Some silly and not-so-silly things that the World Cup taught me

By Nivriti Butalia

1. Need to work on my geography

Before the World Cup, if you asked me what or who Curaçao was, I would have looked dazed and said… blue curacao used to be a ‘soft drink’ available in Barista, the coffee chain in India. Now, I’m all clever and know that they’re a… country, no, a ‘Dutch Caribbean island, known for its beaches tucked into coves and its expansive coral reefs rich with marine life’ (Thanks, Google!). Also, Curaçao placed 81 in the FIFA men’s rankings. UAE is 77. India is at 97. I know where both of those other countries are on the map. Ha. I also know that the c with the funny thing under it — ç— is called a cedilla. But that I knew before knowing how many countries were playing the World Cup or what their flag colours were, so it doesn’t really count. Oh yeah, flag colours. Ireland is like India, if you cock your head and skip the blue Ashoka Chakra. And… sigh, neither qualified.

2. It’s okay to lose sleep

Sleep is gold. I didn’t like losing gold, not for sport. But it became a pattern: being home, wrapped in a lightweight fleece blanket (to ward off a/c blast at 22 degrees), watching any number of matches, penalties till 1 am. Russia losing to Croatia on a Sunday night, July 7 (that slipped into Monday morning), and England losing to Croatia on Wednesday night
(…Thursday morning), July 11, were instances of how, in the last couple of weeks, I have felt a mixture of delight and amusement that I (!), indifferent to cricket, was capable of losing sleep for a sport. It made me think, what else didn’t I know about myself? Football has the power to make you check your assumptions. Bring out the under-eye cream, those liniments that battle dark circles. And so what if you spend the next day infusing your fogged up brain with peppermint tea and mouthing frequent Amazonian yawns?

3. Football makes you forget

Even on weekends, there’s no forgetting chores lined up, waiting for you to bumble around to them. Every unkempt corner of the house is staring expectantly, like a patient Labrador, waiting for you to scritch his chin. No fire, but the milk is not bought. Towels are not hung out to dry. A too-bright lightbulb has not been replaced with a diffused, civilised one. But come 6pm and then 10 pm, those tasks fade away. Football makes you forget. It is an escape. Even your commonplace, existential thoughts — the ‘what am I doing with my life?’ worries — take a back seat when you turn up the volume and settle into the sofa. I get it now. Football is crack. The daily grind turns to ether when once that whistle is blown. How can you not be buoyed by an event that transports you to a communal bubble, where everyone else has also dimmed their concerns of ordering a bottle of full fat milk?

4. Sore behinds are tolerable

How many matches did you watch at a place with ambience, on picnic benches, those outdoorsy, cushion-less, wooden surfaces with deals on for food and drink? How many rounds of fries were consumed? How many bottles of, well, ginger ale, downed per match? Where were you when Pavard scored that near-freak goal against Argentina? Electric stuff, more so perhaps for a first-time watcher of matches. Thank you, I say, to the places that gave us the big screens, and a feeling of community with the mad, cheering crowds. But really, to all those ‘resto-pubs’ that didn’t have the common sense to elevate the screen so we could actually see the ball, I need to talk to you. Some of us want a refund. Although, if Croatia lifts the World Cup, we don’t need the refund. Cantankerousness dissolves in that sort of joy. See you Sunday, folks. May the best team… yea yea, all that. Go Croatia!

5. Coaches of the teams set the standard

The players are the easiest to favour and root for. The high performers, especially. The suave movers with their posh haircuts. You marvel at their stamina, their chasing of the ball. But don’t you also look forward to seeing the coaches? I love the coaches, their tension, their inability to sit still. Some remind me of glowering fathers pushing their sons (Russia’s stoic Stanislav Cherchesov). You forge an intangible equation with them — the shiny pates of the baldies, the ever-gesticulating screamers (Roberto Martínez; Belgium), the floppy haired panicker (Germany’s Joachim Low), Mr Waistcoat Guy, England’s Gareth Soutgate — LOVE that he was so classy in defeat. Shows character. Oh, and my favourite, the Croatian coach, Zlatko Dalić. I loved seeing his players affectionately pounce on him after their semifinal victory. He reminds me of Sanju’s dad. C’mon, don’t tell me you don’t see the resemblance to Sunil Dutt?

6. The connections you make are beautiful

The great thing about football is that you’re surrounded by fans in real time. If you don’t know something — Why the free kick? What did he do? What’s the deal with corners?? Is Pelé still alive? What’s Thierry Henry doing with Belgium? — you can turn to people in real time. People — friends, colleagues — those you haven’t had proper chats with in a while, but who you know to be sport fans, will explain patiently: this is that and that is this, these are the rules, this is what total football means, this is how a midfielder’s job is different from a striker’s… all of it helps build connections. Sure, you can search for it all online. But nothing like picking another brain, interjecting, oh, I see, and appreciating how much someone else knows, the years they must have spent nurturing and adding to their knowledge. Oh, and that warm shared feeling of victory when you root for the same team and it wins? See, you can’t high-five a search engine. It’s no fun. Unlike football.

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