I love my football. Always have and probably will for the rest of my life. I am of an age where I can remember God-like Sócrates on a gritty black-and-white TV in the early ’80s, waking up at an ungodly hour to see one south American team get hammered, a goal thunked in when there were five defenders and the goalkeeper under the poles. Yet, the ball swished past.
Then there was the Hand of God which brought down Diego Maradona from that status down to dirt for me. Who can forget Zinedine Zidane’s head butting which cost a nation a world cup or the warm smile of unity that Nelson Mandela brought to South Africa in 2010.
If you have children, all the more reason for them to step out and feel the sun on their faces, the sweat and the grime of a game well played! As a mother and a woman it is your job to show them how sports has changed the world.
An then there was Pele. Photo: Reuters
I have seen Pele play, the likes of whom has not been seen after in the history of football. There are other greats: Figo the fantastic, Platini before the bureaucratic bungles and Mathias the rippling tornado, the Brazilian Ronaldo, Baggio, whose football shirt Madonna lusted after.
Each brought such excellence and poise that calling football a beautiful game was just an understatement.
Some years ago, we in India became the recipients of all sports cable channels and it was like ascending to football heaven. Women like me who had only heard of club names, though I was always partial to the Italian ones like Juventus and AC Milan, were brought into sheer closeness with those across the German, Iberian and English leagues.
We chose our clubs carefully, since there was no geographical reason or logic available to us.
2006 World cup final: With a swift headbutt, France's Zinedine Zidane gives it off to Italy's Marco Materazzi. Photo: Reuters
Like lemmings, I went with the crowd chanting for Man U since it has been the best known club for years. That it was being helmed by a legendary coach Alex Ferguson, the hard taskmaster, the frugal Scot who had an eye for talent and excellence was another reason. He was the one who brought in Beckham before he could really bend it, and then bent him to do as footballers are supposed to.
But it was the game that mattered most and my club choice came on the back of a great game in 2005 in Istanbul when Liverpool met AC Milan in the finals. At half time, Liverpool was down 0-3. It was looking like a comprehensive defeat. Pre-match coverage from the Turkish city had shown an overwhelming support for the Italian club. It seemed a done deal at the end of 45 minutes.
Then came some of the finest football I had seen. The captain Stephan Gerrard led from the front, snatching the formidable lead and finishing 3-3 at the end of normal play. They went on to win on penalties. Such excitement, goosepimples, the game was the turn on, not the men featuring in it. This is how I chose my club and like all followers, I have stayed true despite their fluctuating fortunes.
This year too, they went on to play in the Champions League final, where a certain Ronaldo put paid to their dreams of winning. He is perhaps the best known player in the world today and we committed followers agree fully that we are fortunate to live in a time where both Ronaldo and Messi dazzle us with their brilliance.
Lionel Messi loses face - and penalty. Photo: Reuters
Ronaldo scores a hat-trick. Photo: FIFA
However, that my fancy for football is not about hunky men can be drawn from the fact that unlike most of the world, I am not a big Ronaldo fan. He is far too smug, bordering on narcissistic. His hairstyle makes more news and that is not what a footballer should ever be known for.
He is, of course, fit, but often there seems to be a dichotomy between who he saw himself as and what we see on the turf.
Then came the World Cup 2018 match between Spain and Portugal. Ronaldo scored a hat-trick! That third goal was sheer genius. No one who follows football will ever disagree. I think that goal off the free kick, which swerved past the opponents as they leapt into the air, curved ever so slightly, out of the reach of the outstretched fingers of the goalkeeper and landed squarely into the net, just inches from the top right corner of the goal, will be talked about for a very, very long time.
Even I, who thought of him as more style than substance despite his massive global following, had to concede that it was par excellence.
Football has these God questions. Who is the greatest, we ask. Pele will be there in golden letters till the end of time. Then there are Messi and Ronaldo. That a man of Messi’s calibre could miss a penalty the very next day, probably settled the God question in the minds of many. If you are a world class player, you have to mentally and physically deliver at the most crucial moment. Ronaldo did and Messi didn’t. There is no place for failure in the game at this level.
Russia's Denis Cheryshev and Egypt's Ahmed Fathy wrestle over the ball. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez
There is not going to be a second chance and no one forgives a failure. So Messi may be more humane, humble and yes, brilliant, but he couldn’t cut the mustard to take his team past the tape. That is the reason why the game of football has to be seen in its entirety, a collective effort of 11 men who give their best and not through the celebrity of one man. Yet, often that is the charisma, class and aptitude needed for that much-needed win. I can still remember matches from 20 years ago and the terrible coverage we used to get.
I invested in a flat screen TV just so that I could hear the “thud” of the ball as it meets the feet of the players running at 50 miles an hour, the tuft of grass that flies on impact and the net it hits, with the ripple of delirious fans just behind the goal posts as they rise in one delighted crescendo. These are three weeks of pure pleasure. I get the same joy from watching Senegal thrashing their opposing team or Japan being the first Asian team ever to beat a Latin American one, who have football in their blood since the day they are born.
The game is indeed a beautiful one and there are billions of us women who follow it ardently. The phrase “football widow” is so outdated that it borders on being offensive! Football games of this calibre are perhaps the best “reality shows” you can ever watch where no outcome can be easily predicted, except perhaps that of Saudi Arabia playing Russia, but even the mauling they got was not expected.
Get in there girls, watch the pirouettes, the challenges, the speed of the breakout, the sheer spark of genius. You will be a convert for life! And your heartbeat will never be the same.