Sharda Ugra: Confessions of a World Cup junkie
Disclaimer: I'm a World Cup junkie.
Yes, it is a philistine's life, operating around a languid quadrennial cycle, mostly disconnected from club football other than accidental viewings of Champions League finals. This may seem like heresy, because football at its very heart is umbilically linked to communities rather than large nation states. (But think about it -- isn't the "Republic of Mancunia" a nation state in itself?)
There are excuses for such deviant behaviour, like not belonging to Kolkata or Kerala. The truth, however, is that in an olden and not-so-golden era for many Indians, global football first came into our homes through the World Cups. In my case, Spain 1982, and the drama of sublime, ethereal Brazil being outdone by the scallywag opportunism of Paolo Rossi. An event with a bizarre format of two stages of round-robins groups, semi-finals and finals finished off with an Italian job that must have come from a wild imagination; drama worth waiting for four years.
Since then, every World Cup was treated with due respect and diligence, regardless of the time difference (blessed were we that Mexico '86 took place during the summer holidays) and sundry duties. Hand of God? And how about that other goal? How can you forget Bergkamp's precise trap of a long, cross-field ball to win the 1998 quarter-final? Or the tragic heroism of Zinedine Zidane, single-handedly dragging France into the 2006 final before head-butting Marco Materrazi, to a collective gasp from the crowd gathered well past midnight at the French Embassy in Delhi. Suddenly, the champagne had run out. And when Germany put Das Boot into Brazil in 2014, after a few goals, I couldn't even bear to watch. Everyone's grumbling about Russia 2018, I say, "preevyet (hello)!"
So as club seasons came and went and transfer fees rose like summer temperatures in India, and European football began to attract younger Indian audiences, the World Cups appeared to become like a pro footballer's dreaded final exams. Some stars -- Cantona, Giggs among them -- couldn't even get into the hall. Others like Drogba inspired their teams enough and carried them through.
Club duties are what help footballers make a living. A World Cup means a life. In 2002, Roberto Baggio -- striker for Juventus, Milan and Inter, and seven clubs across two decades -- said he was itching to play in his fourth World Cup and to wear the Azzuri again. "It is," he said, "the only shirt I really feel is truly mine." Messi quit and then he unquit but he may not even make it to Russia.
Naturally, the idea that a slice of this madness, what Indians call junoon (obsession), coming to India is thrilling. Yes, it's only an U-17 World Cup, and yes, age-fudging is a massive, toxic boil on the sport, and most certainly Indian football's existing hurdles won't vanish. But hey, it's a World Cup, this one taking place in a player's life when he is on the threshold of a full-time pro career. Ronaldinho's played in one of these -- him of the dink over David Seaman's head in 2002. Remember Mario Goetze's injury-time winner in 2014? Him too. And Iniesta and Xavi and Totti and Buffon. So somewhere among the list of unknowns being spun out on a regular basis from around the world, are some of the global superstars of the future. More than the obvious ones like George Weah's son Timothy, or Jadon Sancho, now plying his trade at Dortmund.
What if a star shoots into sudden notice at an unexpected moment in what looks like a hum-drum group game? What if you notice him now and he pops up at 2018 or 2022 and wins it for his team?
A few days ago, Steve Cooper, the England U-17 coach, spelt out the singularity of World Cups, their rarity and incisive cruelty. "What's unique about international football, and something you have to get good at, is knockout football," he said. This is a concern mostly to higher-ranked nations -- getting good at knockouts is a particular English anxiety -- but the reason it is considerably difficult, Cooper said, because "There aren't that many on the journey." In a pro footballer's career, he means. India captain Sunil Chhetri told the U-17 team that he would give up 15 years of his career to get a chance to play in one. For many teams and players, this may be the only World Cup they compete in.
The closest I came to a World Cup or rather what the World Cup felt like, was in 1994, arriving by train in Rome on the night of the final. A 24-hour journey from Greece -- bus, boat, train -- had three backpackers get into the Termini station around 9pm. The station, notorious for low-life hanging about after dark, was empty, not a layabout in sight. Travellers leapt off the train and sprinted for the exits; it was close to 12:30 pm in Los Angeles and Italy would soon be playing Brazil.
The public bus driver sped through a quiet city waiting expectantly, past lights glowing in windows and clatterings in cafes, to a pensione run by Franciscan nuns who hurriedly signed us in. My friends retreated to the comfort of solid beds but no way was I missing the final. The nuns let me into a small room with a small TV where a small group of people were seated with two large Italian flags among them. Nobody noticed as I shrank into a corner, trying to put good distance between them and the smell from a long journey.
As the match progressed, the crowd in Pasadena screamed themselves into deafness, but my companions said very little. Nobody swore either -- maybe the nuns were sitting in the shadows somewhere. Then penalties, and Baggio's headed towards the upper tier of the stands behind goal. The flag-carriers, both girls, near tears, suddenly stood up and turned away from the TV. The oldest gent in the room, of a respectable pasta-eating-age, muttered the lone profanity of the night, "Merda," he said, and then courteously nodded good night, and left. The TV was switched off and a shroud of gloom fell over Rome.
From there to this -- an U-17 World Cup in October for real, and perhaps India doesn't stand a chance in hell, but who cares?
My neighbourhood in Bangalore belongs to the city's football heartland: it is a kilometre away from a statue of Pele (along with Mother Teresa, Dr Ambedkar and the Buddha) and a five-minute walk from the expanse of mud that is the Gowthampura FC ground. Two boys from the India U-17 team come from Bangalore, from the rival footballing neighbourhoods of Austin Town and Murphy Town. Not so long ago, they would have belonged to the young boys you see on our streets every day, bags slung over shoulders carrying their boots, pushing and jostling each other, blocking pavements and giggling over miffed adults trying to pass them. At that slow pace, they are usually heading home, where their anxious mothers and fathers wait, wondering if they are getting enough to eat, if they are sleeping enough and how on earth their studies must be managed. Where would this football possibly take them?
At this point in time, to a U-17 World Cup.