What’s your favourite football World Cup story? Mine is filled with some dismay. I was at the Berlin stadium in 2006 for the final between France and Italy and the only piece of action I seemed to have missed was Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt!
We had had a night out on the tiles (in Berlin, during a World Cup, this can be an extraordinarily heady experience), but I was neither dozing nor inattentive when the incident occurred. It was probably the angle of the stand where I was seated or a player who obscured my view, but as I remember it, there was a lull in play following a brief fracas—and then the referee’s hand holding a red card went up. I craned my neck to understand what was happening and found the French captain marching off the field in a huff. The stadium, which had been drowned in din from the time the referee had blown the whistle for play to start, was now drowned in silence. The decisive moment had come and gone in a flash.
Zidane ramming his bald head into Materazzi’s chest is now arguably the most-viewed event in the history of the game, taming even Diego Maradona’s Hand of God goal against England in 1986, though neither of these actions would be a good example for young football players to emulate. There is enough scope even for mercurial expression of talent as long as it does not affect the sanctity of sport.
Indeed, football has sufficient problems otherwise too. Big money and extravagant lifestyles see more burnouts than in perhaps any other sport. Handling fame and pressure is precarious for the best among us, and footballers seem to be more vulnerable than most. Garrincha, George Best and Paul Gascoigne—spanning three different eras—are three star players-turned-alcoholics that spring immediately to mind.
Corruption has also been a perennial threat. Colombian Andres Escobar was shot dead for a self-goal in the 1994 World Cup. His fans still swear that he was innocent of any wrongdoing, but that is obviously not what the Mafioso thought. So vulnerable is the sport that Fifa now has a cell in Switzerland which monitors over 400 betting sites in Europe to sniff out mischief—not entirely successfully.
To bring in a South African connection in an oblique sort of way, football was also the cause of Winnie Mandela’s slump into notoriety and finally oblivion. The Mandela United Football Club, which she ran with the hoodlums from Soweto when her husband was still incarcerated in Robben Island, became a matter of embarrassment for Nelson Mandela when he was released and grounds for their divorce.
For all that, football is still “the beautiful game” that keeps the world enthralled. No other sport commands such a following and it is easy to understand why. The World Cup may run into a couple of billion dollars; most players and coaches in this tournament are multimillionaires. But at its most basic, this is still the cheapest game to play and easiest to understand. Therein lies its mass appeal.
As the level of tournament and competition rises, so does the premium on skill, physical and mental toughness. At the highest level, football is an evolved game involving intricate skills—physical and cerebral—and huge mental resolve. With the best players and the biggest egos playing for humongous sums of prize money, national pride, etc., this usually produces extraordinary spectacles.
So where does India fit in all this? On the face of it, rather dismally. The current ranking of 133 is a huge slump from being No. 4 in the 1956 Olympics and Asian champions in 1951 and 1962. In that era, India was considered Brazil of the East for its players’ flair and dexterity. Given the strength of the clubs in the east and south, and the passion for domestic tournaments, it was reasonable to assume that India would make its entry into the World Cup sooner rather than later. Why this has proved to be grossly delusional is an oft-told story which does not deserve repetition here. Suffice to say lack of vision and will—in the Federation, government and corporate sector—has seen Indian football become moribund. But there is a silver lining on the dark horizon. A rapidly growing economy has affected lifestyle and fuelled further interest in pursuing sports than ever before.
A young population means a greater number of active sportspersons, and with India now plugged in to the global world, football in European leagues has made an indelible impact on Indian psyche. Whether this is enough to give competition to cricket remains to be seen. But if the TRP for a World Cup match are near those for an India-Pakistan game in the Asia Cup (being played now in Sri Lanka), it might be reason to blow the controversial vuvuzela unreservedly in celebration.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.
Write to Ayaz at email@example.com