On the night the universe willed Lionel Messi to kiss the 2022 FIFA World Cup trophy, I was in Mumbai. I was covering a women’s cricket series between India and Australia. There was no cricket match that Sunday, so I could watch the final football match live on television in my hotel room. At half-time, when Argentina was leading 2-0 against France, I told a colleague on the phone that only a Kylian Mbappé hat-trick could stop Messi from fulfilling his dream. As it turned out, even the Mbappé hat-trick wasn’t enough.
The first football World Cup I followed closely was the 1986 edition held in Mexico. I was in school then and there was no television in Wayanad. I depended on the BBC World Service radio for updates on that World Cup, which was made unforgettable by Deigo Maradona. I remember commentator Bryon Butler describing the little master’s second goal for Argentina against England in the quarter-final: “That is why he is the greatest player in the world. Diego Maradona 2, England nil.” That goal is regarded by many as the greatest-ever one scored in a football field. But the legend had scored his first goal with his hand. “The hand of God,” Maradona would say.
Little could I have imagined that decades later, I would interview the man who was the closest witness to Maradona’s goals. When I met England’s goalkeeper of that match, Peter Shilton, who had come to Kozhikode nine years ago for a function as part of the United Nations’ 70th anniversary celebrations, he said his country could not forgive Maradona’s first goal. “We felt we were cheated,” he said.
Shilton is the joint record holder for the most clean sheets (10) along with France’s Fabien Barthez. “But for Maradona, I could have had the record all by myself,” he said that morning at the lobby of the Taj hotel in Kozhikode. He, however, appreciated Maradona’s other goals during that World Cup, especially the one against Belgium.
By the time the football World Cup moved to Italy in 1990, television had finally arrived in my home town of Kalpetta. Those days, Doordarshan was the only channel available, and not all matches were telecast live. Some matches were screened the following mornings. But what is the fun in watching a match when you know the result? One fan – every man in his family played sport – found a way out: he would get up earlier than everyone else, get hold of the newspaper and hide it until the telecast of the match was over.
There are crazier fans in north Kerala during the World Cups. I met many of them during the 2018 World Cup; I was assigned by the Sports Editor to travel to Malappuram and write a feature on the district’s well-known and enduring love affair with the beautiful game. There I met Nasib, who sold fish at half the market price the day his favourite team, Brazil, played. I also met Nabeel whose house was painted in different parts in yellow and green; white and light blue; and blue, white and red. The riot of colours was the handiwork of Nabeel and his cousins who wanted to declare their allegiance to Brazil, Argentina and France. I also went to an ‘office room’ rented by fans of Brazil. A Communist Party of India (Marxist) branch committee member told me that the party office was screening the World Cup match live on a big screen, something the rival party, the Indian Union Muslim League, also did.
This time, the huge cut-outs of Messi, Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo erected on a river in a village near Pullavoor in Kozhikode district, which shares neighbouring Malappuram’s passion, attracted global attention. When I went there last month, a few television channels were filming the 30-foot tall Messi, 40-foot Neymar and 45-foot Ronaldo. I also read about it in AlJazeera. Messi, however, stood the tallest in Qatar.
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