Life isn’t always pale or dull, and some dreams do come true.
n Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby had this to say of those who considered a sporting moment as their best ever. “We do not lack imagination, nor have we had sad and barren lives; it is just that real life is paler, duller, and contains less potential for unexpected delirium.”
That sudden delirium is magnified many times over when a sporting event mimics the sort of tale chronicled by the Brothers Grimm, or biblical stories like David and Goliath. Would we still be so hung up on Kapil’s Devils and the summer of 1983 if the team had gone into the tournament as favourites rather than 66-1 outsiders?
I had my first taste of giant-killing in a sporting sense a few weeks before Indian cricket’s tryst with glory. The 1983 European Cup Winners Cup final featured two teams at each extreme of the fame spectrum. Real Madrid were the most storied football team in the world, six-time winners of the European Cup. Aberdeen, managed by a certain Alex Ferguson, were the new power in Scottish football, a town from a region primarily known for its Angus beef.
The Scottish underdogs won, with a John Hewitt goal in extra-time. Today’s generation, accustomed to the joke that is modern-day Scottish football, will view it as a fairy tale, and it was, with the campaign also featuring a quarterfinal triumph over the mighty Bayern Munich.
A year later, the Los Angeles Olympics saw a contest that could well have been an audition for roles in a David-and-Goliath movie. Michael Gross was 201cm tall, with an arm span so wide he was nicknamed ‘The Albatross’. Australia’s John Sieben, at 173cm, was ‘The Shrimp’ to his teammates. In the men’s 200m butterfly, Sieben, who would not win another major title, produced an unbelievable last lap to edge out the favourite.
The Olympic pool was the setting for another upset in 1988. Matt Biondi went to the Seoul Games bidding to emulate Mark Spitz’s seven-gold haul from Munich (1972). But in the 100m butterfly, he lost gold by 0.01 of a second. His conqueror was Anthony Nesty, a Surinamese of Trinidadian origin. Surinam Airways even named one of its aircraft after the first black man to win Olympic swimming gold.
This week, as qualifying for football’s 2014 World Cup in Brazil neared a conclusion, Cameroon were one of the teams involved, playing out a 0-0 draw in Tunisia. Until the ‘Indomitable Lions’ of Italia ’90, few would have been able to locate the country on a map. They beat Argentina in the opening game, and came perilously close to upsetting England in the last eight.
That performance was enough for some to predict an African World Cup winner before the end of the 20th century. That didn’t happen, but the Nigerians left us with a pocketful of memories in 1994 and ’98. You will never forget the late Rashidi Yekeni clutching the back of the net after tapping in the opening goal in a 3-0 evisceration of Bulgaria, or the rocket from Sunday Oliseh against Spain four years later, a shot struck with such power that it might have been fired from a cannon.
The World Cup in the United States was also Saudi Arabia’s first on the world stage. Saaed Al-Owairan made sure we would not forget them, with a magnificent slalom run and precise finish against Belgium, a result that earned them the distinction of being the first Asian side to qualify for the second round.
For most people of my generation, however, there is only one David. Boris Becker was 17 when he arrived at Wimbledon in 1985. Built along the lines of Horst Hrubesch, the centre forward who led West Germany to European Championship glory in 1980, it was difficult to associate the teenager with the skill and deftness of touch required to prevail at SW19. But prevail he did, boom-booming his way to the title after starting the tournament unseeded.
Life isn’t always pale or dull, and some dreams do come true. But we remain forever grateful to Becker, the Indomitable Lions and albatross catchers for giving us memories that never fade.