The great World Cup Football jamboree is on and for the next one month the attention of sports lovers world over would be focused on the television sets, closely following the happenings in soccer stadia in Russia.
Football is, without doubt, the most popular sport in the world, loved and watched by millions of people. Even people who have never played the game nor followed it closely tend to get hooked up once they spend some time watching the matches. The sublime skills of the players, their pleaded athleticism and remarkable physical fitness, the patterns they weave around their opponents, the power behind the kicks they unleash, the acrobatic saves by goal keepers and the edge-of-the-seat entertainment throughout the duration of the game makes this sport more appealing and entertaining than others. Further, there are no complicated rules nor much scope for interpretation of laws; everything is so simple that it can be understood easily by even the uninitiated. It is this combination of simplicity, excitement and aesthetic appeal that makes football such a beautiful game.
When it comes to football and in particular World Cup fever, my home state of Kerala would be second to none. The whole state is festooned with cutouts, banners and posters put up by fans supporting their favourite teams. Facilities have been created in every village and town for watching the matches live on big screen where people can come and enjoy the action in the company of their friends. Fans flock to these centres wearing T-shirts matching jersey of their favourite sides. Discussion about the game have the propensity to turn into long and heated debates, though mercifully, there have not yet been any instances of violence on this score. Football madness grips the state to such an extent that even the impact caused by monsoon rain get relegated to the background. In one extreme case it was found that jack fruits were painted with jersey colour of the side supported by the owner of the tree!
It's Brazil vs Argentina
However, one aspect that is evident straightaway is that followers of the game are divided in their loyalty between Brazil and Argentina, with very few supporters for other sides. One hardly finds any fans associations vouching support to Germany, the reigning champion. Even Spain, whose brand of football has many admirers, finds few backers within the state. If one travels through the state it might appear that there is a straight fight between the two top Latin American sides for winning the title and other teams exist only to fill in the numbers! It is not the case that football fans of the state are uninformed about the strengths and weaknesses of individual sides as they are amongst the most well read on the subject. Hence, it would be interesting to analyse the reasons for the fan following that Brazil and Argentina command in this state.
Television came to Kerala in 1982, around the time that Asian Games was organised in Delhi. The first FIFA World Cup that fans from the state followed live on television was the one held at Mexico in 1986. Brazil, led by Socrates and having in their ranks such legends as Zico, Falcao, Junior and Josimar was the most popular side in that championship. They played an attacking brand of soccer weaving magic with the ball that left the viewers enthralled. There was a joy in their stride and the moves appeared as if they came straight out of their hearts. Such was the sorcery demonstrated by this incredible bunch of footballers that anyone who had watched the side in action would have been hooked on to the game for life. There would not have been a pair of dry eyes amongst those who watched them make a sad exit in the last-eight stage of the tournament, after losing to France in a penalty shootout.
It was during the 1986 FIFA World Cup that a new star conquered the heart of football lovers. Diego Maradona had made his debut for Argentina during the 1982 World Cup but did little of note during that championship. He was hailed by the Argentine press as the successor of Pele and there was a huge pressure on him when he took the field in 1986. In the quarterfinal match against England, he collected the ball from his half of the field and dribbled through a distance of close to 60 metres, past five English players, to score a superb goal. As if to tell the viewers that this was not a one-off performance, he repeated this feat during the semifinal match against Belgium! These two goals elevated him to the status of being the best contemporary footballer in the world. The goal against England was subsequently voted as the 'Goal of the Century' by FIFA after an online poll in 2002. There was no stopping Argentina after such stellar performances by their top player and they won the title defeating Germany in the finals.
Brazil disappointed during the 1990 World Cup but Argentina reached the finals before losing to Germany. Maradona was again the star performer and one was left astounded by his ability to collect the ball and manipulate it, despite being tightly marked, and pass it on to other better-placed players for scoring goals. Though short in stature, he never let that affect him as his legendary dribbling skills, exceptional ball sense and accurate passes, including the reverse cross pass, that made him the most dangerous opponent on the football field. He was also a player with a sense of mischief and cunning, who could throw the opposition off his trail by simple manoeuvres, which helped him to ward off the intense tackling by defenders that he had to suffer every time he wore his football boots.
Argentina could not do much in 1994 despite the presence of Maradona but Brazil staged a welcome return to form, winning the championship after defeating Italy in a penalty shootout. The stars for Brazil this time around were Romario, Branco and Bebeto. However, those who had seen the 1986 side in action would shake their heads ruefully and say that though the squad of 1994 was good and they won the Cup, they were not a patch on Socrates and his boys! Brazil reached the finals in 1998 also but was routed 0-3 by France, the host nation. French side was powered by a new genius in their ranks named Zinedine Zidane, who appeared to be a worthy successor to Maradona.
Brazil staged a grand comeback during the 2002 World Cup, winning the championship in style defeating Germany 2-0. The top performers for the side this time around were Ronaldo and Ronaldinho, who combined well to create openings for each other at the goal mouth. Their performances brought back memories of the golden boys of 1986, but this time the side was more circumspect, eschewing the strategy of all-out attack and laying more emphasis on defence.
Messi: The legend
Neither Brazil nor Argentina have won the championship since 2002 as European sides Italy, Spain and Germany lifted the trophy in succession. However, these editions saw the emergence of a new legend in the form of Lionel Messi of Argentina, who made his debut in 2006. He has carried Argentina side on his shoulders during the 2010 and 2014 World Cups and narrowly missed winning the last edition where his side lost to Germany 0-1 in the finals. Though he announced his retirement from national squad after the loss to Chile in the Copa America finals in 2016, he was forced to make a comeback as he was flooded with requests, from almost everyone in Argentina, including the president of the country!
The year 2018 would be, in all probability, his last chance to lift the coveted trophy.
As a footballer Messi brings back memories of Maradona as he possesses similar skills in dribbling and accurate passes. Where he lacks in ball sense and cunning, he makes up with better finishing and his free kick is feared by opponents both for its strength and speed as well as for its accuracy. He is also incredibly fast on the field, which helps him to cut through defences with the ball at his feet. The reason for his moderate success levels is on account of lack of enough support that Maradona could get from his colleagues in the matter of converting opportunities at the goalmouth into goals.
Brazil remains a favourite to lift the Cup this time around also. Their strength lies in their attack which comprises of Neymar, Philippe Coutinho and Gabriel Jesus. Their efforts are reminiscent of the combination between Ronaldo and Ronaldinho which helped them win the trophy in 2002. However, it remains to be seen whether they can repeat the magic and regain the title for this eternal favourite and five-time champion.
This brings us the question as to why fans from Kerala favour these two sides to the exclusion of all other teams taking part in the championship. I would say it is not only because of the quality of football played but the manner and spirit with which it is played. For the soccer-loving Malayali, who was initiated into the love of the game by the skills of Maradona, Zico and Socrates, football is not merely a game, it is a form of sublime art that brings unbounded joy and jubilation, which is played more with the heart than with the mind and is the ultimate expression of elegance on a sporting field. Though there have been some occasional exceptions such as Zidane and Cristiano Ronaldo, European sides have not displayed, in the long run, the flair and panache that one associates with these two giants from Latin America, who alone have been able to meet the high expectations of the football lovers of Kerala. Hence, irrespective of who wins the championship, fans from Kerala would continue to support these sides who elevate football from a mere sporting event to a glorious spectacle.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)
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