By Dushyant Shekhawat Jul. 11, 2018
You don’t need to know the players’ names to enjoy a game of football. But when France and Belgium play a game as dull as a matrimonial profile written by your sanskari aunt, you wish football could live up to its reputation as the beautiful game.
We’ve reached the World Cup semi-finals, which means even people who normally pay football as much attention as the BMC does to Mumbai’s roads started following the games at least one match ago. There won’t be another occasion in football more momentous than this for another four years, so even the part-time fans have to get in on the action. They’re invested in the game solely because it’s playing on a screen in their vicinity, or to validate their partner’s obsession with the sight of grown men in shorts kicking around a ball.
My girlfriend, bless her, was one such spectator to yesterday’s semi-final between France and Belgium. Sadly, the match was an abject disappointment to both her and I. She wanted to see an exhilarating match full of goals, I wanted Belgium to make it to the finals; neither one of us got what we wanted.
Even so, she’s a great sport, certainly a better one than Neymar. Whether it’s a 90-minute football game, or a seemingly interminable, six-hour-long broadcast of WWE Wrestlemania, she’s become a pro at providing me company to watch events in which she has no real interest – and also because I hog the remote. But even she was curious to see how the semi-final turned out.
Now it’s worth mentioning that her level of football awareness is a well-rounded zero. Before the game started, she reacted to the news of Cristiano Ronaldo’s earth-shaking transfer from Real Madrid to Juventus with the most neutral “Oh” I have ever heard. When she learned France was playing, she asked me if Thierry Henry would be there. I told her he would, but on the Belgian side, as the assistant coach.
Her response? “Well I guess I don’t know a single player in either team then.”
It didn’t really matter, because you don’t need to know the players’ names to enjoy a game of football. She got into the spirit of the game right from kick-off, jeering fouls and cheering passes with even more enthusiasm than I could muster. The 15-year-old me who could stay up until sunrise playing FIFA on the PlayStation would be aghast at this, but it was close to midnight on a working day, and I was tired. She was probably more tired than me, given that she works out daily while the only crunches I do are to hit pause on Netflix, but you wouldn’t have guessed it during the first 15 minutes of the match. Maradona would have been proud of the passion she displayed.
By half-time, with no goals, we were dealing with buyers’ remorse.
When a football game is exciting, there are few spectacles in sport that can rival it. The frantic pace of the runs, the desperation and hope that fuels each shot at goal, the seesawing of momentum that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats, and the triumphant roar of jubilation that soundtracks each moment of success – it’s a heady rush you can’t find anywhere else. Unfortunately, yesterday’s match wasn’t such a game.
What France and Belgium served up was an affair that was as dull as a matrimonial profile written by your sanskaari aunt. The 1-0 result is the blandest outcome possible from a football game, and unfortunately, it’s all too common. Games like Germany thrashing Brazil 7-1, or Manchester United’s annual thumpings of Arsenal under Sir Alex Ferguson stand out in the memory because of how rare they are. More often than not, matches are decided by a single goal – the sole silver lining in a gloomy cloud full of cynical challenges, missed passes, and wasted opportunities. I still wish I could get back the 120 minutes I wasted watching the 2010 final between Spain and Holland, where Iniesta scored a single goal to decide the World Cup.
Similarly, apart from the single, unimaginative goal France eked out from a corner, this game was a waste of time for the viewing audience. We had put off starting Sacred Games for this drag, and by half-time, with no goals, we were dealing with buyers’ remorse.
Where she’d started the game with the energy level of a Ranveer Singh dance number, by the time we reached sixty minutes, she was as lively as a Pankaj Udhas ghazal. For the occasional viewer, football needs to live up to its reputation as the beautiful game for it to be engaging. Someone like me can find something of interest in statistics like how more than half of France’s team is under 25 years of age, or how this semi-final marked the clash between France’s on-field skill, and Belgium’s impressive momentum in its last 10 games. But Mbappe being the youngest player at the World Cup matters little to a non-fan unless he’s scoring goals. That’s how I ended the World Cup semi-final with her asleep on my shoulder, praying for the referee’s final whistle so that I could go to bed myself.
Apart from a few highlights like England trouncing Panama, or Croatia’s upset win over Argentina, this has been an underwhelming World Cup. Congratulations to France for advancing to the final, but I hope they put on a better show in Moscow.