Are you game to play ball, Latino-style? This year, the World Cup returns to South America, the continent where football frenzy first began (the first-ever World Cup kicked off in Uruguay in 1930). Since then, the quadrennial soccer carnival that is the FIFA World Cup has been held every four years, with two exceptions in 1942 and 1946 owing to the Second World War.
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In 2014, the hosts are five-time champions Brazil, home to the legendary Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, where the legend of Pelé and Ronaldinho took shape. Also, the Arena de Corinthians in São Paulo will host the opening match between Brazil and Croatia on June 12.
Over the next 31 days, when the tournament reaches its crescendo with the final at Rio's Maracanã on July 13, one tenth of the world's population will be watching it live. In 2010, a staggering 700 million people watched the Spain-Netherlands final on TV. This is a tenth of the estimated global population of 7 billion. Of these, 155 million (22 per cent) were from India itself, according to statistics provided by media research agency TAM India.
As a people, Indians go bananas over football every four years. We may be ranked a sorry 147 in the world, below even Kyrgyzstan. But that hasn't prevented many of us from getting a vicarious kick out of the exploits of global football icons. Scenes of football-crazed fans in Kerala painting their faces in the colours of Brazil or Argentina, and pada clashes in Kolkata about the superiority of a Roberto Carlos over David Beckham are common.
Novy Kapadia, author of the recently released Football Fanatic's Essential Guide (Hachette), says Indians identify with Brazilians for both cultural and sporting reasons. "Both Brazil and Argentina play skilful, individualistic football - with lots of short passes and flair - the style of football that Indians like to follow, especially in Bengal. And historically, the World Cup triumph of the 1958 Brazilian team was seen as the first by a coloured team."
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The tradition of supporting Brazil was strengthened by the romance surrounding Pelé and Garrincha, the boys from the slums of Rio who rose from poverty to become glamorous football superstars.
A big chunk of the popularity of football in the country, before the advent of the Internet, was fuelled by television. Although colour transmission began in India with the Asian Games in November 1982, the exploits of Italy's Paolo Rossi in the 1982 World Cup final in July, were viewed in black and white. In that sense, the 1986 Cup, best remembered as the year Diego Maradona held the world by the scruff of its neck, was the first that Indians saw in entirety and in all its colourful pageantry. So, when Maradona was outfoxing defenders and sparking off the Hand of God controversy against England, Indian fans, used to seeing club sides in Kolkata slog it out against mediocre teams, were beginning their love affair with televised world class football.
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Today, the popularity of football in India is not limited to cheering for Brazil and Argentina in the World Cup. But it is still mostly TV-led. The desi football fanatics have shifted allegiances to cheering for their favourite strikers, mid fielders and defenders in the popular English Premier League (EPL), Germany's Bundesliga, Italy's Serie A, the French Ligue 1 and Spain's La Liga.
The popularity of the EPL has brought in new fans for the English team, particularly in a country where a predominantly young television audience is a few generations removed from India's Independence struggle, says Novy Kapadia. And then, there are other emotional reasons to back certain teams. "Bayern Munich toured India to play Bhaichung Bhutia's farewell match. So, there is an attraction towards Germany."
Footballing rock stars such as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have acquired legions of fans across geographies and demographics. This World Cup, many an Indian youngster will cheer for the countries that they represent. "I love the way Ronaldo plays. I'll be a Portugal fan for this World Cup," says Arijit Roy, 16, a student of Delhi Public School, Rohini, Delhi. Roy, who has encyclopaedic knowledge of the game, worships the Portuguese striker for his ball-sense and has even modelled his game and looks on Ronaldo, down to the gelled hair!
A few kilometres down Delhi's Outer Ring Road, Messi finds a robust support base among the slum kids of Camp Number 4, Vikas Puri. Mohammed Tanzeer, 16, a ragpicker in a previous life, now talks animatedly about the clean toilets and "hotel-like" showers at the Liverpool International Football Academy in Pune, where he is learning the finer nuances of the game.
"Till about five years ago, high on dope, Tanjeer used to sit inside dustbins on the sides of streets, hiding from the rest of the world," says Sylvester Peter, 40, coach and patron of the My Angels Academy, who teaches football and life skills to 120 slum kids, including 20 girls, in the West Delhi neighbourhood. "But after being shortlisted by football scouts from England, he is looking forward to realise his sporting dreams. Who knows, he may actually be selected to play in an English side one day."
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Tanjeer, whose mother does cleaning jobs in affluent households nearby and whose father works as a mason, says he finds real-life inspiration from Messi, the midfield maestro from the slums of Santa Fe.
If Messi's popularity is winning Argentina support in Vikas Puri, teenage footballers at Gurgaon's Open Field Soccer Programme are cheering for Portugal, with its array of brilliant stars such Ronaldo and Fábio Coentrão. "Many of them are school dropouts from the economically weaker sections of society. But most of them have bought into the marketing dream peddled in the form of fancy soccer shoes and Barcelona jerseys sold by big brands," says their mentor, 37-year-old Shivajee Ashim Das. "When they play football, negative thoughts stay away from their mind. Many even get college admissions on a sports quota."
Realising the enthusiasm for the sport among Indian teenagers, Europe's biggest clubs have set up training schools in the country with Indian partners. Liverpool FC has set up a residential football coaching academy to develop players up to age 18 and the Arsenal Football Club has opened Arsenal Soccer Schools across the country. Says Vivek Sethia, founder and CEO, India On Track-Arsenal Soccer Schools, "We've partnered with Arsenal FC to bring the best possible grassroots training to children. It is executed through a team of Arsenal coaches. Each centre is headed by a foreign coach."
Bend It Like Jharkhand
Thousands of kilometres away from the national capital region, on a small dusty village ground near Ranchi, a group of adivasi girl footballers is trying out yellow and green jerseys as they prepare to cheer for the samba brand of soccer that Brazil plays. The girls from Jharkhand, part of American coach Frank Gastler's YUWA movement, astonished football pundits last year when they participated in the Gasteiz Cup in Spain. "A lot of Brazilian players have grown up playing barefoot pickup games on dirt pitches and in narrow alleys like the YUWA girls. So, they have something in common," says Gastler in an e-mail interview.
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Outside the World Cup, the team that they identify with most is the Japanese women's football team. "They are the muse for the girls since the Japanese are small, quick and fearless. And they beat bigger, faster, stronger teams on a regular basis," adds Gastler.
The YUWA girls can't wait to watch the upcoming $10 billion football extravaganza. And neither can most Indian fans!
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From HT Brunch, June 8
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