An inveterate Brazil fan (of course not to the extent that I would have a heart attack and die if my team lost) my loyalties (at least for this year) started shifting midway during the Brazil-France match. And this transformation was brought about by the sensational soccer skills of one of the greatest players of his times— Zidane. As one gaped in awe at his awesome ball control and situational awareness (witness the way he pinpointed the looping ball onto Henry’s foot) one became aware of how, football, the team game that it is, still depends so critically on the spark provided by a single individual—a fact brought out most acutely by Brazil’s inability to find that “one” with Ronalidinho looking off-color and Ronaldo, the angry, overweight humpty dumpty, trying to dive the moment the ball reached his feet.
I am not a football connoisseur. I have never been able to grasp the subtle strategic nuances of the game, nor appreciate the geniuses of coaches. In order for me to get into a game, I need a few things: sparkling dribbling, ground passes, high drama and most importantly the presence of a character or two in the ranks. This possibly explains my aversion for Germany (traditionally a great “team” that plays a regimented style of Spartan soccer—-of course they have changed their style this World Cup), Ireland, Belgium and a whole lot of European sides whose teams almost wholly consist of efficient, characterless assembly-line players depending on aerial balls and headers to score goals.
Blame this on the way I was initiated into soccer—my first idol was the greatest dribbler, mid-field general and larger-than-life character of the modern football game: the indubitablly God-like Maradonna. There has never been one player who has dominated a tournament so much as Maradonna did the 1986 World Cup. This man was everywhere, defending behind Neri Pompido (the Argentine keeper), splitting defences with his precise through-balls to the feet of Burruchaga and Valdano and then, sometimes, just to show that he was the greatest, running through defences like an unstoppable juggernaut, caring little for the expectant Argentine forwards.
My abiding memories of him would be his inspired run through the legendary Belgium defence—dribbling like a maniac, the Belgians tripping and shoving and Maradonna maintaining his balance all through (the man could not usually be brought down unless he wanted to), his drawing three Brazilan defenders away and giving Claudio Cannigia a pass in front of goal (this was in the 1990 World Cup where Brazil dominated the match throughout but were undone by this bit of magic at the very end) and of course his Hand of God goal and the blitzkrieging run through the English defence that followed “that” goal. Not only his football but everything about this man was dramatic: his hand and facial gestures at the referee, his exaggerated “dives”—something he did with greater frequency as he got older and his out-of-control off-field activities (drugs and mafia connections).
But transcending all the drama and all the hype was his scorching genius: when he stepped onto the field, there was him and then there were 21 others.
Another of my favourite characters was Cameroon’s Roger Milla. Now Roger Milla was no Maradonna—-not by a long shot. But he brought to the field a kind of infectious joyousness—in sharp contrast to the grim countenances of his opposition. And that dance at the corner flag was the stuff of legend.
Brought out of retirement by Cameroon’s qualification for the World Cup in 1990 and brought on as a late substitute, Roger Milla would almost invariably score himself bringing an almost languid relaxation to the game. My abiding image of him would be the cheekiest goal of all-time when he got the ball from under the feet of Colombia’s showboating goalie Higuita and put the ball in the net, with a smile on his face throughout.
Which reminds me of my favourite team from the 90s—the Colombians. Now they never scored many goals (their finishing was atrocious) and lost most of their matches. But when they played, it was poetry. Carlos Valderama, with his leonine mane of hair would be the commander who, together with Rincon and Asprilla, would pass the ball in pretty triangles—making the opposition dance to the Colombian tune. Passing balls between the legs of defenders, wrong-footing one or two opponents at a time: they seemed to be more intent in embarrassing the other side and making themselves look good, rather than scoring or winning.
I loved it. Just like I loved those moments of individual brilliance—Saeed Owairan’s run through the entire Belgian team, Michael Owen’s dream goal against Argentina being two that come first to mind. And those moments of drama: Zico and Platini missing their penalties in the 1986 Brazil vs France game, the great Peter Shilton’s anguished face as he makes a mistake of stepping out of the goal and a loping ball goes over his head into the back of the net……..the more I think of it, the more I realize that there are just way too many to do justice in a blog post.
And as another Word Cup passes (or shall soon pass), and scores and records are forgotten, many more such glorious moments are added to the memory stack—Rooney’s moment of petulant rage, the 24-pass goal, Hislop’s heroics, McBride’s stoic expression betraying no pain as blood covers his face, and Zidane’s magic, like the last flickerings of a dying conflagaration, lifting his team to the heights of glory.
This indeed is a game worth dying for.