In Bastar’s remotest tribal terrain, where India fights one of its bloodiest wars against Maoists, a football drops with more impact than a grenade. Anti-insurgency forces say that a football lobbed at a gaggle of village children brings out a rarity in a place so hostile to the troops: Smiles. The joy the round, leather plaything unleashes leads to familiarity, maybe fondness, and further to trust.
Football, unquestionably the most popular game on the planet (Fifa has more member countries than the UN), becomes especially potent in conflict zones, in places torn by poverty and violence. It is often the last link with the outside world and sanity. For children growing up in a Syrian refugee camp, or young men in a bombed-to-the-bones Afghan town, it is the scherzo to light up an otherwise dark symphony.
In Kashmir, an Argentinian named Juan Marcos Troia and his Brazilian wife, Priscila, trained young men for years since 2002, helping local talent make it to the national scene, often persuading the police to release arrested stone-throwers so they could play the next match, dream beyond their dispiriting intifada.
It is precisely this link to sanity terrorists have sought to snap worldwide with repeated attacks in West Asia and Africa before and during this World Cup.
At least 21 were killed by a car bomb near a Cup-screening venue in Nigeria’s Damaturu. Boko Haram militants had planted the bomb in a motorised rickshaw. This was followed by a June 1 stadium bombing that killed 40. The Nigerian police promptly advised fans to stay at home and watch the matches — the first step towards a football Emergency.
Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau views the game as a western perversion. He believes it takes the devout away from the religion. He has curiously never cited an Islamic text to back his homilies. But trust the new, innovatively brutal ISIS to serve up their hatred of infidels and football with relish. “This is our football, it’s made of skin #World Cup,” it tweeted along with a beheading video of an Iraqi policeman. The group has slaughtered more than 2,000 (and counting) Iraqi Shias, videotaping themselves kicking around the heads of some of the victims. ISIS had reportedly raided Syria’s cafeterias on the first day of the World Cup and forced people to go and pray.
But such is the bewitching pull of the game that a few young opposition activists in Raqa province defied the ISIS diktat and surreptitiously watched the Netherlands-Spain match huddled at home. Worried that they would be raided, the young fans didn’t allow a sound to escape their lips when goals were scored.
In Kashmir, Marcos’ growing popularity among the young had made hardliners nervous. Some accused him of being an agent of the Church. The couple received threats. They left Kashmir a few months ago, but not before sowing among a whole generation in the Valley seeds of the Beautiful Game.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban chose a football stadium to shoot lovers in the head. In many of those stadia, football is back. Afghanistan now has the full-fledged Roshan Afghan Football League, which holds school clinics where headscarved little girls kick the ball around along with the boys.
No other sport binds so many people speaking different languages, living under so many different political systems. Movies have been made — one recalls Cup Final, a 1991 Hebrew film on an Israeli hostage and his Palestinian captors bonding over Italy’s World Cup matches.
India has all the reasons to encourage more children to play it, to coach them, and to introduce them to the silent language the world understands.