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It’s June and yet another World Cup is upon us! In just a few days, 32 teams will battle it out for the right to be called world champions in the most watched-event across all sports. As a footballer and football fan, the World Cup has always had a special place in my life. Over the years, how I’ve followed it has changed but the excitement that rises in me when I watch teams walk out in their national colours has remained the same. My first proper World Cup was in 1986 and that would go on to define how I followed the game.
It was the tournament that made me a hardcore Argentina fan. Before that, the World Cup was just something we used to hear about, as neither me nor my friends could afford televisions when we were young. But in 1986, I had just joined Kerala Police and one of my friends had a TV at his house. I remember how me and a cousin used to make the trip to his house just to watch matches. We had heard of Diego Maradona a lot before the tournament — I had seen videos of the red card he got against Brazil in 1982. But it was in 1986 that Maradona truly showed the world what he was capable of. I remember that quarterfinal against England. For all the controversy that the ‘Hand of God’ goal generated, we weren’t talking about it much then.
Watching on TV, it did not seem like he had done anything wrong. But the goal that came after that sure got us talking. Maybe that was the beauty of Maradona — in the same match, he had shown that he could play both with his hands and his feet. By the time the 1990 World Cup came along, the way we saw the event changed. A brand new indoor stadium had been constructed in Thrissur and we put up a giant screen inside it and watched games alongside dozens. My most enduring memory is watching on in disappointment as Maradona and Argentina lost to Germany in the final. By 1994, life had changed a lot. I was now a India regular, but the World Cup came at a time when I recovering from an injury. I had also gotten engaged to my future wife around this time and saw a lot of the games at her house. This one was all about Brazil — Romario and Bebeto’s ‘baby’ celebration.
Similarly, 1998, for me, was all about Zinedine Zidane. The 2002 World Cup was memorable as it was the first World Cup that I travelled to. Gopu Nandilath, an entrepreneur and friend, had asked me to travel with him to Japan (we would go together for every World Cup since) and I was lucky enough to get final tickets. In fact, I was sitting right behind where Ronaldo scored his goals. It was a strange sight, a couple of us with Indian flags amidst a sea of yellow. Thankfully, none of the Brazil fans knew I supported Argentina. Four years later in Germany, I was at the semifinal between Portugal and France — watching the likes of Zidane and Cristiano Ronaldo live was quite an experience. In South Africa, I got the chance to watch the World Cup final again. I remember that day with all its colour, Shakira’s performance before the final, the big Nelson Mandela statue, Fabio Cannavaro bringing in the Cup into the stadium and, of course, watching Spain at the highest point of their tiki-taka era. But my favourite experience was in Brazil in 2014.
It was always a dream to visit the birthplace of some of the most talented players and Brazil was my longest World Cup — I spent 16 days there. I lived right outside the Copacabana beach and Brazil’s love for the game can be gauged from how that beach fills up with people playing football, right from sunrise. As much as I wanted to, I could not join as I was recovering from a broken leg. One of the most enduring memories was the amazing museum on Brazilian football. As an Argentina fan, it was disappointing that they did not lift the Cup (I still haven’t forgiven Gonzalo Higuain) and that I did not get to watch the final. But I did get the next best thing — the semifinal where Germany beat Brazil 7-1.
Sitting inside the stadium, you could feel the stunned silence every time Germany scored. As we walked out, people were crying — you could see that this meant everything to them. In Russia again, I hope to be there during the latter stages. And this time, I hope Argentina do one better. France, Spain and Germany are much improved and an Argentina victory would be a miracle. But I hope one happens, for Lionel Messi’s sake. This is likely his last World Cup and it would be sad if he were to bow out without lifting the trophy. Once again, everything will fall on his shoulders. It’s really unfortunate that the likes of Netherlands, Chile and Italy will be missing. But the one thing that genuinely excites me is the rise of Egypt’s Mohamed Salah. For football’s sake, we need players like him from outside the traditional powers. Maybe a kid watching this time will grow up to be an Egypt fan. Just like Maradona made me an Argentina fan, all those years ago.
(One of India’s finest footballers and former captain, IM Vijayan spoke to Vishnu Prasad)