On Friday a fortnight ago, I was strolling around KaDeWe (Kaufhaus des Westens, or the west's shop). It is at Wittenbergplatz, a stone's throw from the Ged'chtniskirche, the bombed ruin of a church which is the symbol of West Berlin. It is also close to what was once the border between East and West Berlin. It was supposed to be a showcase for western capitalism. Even today, 17 years after the fall of the Wall, it is my favourite department store. It certainly has all the wonders of western capitalism ' 35 different coffeemakers, 23 shavers, 3400 perfumes, and so on. But it is also a showcase for Germany. Today, the Germans have become civilized and started drinking wines. KaDeWe is the only place where I can find an authentic K'mmel. Not only that, the salesman will ask me which of the three original brands I want. KaDeWe teems all the time with discerning Germans and foreign yokels.
But that afternoon, I suddenly found the store empty. Bomb scares are unknown in Germany; and if there had been one I should have heard the warning ' Achtung is a word everyone understands. And the saleswomen were still around, quite relaxed, exchanging notes on nail paints.
So I thought I would try the M'venpick caf' outside the Europacenter. This open-air caf', next to the Ged'chtniskirche, is the place to have a capuchino and Sachertorte, the original Austrian name for black forest cake. Sitting in the sun, one can watch the humanity flow by ' and nowadays humanity comes in great shapes. Usually it is impossible to find a seat in this caf'; one hovers around it, and grabs a table as soon as someone leaves. But that day, half the tables were empty.
Then, as the coffee hit the palate, the realization hit me: it was the first day of the World Cup, and everyone had gone home. I rushed home too. Poland was playing Ecuador. That was my first football match in decades, perhaps centuries.
I have always thought football was a game played by men pretending to be kids: they get into funny little shorts and kick around a ball. Cricket is the game to watch. Its uncertainties create suspense in measured doses over a long period. Pitches come in so many variants; they behave differently in the morning and afternoon, and they change as a match progresses. Bowlers have so many ways of exercising guile; you would never know from Shane Warne's amiable grin which way his vicious spin was going to turn next. A batsman has less than a second to decide how quickly the ball will be coming, where it will fall, how much it will bounce, which way it will turn, and how it can be prevented from hitting him, the wickets or the edge of the bat. After working all this out he may hit the ball, get it past the 11 enemies surrounding him, and send it off to the boundary. It needs skill ' and as is characteristic of all rivetting games, it needs luck.
Whereas football is all about obstruction. The basic aim is to obstruct a ball that might get across the goal posts; but most of the game is about obstructing players ' from getting the ball, from getting it close to a goal, from running with it, from moving. Admittedly, cricket is also about obstruction ' about obstructing batsmen from scoring, and really, preventing them from staying too long at the crease. But the techniques of obstruction in football are far more advanced ' more blatant and brutal. The only thing that is apparently not allowed is maiming an opponent, though much of that goes on too. But some of the best teams specialize in intimidating their opponents. Brazilians, for instance, from what I have seen of them till now, move very aggressively towards whoever has the ball; they convey implicitly what would happen if the opponent moves too close or too fast.
Naturally, a threat is ineffective unless it is actualized from time to time. Every once in a while it is translated into an assault, and someone is carried off the field on a stretcher. One would think that players in the circumstances would aim to maim before they get maimed. That would not be a good idea, however, because a referee runs about the field trying to catch people trying to maim. A much better idea is to make contact with an enemy, collapse on the ground and double up as if in pain. The chances are that the opponent will be shown a yellow card; with luck, he may even be expelled from the game. The technology of blaming opponents is almost as advanced as the technology of maiming them. So much of the skill in football lies in learning what forms of obstruction are kosher and what are not.
The other important skill is in passing. You cannot score unless you kick a ball into a goal. You cannot kick it unless you possess it. And if you possess it, a pair of opponents will swarm around to deprive you of it. The thing to do therefore is to pass it to one of your colleagues. Passing can be most sophisticated; you think that a player is hopelessly surrounded, and suddenly he will kick the ball in a completely unexpected direction, where one of his colleagues will just happen to materialize. Clever passers are not all that common, but they are a wonder to watch. Passing opens up a game. If a side is good at it, players in the other side eventually realize the futility of swarming the possessor of the ball. Then the ball begins to move around the field, and the game becomes mobile.
The two standard techniques of assaulting and crowding opposite players work better in the middle of the field. If a player is at the edge, he cannot be approached from the outside and has to guard only the other side. So some of the best players specialize in playing near the edges. Unfortunately, the goalposts are closer to each other when targetted from a side than from the middle; and the closer a player gets to the goal, the narrower a target the goalposts offer to him. So to score, he has to pass the ball to a colleague in the middle, who must then shoot quickly before he is surrounded.
The middle swarms with opposing players; the closer the ball gets to the goal, the more defending players get crowded in, and the greater their power to obstruct. So what an edge-play specialist does is to kick a ball against an opponent's leg in such a way that the ball goes off the field. That gives the specialist a penalty kick into a small area close to the goal in which both sides huddle together; with luck, one of his colleagues will receive the ball and kick it across the goal.
Whichever way it is scored, a goal happens seldom. That keeps the spectators longing for one; they go into a frenzy when one is scored. And frenzy is what this funny game is about.