Football Shootball Hai Rabba


Football Shootball Hai Rabba

Illustration: Saachi Mehta/ Arré

With just a few hours to go before the FIFA World Cup kicks off, I’m gripped with the fear of the unknown, like I am ahead of any grand Punjabi wedding. I’m left with that same ominous, sinking feeling, that things could go horribly, horribly wrong. It’s going to be Anupam Kher, isn’t it? Talking about the beautiful game with great nationalistic pride, invited only because the top of his head has a remote resemblance to the most famous bald head in world football.

My money is on one mention of the apocryphal tale of the Indian football team of days gone by being made in the first five minutes: how they qualified for the World Cup even though they were unable to afford shoes, and then not being allowed to participate. On the side, along with Anupam Uncle, there’ll be Miss Malini discussing the trajectory of Mo Salah’s free kicks with youth icon Riteish Deshmukh, the latter proclaiming that our Virat would have made a great footballer as well.

It’s an exciting time, and also a frightening one. For some context, I’m speculating on which delightful B- and C-listers will grace our TV screens during the telecast of the WC this time. It’s because of what happened four years ago: the dark, dark days of the 2014 tournament. Before, after, and during each game, the “expert panel” would “analyse” the matches at hand with Huck Finn-like enthusiasm. Except that they knew basically nothing about the game. The show was called Café Rio. Sort of like IPL-lite.

The panel at the time was an interesting one: its star attraction, for the first few days, being a tongue-tied John Abraham, the subject of much ridicule, drafted in because he looked rather suave in a suit; oh, and he’d also played a footballer once, in a film no one saw, obviously called Goal. There was Gaurav Kapur, who’d made the odd appearance on similar cricket shows, rendering him fit for purpose. And Nikhil Chinapa was in on the action too, because he ran a big party music festival (?) in those pre-fallout days.

All unscrupulous professionals in their own fields, no doubt, but also rank amateurs here. My guess: The criteria for selection included knowing the difference between fat Ronaldo and cocky Ronaldo, and having an elementary understanding of the offside rule. Naturally, there was much umm-ing and ahh-ing in between mispronounced names and vapid chattering, devoid of anything close to insight, to keep us entertained.

During Punjabi wedding celebrations, on the actual wedding day party, all the important or problematic relatives on the bride’s side are given a pagdi to mark them out as critical members of the proceedings. It’s not purely out of respect though; it’s also a cynical ploy to make sure these people don’t kick up a royal fuss by being curt to the relatives on the other side or by drinking too little or too less. It’s like this gesture of appeasement as also a symbolic “share the wealth” invitation.

The coverage in 2014 was sort of like that garish Punjabi wedding (the others would be just as bad/good, I’m sure; just that I only have an intimate understanding of this particular whisky-loving community). Given that many such celebrities were already contracted to the IPL, and thus unavailable for the pagdi ceremony (presenting on TV, in other words), they had to dig deeper and find more obscure, on-the-wane guys who had an EPL-level understanding of the game and could speak reasonably well.

The criteria for selection included knowing the difference between fat Ronaldo and cocky Ronaldo, and having an elementary understanding of the offside rule.

I’m not stupid (erm); I can understand that these familiar faces were roped in because Sony SIX was still a relatively new channel that had landed a major non-cricket sporting event and wanted to reach out to a traditionally non-football-watching audience. They knew the fans would watch regardless of who was presenting the pre- and post-game shows; it’s the newbies they were preying on. They even call themselves a “sports entertainment” channel – a term first popularised by professional, choreographed wrestling formerly known as WWF.

Theoretically, it seemed like a sound strategy, but that’s why academia doesn’t pay. It’s when disaster struck. That one uncle who runs his mouth off too much decided to get his fourth whisky minutes before meeting the groom’s parents. Fans of the game took to the internet (the Jantar Mantar of minor concerns) to voice their bemusement at how insipid the coverage was, questioning the pedigree, knowledge, and IQ levels of the presenters. It’s understandable, since our generation has been spoilt by the continual presence of the impeccable John Dykes hosting most football shows. Naturally, the plunge from John Dykes to John Abraham was jarring.

Maybe it was a well-intentioned affirmative action/equal opportunity stunt (if we’re doling out coupons for benefit of the doubt), although you do of course have far more qualified candidates in India – the encylopaedic, almost John Motson-esque Novy Kapadia instantly springs to mind. More likely, it was an attempt to mimic the IPL model, which itself is inspired by many a great clown circus of yore. Either way, it backfired, but at least the channel’s decision-makers were alert to the danger.

For damage control, they went to that one slightly younger cousin of the family, the one who studied in the US, knows the difference between a single malt and a blend, and visits Bangkok frequently, and got him to charm the socks off the groom’s immediate family. Joe Morrison, then of Ten Sports (until an acrimonious split after the World Cup), a seasoned presenter who’s both knowledgeable and possesses a fine sense of humour (plus a very un-British jolliness too) was brought in to make sure things didn’t escalate.

So I’m left wondering if they’ll make the same mistake again. They couldn’t possibly; they must have Morrison primed for duty. But could they? I hope so, to be brutally honest. But any mention of Sachin, Sasural Simar Ka, Amitji, Make in India, Bollywood, cheerleaders – just about anything superfluous – would be met with the glorious thump of Zizou’s skull into the chest of the speaker.

This is an updated version of a story published earlier.