I have withdrawal symptoms. The end of the football World Cup is making me put pen to paper. The World Cup has always been an important personal reference point. Growing up in Goa, right from class 1, my friend wanted to be a footballer like Romario. He is now a full time footballer who played in the Indian Soccer League and is now at a football league in Mexico.
My consolation was that I grew up to be a wildlife biologist and have had a diversity of football related experiences. This World Cup got me hooked in three places. I was in the land where “football” bears no resemblance to o jogo bonito, while being part of the conversations from the Eastern Himalayas where I work, and the seaside state of Goa where I was born and raised.
The end of the World Cup in 2010 was good timing to start a PhD. To keep up with good timing, I had planned the end of my PhD too – before the 2014 World Cup in Brazil started. Unsurprisingly, the end of my PhD took slightly longer, and I was still in the remote tiger reserve in Arunachal Pradesh where I did my fieldwork.
But my bases were covered. My friends, the forest watchers of the reserve, obtained a diesel generator for us to watch the semi-finals (electricity in the monsoons is erratic). Only for us to be stunned to see our favourite Brazil lose to Germany, and how.
World Cups through time
Four years later, WhatsApp is in town, and we had a group where we were reminiscing that loss. I am in New York at my university analysing my research data. Some of our group members were in their village and others in their anti-poaching camps (with no electricity and patchy internet connection). In four years, we now have a projector for the reserve. I tried to intercede for a one-off special case to screen the finals between Croatia and France in the nature interpretation centre. Their boss agreed, but a last minute missing cable resulted in a jam-packed house gathering elsewhere. With such a close-knit gathering, those in their anti-poaching camps were constantly messaging the rest of us for updates. We were sending them video recordings and screen grabs of goals and news during the finals. I did my part of sending videos of the French team’s celebration. Everyone else was busy ribbing each other on the group.
Meanwhile I called my dad during the finals. I asked him who he was rooting for. His response was pregnant with the sound of an unsaid ‘duh’. As if I didn’t already know that Croatia had a special connection with Goa. He then enlightened me with some Goan-speak father to daughter advice: “Put in google: Croatia Goa connection.” The half time break was just about finishing, so he told me the story briefly. Gandaulim village, not very far from where we live, has Croatians who came to Goa in the 16th century. Years before the World Cup, my dad’s archaeologist friend took him to see the Gandaulim church. After the match, I googled and found that a Croatian delegation had helped restore the church. Not content, I messaged my dad that perhaps Goa had a stronger connection with France. I was summarily dismissed. He only had French as a second language in school.
Football is a religion
So let’s get to the start of the World Cup. The inaugural match between Russia versus Saudi Arabia was on my late grandmother’s birthday. My mother proposed that they bring pre-Eid and Roza food that can be bought from outside the mosque. Throughout the World Cup, she used football as an opportunity for God-talk to her incorrigible offspring. She cheered for South-Korea when they played against Mexico. We asked why and she responded that they have 41 saints. Mexico won, South Korea lost. I told my mother that she needed to learn how to pray from that Mexican grandmother. The grandmother who stood by the television screen making the sign of the cross on the forehead of each and every Mexican player before their match against Germany. Clearly that grandmother knew the direct hotline number.
World Cup spirit
World Cup cheer also comes with spirit. My roommate lead us to salvation (she had to be a poor PhD student who knew where the cheap food and booze was). We went down 143 streets in the New York subway to Trader Joe’s. Our hiking rucksack was filled with 14 litres of wine and as much beer we could lug home. The wine still remains after the World Cup. Drinking beer at 10 AM in the morning seemed more moral to me. At Las Palmas, a Mexican joint in my neighbourhood there were no booze apologists during the World Cup. At 10 AM each person had their iced steel bucket and six beers. But we got sufficient expertise in refining our morality with beer. We would patiently use chopsticks to fish out lime from the Corona bottles so that they were okay for recycling. In Goa, the time-zone and atmosphere was right for football with flaming feni. From Arunachal, I got news of lots of beer, meat and betting pools. The next day, visits to the jharna (waterfall) were part of the cooling off.
The food stories kept up as well. In Arunachal the beer went with pork chilly fry and a dash of bamboo shoot. In New York, my Brazilian friends called us for breakfast to their place when Brazil played against Costa Rica. They baked piping hot fogo de chau (cheese balls made with tapioca flour). A few days later, we went to an Argentinian pub in my neighbourhood for their crucial group match against Nigeria. The Argentinian owner was won over when we showed him photos of how Mallus had painted their jackfruits in Albiceleste colours. The similarities are eerie. In Goa we even share the concept of conjoint names. Maria and Xavier’s kid could be Marixa or any other combination you can put your mind to.
Winners and losers
The celebrations are not much different. Winning is just half of it. Having fun is the other half. While at Las Palmas, the Spanish commentator had a never-ending ‘Goooooo-ooooaa-llll’ when Mexico scored. An old man from the street came straight in. He took off from where the commentator stopped. Screaming a louder ‘Goooooo-ooooaa-llll’ and his arms outstretched. The owner got a hug. Otherwise, normal interruption was by Dr. Joe Machnik, a FIFA rules expert on Fox Sports. After the win, the Washington Heights hombres in New York celebrated with wheelies and burnouts. Much like our very own Miramar boys in Goa, only these hombres would never cheer for Brazil.
Losing is a different matter. When Argentina lost to France, my brother messaged “I hope Trump cancels the next World Cup”! Given the way Argentina played, we agreed that we would all miss Maradona in the stands the most. Brazil’s match against Belgium was their agnipariksha said my Arunachali friend. When they lost he was furious and said ‘no reason to watch the World Cup anymore.’ The next day we were both watching and hoping for England to lose against Croatia. And then we unanimously agreed that Croatia played like champions during the finals.
An hour after the World Cup celebrations were over, I was missing the World Cup already. So I phoned my father yet again. We started to recall the days. I tried to give him some of my history. Remember the time when Doordarshan had deferred live football matches. We agreed that its either live or not. I said this was one of the best World Cups I’ve seen in life. Again he agreed. Not content with such easy agreement, I asked, but what about your best World Cup? What about 1958, when you got fascinated with Mané Garrincha? My dad was ten years old then. He was ‘lucky’ as his parents took him from Goa to Portugal for a health check up. His 1958 World Cup was a three hour long capsule in a cinema hall. For two decades they followed the World Cup closely on the newspapers and through magazines and books. Champions league had more up to date coverage as the Portuguese teams were doing well then. They followed these matches on the radiogram. In those days, speakers on the radiogram were at the bottom, so all of them would be on the floor listening intently. My dad watched his first full World Cup match on television in 1978 in Bombay, now Mumbai. In 1986 my family screened a World Cup match in our ancestral house. They did not have electricity or a telephone or a television—just Maradona. The enthusiasm to watch the match included placing the antenna at the correct angle on a jack fruit tree and bringing a generator by canoe. In 1990, the World Cup came to our home on television. One of the greatest collective experiences, not just for our television screens, but for our lives.
Nandini Velho is a wildlife biologist who believes that the world is round