Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Beautiful Game

Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I don't like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that.
Bill Shankly, in Sunday Times (UK) October 4, 1981
This has always been my favourite quote. I remember my first football match. Actually, my oldest memories of football involve my father and his friend staying up late to watch the 1986 World Cup on our black and white television, while my mother glared at them from the darkness of my bedroom, where she was trying to make me go to sleep. And every time I showed signs of giving in, the two men would holler or whine from the room next door.

My first football match is from 1994. This was my own match, the one that made me fall in love with football. A golden-haired man grinned and practically flew across the stadium in his trademark aeroplane gesture, while the crowd chanted "Batigol, Bati-go-o-o-o-o-ol, Batigol, Batigol, Batigol!" The man was Gabriel Batistuta. The match was Argentina vs. Greece. Of all venues, it was the United States. But the sky blue and white in the crowd could have made you believe it was Argentina..

Fourteen years down the line, I actually forgot the name 'Davor Suker' when I was discussing Croatia's performance in the 1998 World Cup with a colleague. And then I realised I had hardly watched a football match properly in the past couple of years. And now, trying to make up for last time, I find most of the names on my favourite jerseys are unrecognisable. And some of the names I associated with particular jerseys have now changed them for more lucrative ones.

I feel a sudden sense of nostalgia for the tears on Batigol's face when he scored a goal against Fiorentina for Roma...the club he had pulled from Serie B to Serie A, the club which had erected a bronze statue for him...and the club he was now the enemy of. Then, of course, there was Figo, who was welcomed with brickbats, bottles and even a mobile phone when he made the blasphemous switch from Barcelona to Real Madrid. And then there's Beckham, whose own Mistress of Spices moved him from England to Spain to, thankfully, Hollywood.

In this context, there are very few things more heartwarming than someone like Ryan Giggs, who has never left his team. Then there was the ever-smiling goal-scoring defender Fernando Hierro, who stuck by his side, until they dropped him like a hot potato after a flurry of signings that destroyed the team. The lineup of Raul, Morientes, Zidane, Figo, Helguera, Carlos, Solari, Hierro, Casillas and the other faces that WERE the Real Madrid of the millennium had given way to shiny products like Ronaldo and Beckham, and all of a sudden, surprise, surprise, the club wasn't doing so well. The Raul-Morientes partnership was broken, and Jorge Valdano saw fit to blame all his mistakes on Hierro and Del Bosque. So Hierro was sent away unceremoniously, first to Qatar and then to Bolton. In a context like that, when you serve a club for over a decade only to leave that way, why would you not switch?

The beautiful game has now turned into an auction...where the poetry of football is likely to blend into the machismo of rugby, where the leagues with their characteristics tend to blend into a melting pot, where the defending prowess of Italian clubs, the rhythm of Spanish clubs, the determination of German clubs, the hooliganism of British clubs will all tumble into each other. Thank God for places like Argentina, which can't seem to afford to import diluting elements into the juego bonito played at Boca Juniors and River Plate.

As an aside, though...I can't recall a single world cup which didn't end in tears for me. Why would people get addicted to a game where heartbreak is always round the corner? Maybe because between the heartbreaks, the elation, the ecstasy of being part of a collective conscious rooting for your team is so divine...so filled with pure, unadulterated passion. The beautiful game...yes, Mr. Shankly, it does transcend life and death!

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