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Soccer my first passion: Leander Paes

For tennis ace Brazil is the first choice. What is your first passion? Share with us

india Updated: May 12, 2006 23:39 IST

This time, the clay-court tennis season has been simply brilliant for me. No, not because I have won titles galore, but because I have relished watching some of the best soccer matches at Nou Camp in Barcelona.

The soccer World Cup is less than a month away, and even though I am busy earning my bread and butter playing doubles, I have kept track of all the soccer action. Not many may know soccer is my first passion. Almost two decades back, when I was 12, the choice was between joining the BAT tennis academy in Madras, and taking up a scholarship with the PSV Eindhoven junior club. The desire to play for the country like my parents finally saw me take up tennis as a professional sport.

I do not want to sound clichéd, but soccer is the most beautiful sport. People at home and abroad have seen me manoeuvre the soccer ball even on a tennis court. It's something which comes naturally, which is why I am a big fan of Brazil. If in India cricket is a religion, in Brazil kids play soccer with almost anything —it could be a soft drink can or a coconut, Brazilian kids simply love kicking it around. This time, too, I am going to root for Brazil, knowing fully well the Germans may think they have the home advantage.

Talking of home advantage, as hosts, Germany would have it in plenty. But on current form, barring Ballack, they really don't seem that hot, though their defence seems clinical. Talking about some of the other European teams, I would love to see Italy and England do well. Sadly for Italy, they were done in by some awful referring in the last edition in Korea, and done in by penalties too. As for England, they seem to be plagued with injuries now.

I know a lot many would think Rooney will be fit for the World Cup. Believe me, metatarsal injuries mean being out for 12 weeks. Soccer is a contact sport, so Rooney being ready is a miracle England need to pray for! Even if he gets OK, how is he going to tackle, knowing fully well the shape his foot will be in?

Back to Brazil, I simply love the Samba style. It's something like music, soulful, and you fall in love with it. I know the hottest debate even decades later will be who was better, Pele or Maradona. For me, Pele is the greatest, and I have several reasons for it. Pele was not just a player who scored. Even today, the world bows before him wherever he goes . Fifteen years back, I happened to be playing tennis challengers in Brazil. And once when I beat Gustavo Kuerten, I got the chance to meet Pele. It was like seeing God, because I put Pele and Muhammad Ali alongside as the greatest ever.

People remember Diego for two things: the infamous Hand of God, which was cheating, and the great goal he scored in 1986 when he waylaid five defenders and then beat the goalkeeper. On the ground, Diego was great.

But for me, Pele was pure magic. In the air, what he did was unbelievable. Such amazing dexterity, and control, and the bicycle kick, I can keep talking about it.

Today, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho are the faces of Brazilian soccer. It's not just about their own scoring, but also creating chances for the team, be it their own country or the clubs they play for. I will definitely go to Germany and watch the Brazilians play, as I do have a personal rapport with Roberto Carlos, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho. Back home in Kolkata, my picture album has their photos with me.

I’d love to see Brazil winning on July 9. And if I’m not busy with Wimbledon, I’ll be there to see them and cheer them. Viva  Brazil!