It is said that the World Cup final is the grandest stage of them all. Some might argue that today, the UEFA Champions League is where the pomp and grandeur lies. But to the romantics who abhor the commercialized nature of modern club football then it is the World Cup, for all of FIFA’s politicking, that remains a sacred pinnacle of the Beautiful Game.
Football is very much a spectator sport. It is more than just 22 men kicking a ball around a marked field. For those who invest emotionally in a game, it evokes a range of strong emotions that through its resonance, brings down cultural and social differences. It unites everyone from families to complete strangers.
The first World Cup that I watched was the 1994 edition held in the USA. Being 7 years old, I do not remember much about the tournament specifically. But I do remember watching it with my grandfather and I remember the feeling of wonderment that I had while watching the matches.
I remember my grandfather as the grumpy, cantankerous sort. I’m not too sure if he was pre-disposed to be like so or if it was due to an onset of illnesses associated with old age, but that’s the way I remember him. He was a nice enough grandfather, whose wisdom of experience clashed with my naivety and cheekiness that typified a child.
But when we sat down to watch the games on television together, he became the context through which I understood the game. He would grunt his approval at beautiful passes or passages of play and shout indignantly, exasperated at bad refereeing calls. In his own way, he taught me to appreciate the game. His reactions mirrored the reactions of the fans in the stadium. These were strangers whom I previously had limited knowledge of but yet, along with my grandfather, we shared a commonality that I never knew existed before.
The tournament also turned into lessons of Geography and Cultural Studies for me. It was then that I learned of countries like Brazil, Bulgaria, Spain and Nigeria. I learned about their culture through their fans, all decked out in their national colors and flags. Names like Hagi, Stoichkov, Luis Enrique stayed with me and I learned about various countries through these players as well.
The Brazilian players, Bebeto, Romario, Dunga and Taffarel deserve a mention of their own because quite unsurprisingly the aura of samba football enthralled me like no other could. Who could forget the raw tension of final that culminated in the memorable penalty shootout? The despair that was etched on the face of Roberto Baggio and the Italians contrasted brilliantly by sheer joy and euphoria of the Brazilians. This would go on to define what I love about the game as I grew older.
In the mid-nineties, football broadcasts were not prevalent in Singapore, quite unlike the global media coverage that follows the European leagues these days. Yes, my city-state’s local team was often locked in passionate clashes with the Malaysian state teams but the World Cup confirmed to me that I was indeed a real football fan. Not a fan merely because of patriotic duty. It was the springboard from which I launched my love for football. I began to thirst for more knowledge of the game; I wanted to watch more matches, I wanted to know about all the good players and I began to build sticker book collections.
Today, there are times when I lament the international breaks, as they often interrupt the club football calendar. Club football, with the collection of superstars on display on a consistent basis, seemed to be more exciting. But every time the World Cup rolls around, I can’t help but have a nagging sense of nostalgia. Every four years, I forget my prejudice, hoping to be captivated like I was all those years ago.
This year, with the Samba Boys roared on by a vociferously passionate home crowd, I’m secretly thinking that the magic will manifest itself again. It would be as if I was like a little boy watching the game with his grandfather and falling in love with football all over again.