If I look at it dispassionately, 1986 wasn’t a good year. I was still in high school, not junior enough to remain oblivious each time a girl from another school sat next to me in the pool bus, not senior enough to do anything about it. Sri Devi was the reigning queen in the movies, and Khopri, the neighbourhood drunk in the weekly TV series Nukkad, was a secret role model.
I used to play unashamedly bad football. My scrapbooks were filled with pictures of Shivaji Banerjee (the Mohun Bagan goalie who lived near our house), Bidesh Bose, my hero Shyam Thapa, and even had photos of East Bengal players like the Iranians Jamshed Nassiri and Majid Bakshar. I had glossy posters of the Holy Trinity on the wall — Pele, Bruce Lee and Kapil Dev.
But I had started impressing people already with my talent for being an exceptional spectator. The five or six times I went to the Mohun Bagan grounds, I couldn’t sleep for a week before a match and a week after. The rituals of football-worship were important to me: watching matches on television with the sound off and listening to the much more detailed commentary on radio. “Mihir to Bidesh, Bidesh to Mihir, Mihir to Bidesh, he takes a shot...” with the radio commentator’s voice rising by an octave with each successful pass, and then deadpanning to a punctured halt, “No. It’s a goal kick.” I would rub the stitches on the football with vaseline (for lubricated protection against wear and tear); I would wear a new pair of boots to bed — even though we played mostly on the street rather than on a field, making keds, not studded boots, de rigeur footwear. (Twenty-four years later, I slept wearing a brand new, ‘original’ Argentina team shirt to bed after Saturday’s Argentina-Nigeria match.)
Then came the summer of 1986 and the Sunday night of June 22. I still remember the giant cross-like shadow falling on the pitch of the Aztec Stadium in Mexico City. Even through the unnatural blueness of it all (thanks to the plastic filter covering the black and white TV screen to ‘protect eyes from the glare’), I could make out the bright, bouncy Mexican midday sunlight The English commentator tried to remain as unbiased as Englishly possible in that quarter-final match between England and Argentina.
Ten minutes into the second half of the match, with Argentina one goal up thanks to the impish, middle-finger-flashing ‘Hand of God’ goal, I witnessed a stock, short man wearing the No. 10 Argentine shirt (whose photo I had first seen on the cover of the Wills Book of Excellence: Football, bought a few months before) receive the ball from Hector Enrique inside the Argentine half and start running like a projectile. From my sofa it seemed that England’s Peter Beardsley and Peter Reid had pincered the ball away from him. But it turned out that Diego Maradona had pirouetted three-quarters of a circle with the ball glued to his foot and bolted down the right wing as if the rest of the players on the field were underwater.
Dodging past two more terror-struck England gents, Kenny Sansom and Terry Butcher, then clipping past the final defender Terry Fenwick, he tapped the ball past goalkeeper Peter Shilton into the net before being brought down by Butcher.
It was like watching the first nuclear explosion in New Mexico choreographed by Rudolf Nureyev. That late smarmy night in a living room in 1986 Calcutta, liberalisation came to me some five years before the likes of Manmohan Singh brought it in for the rest of India.
As for people embarrassed about why India, with its population of a zillion people, can’t produce 11 people from the kitbag who can play World Cup-level football, I say this: why should we? Does one have to make top-class biryani to enjoy top-class biryani? We don’t have to paint like Leonardo to appreciate the Mona Lisa. With World Cup football, too, we have mastered outsourcing our entertainment. So like a good zamindar, let’s just spend the next month watching the Beautiful Game as discovered by me in 1986. Bring on the dancing boys!