FIFA World Cup 2018: Root for your club, but say cheers to the cup
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FIFA World Cup 2018: Root for your club, but say cheers to the cup

The FIFA World Cup is an unadulterated celebration of football in the modern era where loyalty to European club teams is the new normal in fandom.

football Updated: Jun 10, 2018 09:25 IST
Kunal Pradhan
Kunal Pradhan
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
FIFA World Cup 2018,2018 FIFA World Cup,Football
The FIFA World Cup is a coming together of peoples like no other, making it the ultimate sporting carnival.(AFP)

It could have been just another July afternoon though it was Rio de Janeiro, which counts for something. Even by the city’s lofty standards, there was something extraordinary in the air. At the Copacabana beach, I was among a sea of people — dancing, singing, cheering, drinking caipirinhas, staring piously at a giant screen — all 500,000 of us celebrating sport in a manner that it is celebrated only once in four years.

For an Indian such as me, the final of the World Cup — the Coupe du Monde, the Il Mondiali, the Weltmeisterschaft — should’ve meant nothing other than an occasion to partake in the revelry. I should’ve had no horse in the race, nothing to get emotional or anxious about. But the moment was too grand for such logical thought or action.

So, point to ponder: what is it about the football World Cup that makes it not just the greatest sporting event ever imagined, but also a coming together of peoples like no other?

Nationality is generally considered the most effective and enforceable of all social constructs. It easily trumps city loyalty, usually beats language or dialect, even surpasses religion as a mass organiser. Two people could, for example, argue about Delhi or Mumbai, be particular about speaking proper Hindi or the Queen’s English, take pride in being Hindu or Muslim, but in the end, are likely to put their Indian-ness above these differences in response to an appeal to their patriotism. The world of football doesn’t work that way any longer. It has, some would say, a higher calling.

Over the past two decades, prompted by a live telecast explosion in parts hitherto untouched by European football, club loyalty has defined the sport in a way that no other kind of manufactured social construct has ever managed to.

This heady alternative universe, where title challenges are primary and goals scrambled in a melee are celebrated with as much fervour as a bicycle-kick, is about ‘never walking alone’, hunting for ‘glory’ and supporting the ‘greatest team the world has ever seen’. (The words in single quotes are references to the chants often heard at the Kop, Old Trafford and the Emirates).

The football fan’s passionate love for Club, which oddly overrides Country, has transformed the excitement of fandom in a wonderful new way. It has allowed people from different cultures and continents, with nothing in common, to band together under their own individual barmy armies.

But, at the same time, it has robbed football of some charm. It has made it impossible to react to anything brilliant, stupendous or extraordinary done against your team by an opposition player without blaming, in order of preference, the referee, the linesman, the pitch and your own defender.

It has made it hard to see football as what it once was, and what it can be when it is stripped of all its encumbrances. Stripped to a point where sport becomes a celebration of human endeavour shorn of all its biases. Stripped to a moment when there was no team jersey, no club loyalty, no historical baggage, no larger context — just a man with a ball at his feet and a target in his eyes.

The World Cup, odd as it may seem given its very foundation is an idea as divisive as national pride, is now the greatest celebration of football as pure sport.

It is the only global stage where performances are judged on merit rather than for self-gratification. No matter if you’re an Indian who decided to randomly pick a team, or whether your own country was in the fray.

Having said that, I must confess to being distraught after Argentina lost that final to Germany in Rio four years ago. And I will be distraught again if they lose in Moscow. It’s the team I happened to pick years ago.

But it will be okay. For in the newly minted universe of football fandom, all is well if nothing happens to your club.

First Published: Jun 10, 2018 09:23 IST