By Manik Sharma Jun. 17, 2018
For second-generation Indians, football has existed like a good book, only in translation, with Brazil writing the most musical of sentences and poetic of thought all along. For them, Brazil’s preposterously stylised brand of football is the only version of the game worth watching.
The last Football World Cup felt like the return home of the sport. Even though the English invented it, Brazilians have surrendered to football so devotedly, at times self-destructively, that it has come to occupy the position of living its greatest victories and suffering its greatest losses – the role in life played by home and family.
Brazil’s love for the game hasn’t been mere tokenism; it has been sufficiently actual, often profoundly transitional in the way it writes some of the most ecstatic, yet erratic stories in modern sporting history. From the near implausible dominance of 1970 and 2002, to a sombre, grating crawl to lifting the Cup in 1994 that was, as astoundingly ambitious as it may sound, criticised by their own fans. Because Brazil doesn’t just play – they dance, they mesmerise, and take the mickey out of opponents, the Joga Bonito way. For second-generation Indians, the seduction of that preposterously stylised brand of football was the only version of the game worth watching, and Brazil, therefore, the only team worth supporting.
I watched the Brazil vs Germany semi-final four years ago, in the heat of Delhi. After the sixth German goal, my uncle stormed out of the room. To even the late-age cynic, the perpetual sophistication of modern football dwarfs in comparison to the wondrousness of a Brazilian foot. Even at four goals down, with only a quarter of the match gone, my uncle believed a recovery was possible, because only someone under the spell of Brazilian football would believe that even victory is short-lived – the fight for its essence, however, is eternal; a fight that only Brazil have come close to winning.
To them, football has existed like a good book, only in translation, with Brazil all along writing the most musical of sentences.
I watched the 1998 World Cup as a kid who could barely separate the team from the individualism of the sport. So when Rivaldo would do a step-over or Emerson nutmegged two players in the same dizzyingly crooked sprint, it felt like a distillation of experiencing the game, rather than just watching it as an outsider. Of course Zinedine Zidane and Dennis Bergkamp were doing it too, but the Brazilians seemed ordained, not just by their respective parishes but by the collective demand it felt, of the world that included second-generation Indians like my parents. People, even if they sparingly invested passion in sport, could not fake Platonism in the wake of the seduction that was the Brazilian flair.
So when my uncle left the couch during the semi-final of 2014, he probably took with him the entirety of second-generation Indians, who even if they are nefariously illiterate in the sport can tell a Ronaldo (the original) or a Pele anywhere. To them, football has existed like a good book, only in translation, with Brazil all along writing the most musical of sentences, and poetic of thought, to the extent that the puzzled horror from the cataclysm of four years ago, elicited a response from corners that I had not even imagined. “Match fix hua tha kya, aisa kaise ho sakta hai?” my mother discussed with me on the phone the next day. Because for a team so synonymous with the very concept of football in this country, a victory would have been celebrated as the victory of football, and not just Brazil the team or the nation. And that relationship has not developed merely out of devotion for the exceptional, or the successful, but relativity as well.
For one, a majority of Brazil’s players of old weren’t Caucasians, meaning them being pitted against the Europeans was also a tussle between the romanticised and the romantics. Watching them thwart white Europeans must have felt liberating, destroying them would have been ecstasy. Most of Brazil’s players rose, and continue to rise, from their favelas; their rags-to-riches, streets-to-pitches stories naturally endearing to the Indian population of the ’70s and ’80s. But what perhaps fascinated the average Indian the most was the sheer outrageousness of Brazilian football, its immodest manifestation in whatever little they understood of it. A brand of football so ludicrously un-operatic and flamboyant, its closest analogy in the arts wouldn’t be music or poetry, but magic. In India, it would be the magic in our many myths.
Sure, the two Argentinians Maradona and Messi have, at least, individually risen to the occasion, and the Portuguese Ronaldo won’t be forgotten any time soon, but as far as a collective of footballing nonchalance goes, no team has so successfully anthologised football for itself as Brazil have.
Brazilian football still testifies for itself around the world, given the prodigious talents it has produced over the years. So much so that former captain Cafu couldn’t find a place in his all-time Brazilian squad for Neymar, Socrates, or even Ronaldinho. Yes, Ronaldinho! Naturally, even the most detached fans would be at a loss were they to choose between reprising the Joga Bonito of 2002 or the winning the World Cup itself. It is like choosing between love and lust. Most millennials would choose the latter, but I know my uncle would choose the former.
Such is the modern game, with stakes so high that results are taken more seriously than the sport itself. Perhaps, nostalgia will have to do for now. Brazil may yet win the World Cup, but it won’t be “their” way, through the footballing love manual that they themselves wrote for people like my uncle. It is saddening to think, his idea of footballing joy has been curbed by modern professionalism and practice, making his idealism all the more mortal. Like a patch of wet earth by the street that he will die believing, will someday yield a flower. Not in this climate, not any time soon.