When I was a kid, life was simple: I loved cricket, the king of all games, enjoyed table-tennis, or what was called TT before the advent of a certain Calcutta newspaper, and I absolutely, completely, comprehensively, hated football. This thing, also called soccer (pronounced 'saucer' by one teacher in school), was a forbiddingly alien activity. In the British kids' Annuals I browsed through near Deshapriya Park, 'footer' was a sleek, foreign palimpsest of colour illustrations and grainy black-and-white photographs; in the park outside my house, as the para'r chhelera played it in the churning monsoon mud, it was a close cousin of the Afghan sport of Buzkashi I'd once seen in an Omar Sharif film ' a bloody and messy free-for-all in which the main idea was to forget the 'ball' and hack down all those around you.
I avoided this crude orgy as far as possible till I went from Calcutta to a boarding school, an institution where the F-game was as compulsory as mathematics. Stumbling about on semi-proper football fields in stockings and studded shoes, I discovered that this ghastly game had a malevolent habit of picking on me and wreaking deep humiliations. I would get knocked down by boys half my size who knew how to tackle; my bow-legs would crazily become more bowed to let the ball through; given that I had thick spectacles I couldn't ever try to head but, anyway, the ball often managed to find my nose or my ear; when I kicked, it hurt my toes far more than it hurt the ball. The Beautiful Game' Hah, forget it! To me, at the time, it was the ugliest human activity imaginable outside of full-scale war.
A few days ago, as my taxi went past a small park near Hazra, I noticed a cloth banner strung between two lamposts. The banner said, simply, 'Argentina'. When I saw it I felt a voltage spike of patriotic anger course through me: I stuck my head out of the window, yanked on my yellow t-shirt with its green and blue logo, and shouted 'Brasiiiil!'. As the taxi-driver regained control of the vehicle, I calmed down, reminding myself that supporting Argentina was nowhere near as bad as supporting England or Germany, which some people actually do in this perfidy-ridden city. Reaching home, I checked the World Cup schedule again, carefully marking out the must-see games, the maybe-see games and the would-love-to-but-can't-afford-to-waste-so-much-time ones, all in different highlighter colours.
How did this transformation from saucer-hater to footie-freak come about' I'm still not quite sure, but I suspect it was a moment in an early game of the '90 World Cup when the Italians mounted an attack. Till then, I'd never really seriously watched football, live or on TV. When I saw that piratic dance of the Azzuri, all quicksilver grace, flow, feints and back-heels, I suspect something that was Football inside me came alive. I realized ' pleasure and pain mixing ' that whenever I'd seen a great display of what people like to call 'ball sense' it gave me a thrill like no other; secondly, I realized that this particular 'football sense' would always come to me at a thick remove. For instance, when watching cricket, squash, TT or tennis there is, for someone like me, always an element of sensory memory involved, (no matter from how rudimentary a level of play that memory comes), of those moments when you connected with middle of the bat or racquet, or when that amazing catch attached itself to your palm or when that backhand sliced your hapless opponent into two. But my feet and legs remembered no great dribbles, no sublime one-touch passes, no miraculous long shots that wound their way into goal, no great, impossible saves.
Despite this, the '90 World Cup managed to get its hooks into me and I've stayed addicted, not to football generally but to the great melee that comes around every four years, and also to the occasional European or English premiership game. Therefore, with only a basic knowledge of the skills involved, and an even fuzzier understanding of the tactics, I will now become a football anadi for a month, threading my time around the games and the reports the day after.
After getting the footie bug, I had a second level of epiphany: I could actually watch this game without my heart in my mouth because there was no team that was actually 'mine' as such, because it was, and is still going to be, a while before an India vs Pakistan kick-off in a Football World Cup final. But this initial sense of relief and vicarious pleasure is one that has eroded with time. I have teams now, nation-wise, Brazil first and then France, and, in Europe, Barcenal and Arselona, and I now have favourite players. Therefore I have tensions and heartbreaks anticipated, though none of them will leave the peculiarly searing scars that an India cricket defeat can inflict on the soul.
Having said that, the flip-side fact is the chain of World Cups stretching back to 1990 hang in my mind as markers of a sort of parallel history, both personal and global, in a way the cricket world cups do not. Maybe it's because there is a sense in the FIFA party that the whole world is present and not just a rather large club of arcanists; perhaps it has to do with the locations, oddly more exotic than the well-worn ones you get in cricket, the Japans, Koreas and Mexicos, and even the Frances and Germanies, where cricket isn't (and shouldn't) be played; perhaps it has to do with the melange of jiggy colour, always football's preserve and still unavailable to cricketistas even in this Pajama Era. Whatever the reason, there is a grand solidity to the event that enters and parks in the DNA.
In no particular order, I remember Roger Milla's dance around the corner flag, Roberto Baggio on his knees and howling, Romario and Bebeto doing the holding-baby sway, dedicating their goals to Bebeto's newborn, the sublime Zidane, dignified in victory and defeat. Equally, there are the places where the cup was watched ' Jyotibabu's Calcutta in the steaming pre-monsoon of 1990, London, in one of the darkest of the Thatcher-Major years, '94, and in the bright, global-warmed summer of '02, Delhi in the post-Pokhran furnace of '98.
From the hazy memory of that first, addiction-creating Italy goal, there is a direct stream of electro-physical charge that leads to the last World Cup: I am in Manchester for a Literary Festival and my reading takes place on the night before the crucial England-Brazil match. I sleep late but drag myself out of bed early and trawl through unfamiliar dawn streets looking for the big square where I'm told they've put up a giant screen. On the way I find an open caf' and grab a croissant and cappucino ' what else would you have for breakfast in Manchester'
When I reach, the square is jam-packed with The Enemy, many of them not in England shirts but, even more provocatively, in Manchester United kit. The crowd is cordoned in by ropes manned by cops. There is a strong presence of mounted police as well, and the ubiquitous vans and cop-cars are parked discreetly in the side streets. The match is already on, and I mingle with the crowd, trying to look like I've never worn a Brazil shirt in my life, nor spent huge amounts of money supporting Arsenal Football Club by buying my kids shirts which bear names like 'Henry' and 'Pires'. The crowd moves me gently as the match proceeds and I'm standing between a red, Man U 'Giggs' shirt and a white, England 'Beckham' when the referee awards the free-kick. The Brazilians do their committee meeting around the stationary ball as England form their wall. The whistle goes for the kick; Seaman is off his line having just finished the flower-arrangement of crotch-holders; Ronaldinho moves, as if trying to steal the kick from his chatting team-mates, and suddenly the ball is looping high, looping, curving, looping, curving, looping, then dipping, dipping and dropping over the frantic Seaman's disbelieving moustache. Into the goal.
The debate, as to whether that kick was deliberate or one of the greatest flukes of all of soccer history, still continues. But that grey morning in Manchester, I felt the whole collective sensory memory of despair in the thousands that surrounded me. The mounted police were superfluous to needs as large fathers dragged small sons home. Their shoulders were drooping, and, inside their beings, I'm sure their knees were propelling them upwards, arms stretching up, up, up, till they, all of them, caught that damn ball at the same time. And me, on the other hand' Even as I stifled triumphant laughter, I was feeling a slight tingle on my right instep, just from where I had imparted the crazy spin on the kick.