The football World Cup is upon us, and Indian fans are once again confronted with the question of which country to support. In the old days, this was simple — everyone opted for either Brazil or Argentina. But with the emergence of new football powers, and much more knowledgeable Indian fans, choosing a team has become complex. Here is a simple guide with five options to help you choose your team:
The traditional rule of thumb, in sporting contests where India is not involved, is “anyone but England”. England is not merely the old colonial power; the English play dull, reactive football, and are continually overhyped by their own press. Besides, they owe their status as former World Cup champions — on home soil in 1966 — to a series of favourable refereeing decisions that culminated in the awarding of a goal when the ball landed on the line.
For those who habitually dislike England, the options for teams to support here begin with Italy and Uruguay, England’s group opponents. They could prevent England from advancing past the group stage, something that last happened in 1958. Or you could back Argentina, who, following the Falklands War and Maradona’s “Hand of God”, have an intense rivalry with our former colonists. But as Subhas Bose knew, “anyone but England” really means Germany — who have a habit of succeeding in the World Cups when they fail in the World Wars.
In their book Soccernomics, the football-writer Simon Kuper and sports economist Stefan Szymanski demonstrate the clear correlation between footballing success and per-capita GDP (the one notable exception being Brazil). This helps explain the long-running battle between India’s Fifa ranking (currently 147) and our Human Development Index ranking (136). Even so,we can stand up for the right of the global South to be good at football by supporting our Third World brethren, in keeping with the best traditions of the non-aligned movement. The obvious ‘Nehruvian’ choices here are Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire.
The former has talented youngsters who underachieve collectively, while the latter have two of Africa’s greatest players ever, Didier Drogba and Yaya Toure. Recalling the (alas, apocryphal) story of India not going to the 1950 Fifa World Cup, (also in Brazil) because of Fifa’s Eurocentric bar on playing barefoot, and seeing that North Korea have not qualified, the anti-Western among us can support Iran, who disdain that most Western of impositions, the necktie.
This is the approach Indian football fans take to while following the Premier League: they only support potential champions, and never the likes of Sunderland or West Ham. This is a luxury fans who are born to a particular club or country don’t have. Since we can choose, why support a team that is unlikely to win? Supporting a likely winner is the best strategy to ensure a prolonged interest in the tournament; also, this affords a chance of a tiny share in the eventual glory of winning the World Cup. The bookies’ favourites are Brazil, a well-organized side that thrives in home conditions and won last year’s Confederations Cup. Other potential winners include defending World and European champions, Spain and Germany, who invariably reach the semi-finals. Four-time winners Italy are unfancied this time, but have the strongest defence, largely culled from the same club, Juventus, and keeping clean sheets is especially important in international football. But no European team has won a World Cup in Latin America, and you should also consider Argentina, which possesses the tournament’s best attackers.
But football, even at the World Cup, is about more than winning. To the World-Cup-winning French defender, Lilian Thuram, football is “the language of happiness”. For Jorge Valdano, part of Argentina’s 1986 champion side, “football is an excuse to make us happy”. The beautiful game, in Pele’s immortal phrase, ought to be played beautifully, and aesthetics are a necessary criterion in choosing which team to support. The 1982 Brazilians, who didn’t even make the semi-finals, endure in the collective memory while duller champion sides have been forgotten. Traditionally attractive sides such as Brazil and the Netherlands now play structured, functional football, while the allegedly dour Germans attack with speed and flair. But the joga bonito choice has to be Argentina, who combine a cavalier disregard for defending with a thrilling front-line that includes Angel di Maria, Sergio Aguero and, of course, Lionel Messi.
Perhaps the choices described above leave you somewhat underwhelmed. Why support one of the usual suspects when you could show off your knowledge and subtle understanding of football by supporting an unheralded team? The most popular choice among “football hipsters”, as these fans are called, is Belgium. As with France and Germany, their football team has been transformed by immigration, and they have young stars at almost every position, most notably the goalkeeper, Thibaut Courtois, and the playmaker, Eden Hazard. Other potential choices are Chile and Uruguay, both teams that are more than the sum of their parts. Uruguay is most famous for its forwards, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, but in Oscar Tabarez, they have the tournament’s most compelling coach — a master tactician who walks with a stick.
However, the ultimate hipster’s choice is England. Free from the usual tabloid hype about this being the year, they have quietly assembled a young squad of quick and powerful attackers. And in Roy Hodgson, they have the Narasimha Rao of football coaches: a quiet, uncharismatic man who speaks five languages and enjoys curling up with a Philip Roth or John Updike novel.
Where, then, does that leave us? Partly, of course, it is the subjective question of what one looks for in a football team. Keeping all five options in mind, however, the clear winner is one of the two traditional choices: Argentina. They are potential winners — indeed, Lionel Messi winning the World Cup at the Maracana stadium is the most compelling narrative the tournament has to offer. They play glorious attacking football, have a long (and bitter) rivalry with England and, thanks to Peronist economics, are impoverished and therefore belong more or less to the Third World. For any Indian who is not a football hipster, they ought to be the natural choice.