The football World Cup, arguably the greatest spectacle in all of sport, is here. An excuse for everyone to lose their cool -- more than usual. For the casual fan and other sensible parties, we present a handy guide to the things that may help improve your experience of the tournament.
In India, football fans are a precious lot. They — we — like to believe we’re different. The masses are busy with their Maanyavar-ad cricketers and their Bollywood drama but we have an understanding of the finer things in life. Never mind the fact that football is literally the most popular sport in the world, and the second-most in India.
Anyway, every four years, people who don’t normally watch football pop up out of nowhere and become super-fans for a month, coincidentally at the same time as the World Cup. They put on face paint and everything. They swarm public and private screenings of games — at homes, at pubs and restaurants. This really pisses off the Very Serious Football Fan. So we lash out and we ask condescendingly, “Do you even know what the offside rule means?”
I do that too, I admit. But I also enjoy those of you who show up quadrennially and support Brazil, Spain, Germany, Argentina, or France. You rookies are not miserable grumps (yet) arguing dourly about Messi’s close control vs. Ronaldo’s strength of will; you feel genuine excitement, which I last felt in maybe 2007.
You get emotional when the team you started supporting a week ago goes behind; you seethe with righteous anger when it’s nil-nil after an hour. When your chosen team gets knocked out, you switch loyalties to whoever’s left (the one true unforgivable sin in football). And you talk proudly about that one match you saw when you were 16 and Batistuta scored. It’s mildly annoying, but everyone knows football fans have no friends, so it’s nice to have some non-nerd company while watching a match every few years.
To keep those new fans onside (football pun; get it?), Sony — the official broadcasters in India — are going to, I’m guessing, bring in a familiar face or two for their “expert” panel dissecting the action. If memory serves, at the last World Cup, they even managed to get one of the greatest footballers of his time, John Abraham, to spit out some wisdom about carpe-ing the diem. I swear I will spontaneously combust if they get Chetan Bhagat. So that should be entertaining.
Impending Civil VAR
This will be the first World Cup to feature Video Assistant Referees (VAR), the polarising new technology that allows refs to pause play and consult a video referee sitting in an AC room with 33 different camera angles and slow-motion replays at his disposal (like the third umpire in cricket, but without the goofy hat). It’ll lead to a lot of unnecessary interruptions, but can you imagine how splendidly messed up it’ll be if a last-minute equaliser is cancelled because of an innocuous foul in the build-up that the referee didn’t even spot? The drama will be unreal -- and so, I suspect, will the number of ads broadcasters try to cram into these breaks.
A Pressing Concern
If you’d like to impress a boss, a love interest or a sworn nemesis (the only three people one should look to impress in life), talk to them about “pressing.” It’s a tactic that, per my shaky-armchair prediction, is likely to dominate this World Cup. If you’re unfamiliar, think of it as defending from the frontline: you run hard, swarm the opposition when they have the ball in their own half and win it back early. Then you attack their goal at pace while they’re out of formation. Liverpool’s somewhat successful 2017-2018 season was built on an extreme form of this (and made them very popular, before they characteristically lost all goodwill with the most glorious of hissy fits last month), while Pep Guardiola’s teams have been following a successful variant of this tactic for a decade. Turn to your fellow conversationalist and casually mention “the possession game” for results.
The Actual Football
Who Will Win? India, of course — how dare you? But the spot for second-winners is still open. Germany, the defending champions, are that guy who “maintains” at the gym even after he’s buffed up beyond repair. Joachim Löw, who coached them to victory last time, is still around. Watch him and his hair.
England, the India of football (before we started winning at cricket), are likely to plough through their group before self-destructing ‘heroically’ in the quarters. It’s just what they do. Brazil have the gifts of Neymar (bpb ed: He’s cuter than Messi and Ronaldo), and they must be out for revenge after their last tournament appearance, a disastrous 7-1 defeat to Germany at home. But I’d hope not — I can’t bear the thought of another person yelling “JOGA BONITO!” in my face.
Spain haven’t combusted in spite of the graceful superannuation of their 2010 Cup-winning squad; they have Sergio Ramos, who stays young gracelessly, and a majestic goalkeeper named David De Gea. Keep your eyes on him. Belgium have been dark horses for a generation now, but they’ve flattered to deceive the last few times — my prediction is an on-pitch brawl between their stars Lukaku and De Bruyne.
Boasting a wealth of young attacking talents is France, while Argentina have Messi and the tedious will-he-won’t-he narrative that trails him every big tournament. Cristiano Ronaldo leads Portugal for probably the last time, though the lack of national team glory doesn’t haunt him the way it does Messi. Italy are always there-or-thereabouts, though they’re nowhereabouts this time since they didn’t qualify, significantly reducing the good-looks quota at the cup.
Me? I’m pretty sure Croatia will win it, for no reason other than that I’m supporting them in the absence of my beloved Holland. And wouldn’t it be lovely if one of the Asian or African teams went far; Mo Salah was in the form of his life before his unfortunate injury, but if he can recreate that magic, Egypt might have a shot at surprising us this year.
What Will Putin Do?
I watch many movies, so I know the Russian top brass is filled with dastardly people. If you believe the American news, it’s wall-to-wall intrigue and complex socio-political chicanery out in the former USSR. They fix elections; they poison spies; they have journalists faking their own death and then reappearing. And they have the absolutely unreadable Vladimir Putin running affairs. Russia, the host country, doesn’t have a very good team, and the odds are they’ll get knocked out in Group A, with Uruguay and Egypt likely to progress to the knockouts. What’s he going to do?!
Eating All The Pies
Given the time difference, all matches in India will be telecast at Beer O’Clock, aka any time between 5.30pm and the dead of night. There’s an umbilical link between watching football and drinking beer. I’m sorry, I don’t make the rules: the drunker you get, the easier it becomes to get invested and dissociate from the underlying nihilism of sport. Pubs in Indian cities know this, so this month is going to overwhelm us with hideously named “offers” from our local pubs — Ham of God, Extra Time Happy Hours, hat-trick potatoes, Hummels with pita bread, the special Luis Suarez menu (he loves Italian) — to lure customers.
For 47 months, you have to beg them to change the channel from old cricket highlights to a live football game, but just for this month, they whip out the big projector screens and turn up the commentary. It creates a jolly atmosphere — almost festive — and camaraderie. Thanks to all you casual fans, the mood isn’t one of hulking aggression, as it usually is when it comes to earnest “City” versus “United” fans. (Who?) So really, thank yourself for making dirt-cheap beer buckets a thing for the rest of us.
The World Cup begins June 14.
Akhil Sood is an arts and culture writer living in New Delhi.
Photo Credit: FIFA World Cup
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