I keep telling myself that I am not really interested in football. Come to that, even my interest in cricket has been waning, perhaps to wax again at the next World Cup. Grand Slam tennis still keeps me riveted, despite Federer’s last, tearful hurrah. At least, Nadal and Djokovic are still there, mixing it up with the new kids on the block. Chess, in the literal sense, is unwatchable, though one takes vicarious delight in India’s emergence as a world chess power. Badminton, with India’s recent Thomas Cup triumph, has kindled much interest though I have always wondered why such a delicate, artistic sport that demands an incredible level of physical fitness, does not attract the masses. Still on racket games, table-tennis evokes a flutter, momentarily, during the Asian or Olympic events. Anyone for squash?
Let me get back to football. Yes, once in a while I do follow the English Premier League. English only in name, as a majority of the players are from outside the British Isles. Oftentimes, there is more excitement surrounding the obscene transfer fees of the leading lights of the ‘beautiful game’ than there is in the game itself. Why do we common folk take such an inordinate interest in the millions being shelled out to a Ronaldo or a Messi? It is the same phenomenon that we witness during the IPL auctions, though I have not found that level of enthusiasm for the Ambani-fueled, cash rich Indian Super League football. As my wife is fond of saying, not without an element of ironic distaste, ‘All this just for kicking a ball around.’
That said, every time the World Cup jamboree comes around once in four years, like the leap year, even those not particularly interested in the game, wake up to smell the coffee, almost always the heady Brazilian concoction. All of a sudden, young and old in India are suffused with feverish excitement. This, despite the fact that there is no Indian participation involved. From the days of Ferenc Puskás, Stanley Matthews, Bobby Charlton, Pelé, Zico, Maradona and now to Messi and Ronaldo, millions of Indians go gaga over the unfolding World Cup drama. Even difficult-to-pronounce names like Mbappe and Lewandowski flow freely off the tongues of football-crazy street urchins in Calcutta. I recall with amusement a visit to that teeming city by the legendary Pelé some years ago. Pelé came over to play an exhibition match, representing the New York Cosmos at the Eden Gardens against Bengal’s pride and joy, Mohun Bagan FC. During the game, even the opposition players were seen running towards the ‘Black Pearl,’ never mind where the ball was, just to be caught on camera with their hero! I suspect even Bagan’s goalie would have been thrilled to step aside and let Pelé slot the ball into an empty goal! The referee, wisely, threw his whistle into the nearby Hooghly. Similar madness was witnessed when Argentina’s idol and poster boy, the sublime Diego Maradona visited the City of Joy in 2017 which also saw India’s former cricket captain and Calcutta’s darling, Saurav Ganguly don his shorts and boots to play footsie with the ‘hand of God.’
Still on Calcutta, World Cup fever also witnesses street artists decorating all available walls with charcoal or paint brush strokes featuring their favourite footballers, their national flags and at times, incongruously, a Tendulkar or Ganguly amongst them. Not forgetting the ubiquitous Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan. It is as much a carnival in Mamata Didi’s city as it would be in Rio de Janeiro or Buenos Aires. In the inappropriately nick-named garden city of Bangalore, where I now reside, football fever does not have quite the earthy, sweaty, seat-of-the-pants intensity that one experienced in Calcutta. In this brushed-aluminium, tech-capital of India, it is all about pubs and clubs inviting all and sundry, with money to burn, to achieve dangerous levels of inebriation while watching the goings-on in Qatar on a large LED screen. After the sixth beer or fifth large rum and coke, no one quite knows who is playing whom. And no one cares. They will all wake up the next morning with a sore head and groan for black coffee and two aspirins.
The timing of these games at the Qatar World Cup, as the tournament progresses, is another reason to gripe. Most of the big games kick off at 12.30 in the morning IST, and unless you are a die-hard football fanatic prepared to sleep it off the next day, the whole affair is a non-starter. We have to satisfy ourselves with YouTube highlights. Many people I know, who would rather commit hara-kiri than miss a game featuring Brazil or Argentina, apply for leave in advance from their work place. Nowadays, one’s work place is also one’s home, so it may not make much of a difference. But back in the day, when little encouragement was needed to ‘bunk’ office, even the bosses took a lenient view of ‘football absenteeism.’
I vividly recall, when I was a cub trainee at an advertising agency, there was this proverbial watercooler moment, when I cheekily told my boss he was being a stickler for rules for not giving us a day off after one of these big games. I was given a right, royal telling off in no uncertain terms that he was not running a dharamsala. I was not downcast for long as the big chief relented and graciously granted leave of absence. I think he just wanted to show us all who the boss was. Not to mention that he was planning to watch the game himself overnight and sleep it off the following day. Now that I have retired, I face no such impediment. However, even Messi cannot keep me awake after midnight. Not even once in four years. For the crazies, however, their World Cup runneth over.
Postscript: Let us pause to spare a thought and send up a prayer for the great Pelé, who is in palliative care at a Sao Paulo hospital.
Published in Deccan Chronicle on 7th December 2022.