One of the luxuries of being a football spectator in a country that can’t play the sport is that you get to pick and choose the side you’ll cheer for each time. None of the heartbreak and self-loathing that accompany, say, an India defeat on the cricket field or the days of post-defeat depression that follow your club side being nastied by another side — especially if it’s a side that you despise.
During the just wrapped-up Euros, I had outsourced my heart to Spain (Olé!) but with my fatty cardiac muscle swaying towards and away from Germany (Scheiße!) throughout the 23-day tournament.
My choice of Spain during the Euros was based on the simple fact that like many other non-Spaniards without any cord of national loyalty tied to our waists, I have loved watching the likes of Iniesta, Xavi and the rest of the Red Gang play their brand of stretched-out foreplay. And when, as was the case on Sunday night in Kiev where the usual tiki taka passing-the-pillow was supplemented by long ti-i-i-i-ki ta-a-a-a-ka 20-yard one-touch passes resulting in the 4-0 goring of an uncharacteristically defenceless Italy, the reason for my faith in Spain was made amply plain. I was like the alien telling his sceptical fellow beings that Earthlings, despite their capacity to destroy their world and their inexplicable fondness for Justin Bieber, were also capable of immense acts of kindness and beauty.
But that’s all very fine when you have your horse in the race. What happens when you don’t have your thoroughbred in the race? For objective football spectators without any country or club to firmly back come hail, come shine, the usual route to take is to support the underdog. The term underdog comes from the PETA-unfriendly blood-sport of bear-baiting in which a well-trained dog attacks a bear’s throat and head while another dog is trained to attack the bear’s bottom half. The chance of the ‘top-dog’ surviving and killing the bear is overwhelmingly higher than that of the ‘underdog’.
Psychologically, the ‘unbiased’ spectator’s support for the underdog is understandable. To witness David hammering Goliath, or unfancied Greece trampling on the Cristiano Ronaldo-fuelled Portugal in the 2004 Euro final to become surprise champions, or Anna Hazare making the Government of India gulp, are spectacles as precious in their ‘unnaturalness’ as watching a skinny girl pinning down a muscle-man’s arm in an arm wrestling contest.
But how does one identify an underdog? In most cases, of course, it’s easy. When Bangladesh beat India in March this year in the Asia Cup cricket tournament, it was an upset. When Vietnam and Afghanistan scuppered the plans of the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, we knew who the underdogs were even while whistling under a non-aligned sky.
But what about in situations where two topdogs meet, or two underdogs flail about? The 2010 World Cup tie in which Argentina was trashed by Germany 0-4 wasn’t a topdog-underdog affair. It was a contest between two monsters of the game. The non-rivetting Cricket World Cup match between Ireland and Bangladesh doesn’t give you — if you’re neither Irish nor Bangladeshi — much of a real choice.
So who were the underdogs on Sunday night? To most folks, it was Italy, I suppose, coming as they did from a bad patch that saw them eliminated in the first round of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and a nation still wracked by match-fixing charges in their domestic football set-up. Add to all that the fact that under coach Cesare Prandelli, Italy were playing uncharacteristically attack-dog football against a side whose brand of billion-passes footie was no longer a novelty for players and spectators alike.
But did that make Spain, eternal underachievers — different from underdogs, which, say, England are despite the English being in permanent denial like India is about our hockey prowess — the top-dogs? A traditional giant (a four-time World Cup winning-side) peaking at the right time versus a team wearing its recently acquired laurels (2008 Euro Cup and 2010 World Cup) made Italy the top-dog, no?
But then, there will always be bias-driven fudging. During the 2002 World Cup, a Marxist friend of mine was supporting the underdog in the USA vs Germany quarter-final. In his reckoning, the underdog was Germany. And why did he think that? “America’s the arrogant, hegemonic, bullying world power, that’s why,” he said with a snort, describing the minnows with the same words I would have used to describe the footballing superpower Germany.