My love for the sport can be traced back to 1986. May be 1982, but the memories are so vague from 1982 that I can’t really qualify that world cup as my first real interest in the sport. But the 1986 world cup was special. And so was 1990. But 1986 was like first love. Both the 1986 (Host-Mexico) and the 1990 (Host-Italy) world cup tournaments are so strongly etched in my memory. I am not the kind who can belt out statistics just because I remember watching a particular game or a match. So when I say strong memory, I just remember the impact those specific tournaments had on me.
And like for most, especially those who grew up in India then, football (a sport revered enough to be considered play-worthy in only two states known for high literacy rates back then, but nevertheless watched and taught in school PEd classes), especially the world cup of 1986, is remembered even today for two reasons: 1) Diego Maradona and 2) Diego Maradona.
Doesn’t it make sense? It won’t unless you lived through that tournament. The now famous hand-of-god goal notwithstanding, Maradona was Argentina and Argentina was Maradona. And when they eventually won the world cup in 1986, there were virtually street celebrations in many parts of India, including my home town of Tirunelveli. I, as a young teenager, was happier than anyone else around me watching the final match against West Germany (yes, the wall was still in tact). I cheered for Maradona right through the tournament. He caught the whole nation’s imagination somehow. Pele, another giant figure well respected among the football circles in India, belonged to a pre-television era in India and hence didn’t strike the emotional chord as much as Maradona did. So as much Linekar may have had the best world cup in 1986 and England may have lost their semi-final match to Argentina through a contentious goal, what mattered to me then was Argentina winning the world cup and seeing Maradona hold the cup. When all of that materialized right in front of my eyes (on TV), I couldn’t argue much with anyone who claimed that some other team was better than Argentina in that tournament. I just couldn’t. There were thousands like me in the country cheering for Maradona, almost as if he was their own.
1990. Argentina had already made a mark on me. So, naturally, I had Argentina on my sleeve for this world cup. Maradona was still around and he was the captain. Looking back, I feel the whole country woke up to Argentina (thanks to Maradona) in some way in 1986 and to this day, I can’t quite understand how. The whole country fell in love with Argentina, just like that. Although Argentina didn’t win the title in 1990 and W Germany did, the love for Argentina in India continued to spread and it continues to do so exquisitely till today. It is a fascinating phenomenon and it would be a great psychological project for experts out there to explore this affection that India developed towards Argentinian football team.
I have continued to follow the subsequent world cups but not with the same passion – at least not until 2002 again. Because that’s when I once again got to be in a place with a group of people during world cup, who enjoyed the sport and cared for the world cup. The Brazilian team of 2002 which eventually won the championship had super stars. I mean it. Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and Cafu, to name a few. Wow, what a champion team they had in 2002! When the tournament eventually got over, and Brazil won the world cup just like many had predicted, the celebrations I witnessed were unmatched to what I witnessed in 1986. For one, I was living in the USA already then, and the country had (still has) not warmed up to the sport yet. It would be another great psychological experiment for experts out there to explore this sort of snobbish treatment this sport gets in the USA. (This could be a separate topic for another blog post).
2014…And here we are, towards the business end of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, Brazil. My favorite team is most definitely the USA in 2014 and yes, my emotions towards the sport and the teams have definitely matured/changed over the years. As I type this blog post, the US MNT lost their pre-quarter match to Belgium and needless to say, I am disappointed and heart-broken. But they played well and lost to a better team, Belgium. Brazil, being the host still is one of the favorites…And Messi, has been given the unique opportunity to do what Maradona did in 1986. Messi is a fine football player and once he gains control of his bearings in a match, then it’s normally a one-sided match. I don’t live in India anymore but am receiving/will continue to receive updates from India frequently from friends who follow the sport. And I know for a fact that Messi is the biggest name that people in India associate football with.
28 years later…
Many things seem to have changed in India. But not the love for world cup football. Not the love for those men in blue & white uniform. Most certainly not the adulation and adoration for Maradona. The Indian football audience in 2014 is exposed to much more football, than the audience of 1986. They follow club football (which is something, I have not gotten into) & they are passionate about UEFA tournaments. So I am not sure if Messi in 2014 can drive the emotions so deep like how Maradona did in 1986. And according to some online merchandise stats, it is clear Argentinian football team merchandise sold more than Brazilian ones. Marginally more, but the love for this South American country’s football remains more or less in tact.
And I continue to wonder…..what was so special about 1986 that it changed it all for the Indian football fans?
Edited on July 18, 2014:
Friends from India forwarded me many pictures and this one in particular shows how much Messi is part of India and how much Indians consider him their own.