They say that long-distance relationships need some nurturing, some extra effort, some planning to bridge the hundreds or thousands of miles gap. But, defying all such theory, this long-distance romance has not just endured the passage of time but become stronger. The Beautiful Game – as football is known – has wooed India like little else, sending simple logic flying out of window. We shall see more evidence of that when the FIFA World Cup 2010 gets under way in South Africa.
Having grown up in the pre-TV era, my earliest memories of World Cup football are sepia tinted; The Hindu and Sport & Pastime were primary sources of information. I remember reading about Pele and Bobby Moore, Jairzinho and Gordon Banks. We got lucky if we could watch a Films Division newsreel that included some clips from World Cup matches in the 70s and it was not until 1986 that I first saw a World Cup game on TV.
We were innocent to long-distance relationships when we watched Argentina’s Diego Armando Maradona scored two goals against England – with the infamous Hand of God goal and, four minutes later, with an absolute piece of magic when he beat half a dozen Englishmen all by himself. And after Argentina won the title with a win against West Germany, we started a four-year wait to watch quality football.
That was probably why an Indian journalist designed the invitation card for his wedding around newspaper headlines from Italia ’90. For, those were days when India woke up to world class football just once in four years. That was the time when young India succumbed to football fever for only not longer than four weeks every four years, perhaps letting the afterglow of a wonderful event linger for a few more weeks.
Now, two decades later, India has got addicted to watching high-class football at home for nine months every year. Thanks to the inroads that cable and satellite TV has made in vast parts of India, the young have been hooked to the broadcasts of the English Premier League and the UEFA Champions League. India’s long-distance romance with the Beautiful Game was easily sustained and it really does not matter that the home-bred National team is ranked 132nd in the world.
I saw the signs of change when I spent the Christmas weekend in 2002 at Manali in Himachal Pradesh and was pleasantly surprised to see a pub offer live telecast of an EPL match as a bonus for the tourists. The atmosphere was so charged up that I wondered if I was in India or some bar in England. Now, European football has taken over the mindset of the young so much that Indian cricket czars had to embrace the Twenty20 format of the game to ensure the monies stayed within cricket.
Then in 2006, I was invited to Delhi’s prestigious St Stephen’s College to discuss the state of Indian football. The subject was: A goalless India – The plight of football in this cricket-crazy nation. My fellow columnist Novy Kapadia spoke before me and, truth to tell, what he doesn’t know of football may not really be worth knowing. And before he was halfway through his opening remarks I got the feeling that I was going to be inadequate despite what had seemed to be sound preparations.
Novy did a terrific job of explaining to the couple of hundred students why Indian football was wallowing despite there being a huge fan following for the sport in the country. It was a veritable and – as an oxymoron phrase would go – at once an enjoyable dissection of the tragic state that Indian football has been in for many years now. I was secretly delighted that the audience was paying him such rapt attention that it didn’t notice my scratching off points from my notes.
Before long, Novy finished his discourse and sat down. I could hear the emcee say something about me and I knew I could no longer warm the chair and had to get up. I picked up the marker that had thoughtfully been provided in the auditorium and walked to the whiteboard behind us rather than to the dais. And I said: “Okay let’s play a game. Let us select two teams for an exhibition game. Say a St, Stephen’s vs Hindu College match.”
We started by naming two managers, Alex Fergusson and Arsene Wenger. Then we picked a goalkeeper each, some defenders, midfielders and a couple of strikers. Not surprisingly, all 22 names were of overseas stars. “Let’s think of playing some Indians because this game is being played here in Delhi,” I said and Novy smiled, immediately knowing what I was driving at. The hall rent up with the name of Bhaichung Bhutia but I said I want the Indian goalkeeper to replace Jens Lehmann. And I heard silence. Nobody knew who the Indian goalkeeper was!
Four years later, even though India continues to be more than dreaming distance away from playing in the FIFA World Cup, things are slightly different. Fans have heard of Sunil Chhetri becoming the first Indian to figure in Major League Soccer in the United States. But schoolgirls are getting hooked to EPL. Man-U and Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool, Barcelona and Real Madrid feature in their conversations just as much as the names of Ronaldo, Messi, Drogba and Xabi. The young of today have carried their public displays of affection for football to a different level altogether.
And now even though I have grown up (or so I believe), there is no logic to how football… err… world football rules Indians. The Indian journalist I spoke of earlier made his wife endure a late night final on their honeymoon in 1990. Now, it is quite likely that his teenaged daughter will sit through live telecasts of the World Cup from the rainbow nation that we know as South Africa. Logic will be alien to us for a good four weeks when the FIFA World Cup 2010 is on. You can be sure India’s long-distance love affair with FIFA World Cup will continue. Uninterrupted.
This article first appeared in M magazine.