every documentary on TV. I read every book on the World Cup I could get. I had even borrowed ‘News Of The World Football Annuals’ from friends and memorised complete FIFA World Cup chapters. I saw TV re-rurns of the greatest World Cup matches in full: the final in 1970, Portugal-North Korea in 1966, everything Maradona did in 1986, endless biographies of Pele…
There was one added incentive to following the 1990 World Cup closely: the United Arab Emirates were playing in it. For the first and, so far, last time.
Of course, they promptly got dumped in the first round group stage itself. But my mother woke me up for every single one of their group stage matches. When Khalid Ismail scored for the UAE against Germany in a losing cause, my mother and I whooped around the living room in celebration. (My father, a football expert, does not waste his time on trifles such as the group stages.)
That Germany-UAE football match also left me with my last truly happy memories of my mother. Three weeks later, hours before the West Germany-England semi-finals, my mother passed away due to a heart attack. It happened with no warning at all. Four days later I watched that terrible final match between West Germany and Argentina back home in Kerala with the TV on mute because we were a house in mourning.
Four not-inconsiderable upheavals in family life later, I was back at peak geekiness just in time for the 1994 World Cup in the United States. By this point, I was part of a highly competitive ‘football playing and quizzing’ brotherhood in my school in Abu Dhabi.
We each had our favourite English club — mine was Crystal Palace. Most of us were terrible at actually playing it — I was a decent goalkeeper though — but we possessed abnormal levels of footballing knowledge.
I also set several personal records in that edition of the World Cup. For instance, I saw every single match that took place. If two matches took place simultaneously, I recorded one on the VCR at home, and then popped over to the local Moroccan ‘uncle’s’ tea shop to see the other one. Later I would wake up early morning before school to see the recorded tape. Never before and never since have I managed to totally plunge myself into a sporting event quite like that 1994 World Cup.
Of course I still see the vast majority of matches in every edition, buy the t-shirt, acquire the tournament DVD, and meticulously maintain my predictions spreadsheet. But now I am older and grumpier and less capable of that kind of complete dedication.
But then that is the real joy of the football World Cup. Everyone is welcome. From football fanatics at one end to the barbarian cricket lover at the other end of the sporting aesthete spectrum. From people who live and breathe Neymar, to people who amble up and ask “When are Pele and Maradona playing?”
It doesn’t matter if you can’t tell an offside flag from a crossbar. Or if the closest you’ve ever come to playing football is that one time someone threw a musk melon at your head. No problem. Come along. The World Cup will find a way to make a football fan out of you.
Sidin Vadukut is the author of ‘The Sceptical Patriot: Exploring The Truths Behind The Zero And Other Indian Glories.’