Sunday, June 18, 2006

Soccer musings: some new 'home' favourites

Let's talk football, for a change. Just finished watching the Brazil versus Australia World Cup group league match. I am one of those once-in-4-years soccer fans who put on their soccer caps precisely around the World Cup season and vow to devote more of themselves into the game, only to forget all about the resolution once the Cup is handed over to the champs.

I've been doing this for six soccer world cups now.
1986 was the first one that I followed with any intensity, and my heart went out to the West Germans who pulled back from two down in the final only to lose 3-2. I continued to support the tenacious unit into Italia 1990.

By the time Lothar Matthaeus held the Cup aloft though, I was already searching for a new identity. Tenacity was fine and recpectable even then but the 2nd round match against Holland took its toll on a fan that was not prepared to see sports and winning tactics going to that horrid extent of planning a red card for key players in the opposition.

USA 1994 started with a clean slate for me, still searching for a 'home team'. The group league phase ended and my search was still on. Then that July 4 match happened. USA was expected to be a soft opposition in the second round for favourites Brazil. But the home team advantage and a few good players meant they were a tougher unit to beat then than they appear here at Germany 2006. Add to it the fact that the match was played on their Independence day.

I loved the way Brazil overcame their 1 man deficit [of left wing back Leonardo] to win the match cleanly. The weaknesses of their 1986 team of more talented craftsmen were getting mitigated with more of their players gaining European exposure. More importantly, the unit looked willing to grit their teeth at critical moments and sweat out the difficult minutes patiently and unitedly. I decided to place my emotional bets on this team. The team did not disappoint me, although the goalless final did.

1998, and I kicked off with my old favourites Brazil. The Nigerian team and their refreshing soccer got me hooked as well. However it was a great joy to watch a struggling yet dazzling Holland beat some steep odds and come up with the goods as the tournament wore on. The man orchestrating all of it was none other than the person who stole my heart after nearly stopping it in the unforgettable Holland-Brazil 1994 quarter final tie, Dennis Bergkamp.

I experienced a 'QF-to-QF' fulfilment of sorts, a lot like today's 'World-Cup-to-World-Cup' warrantee offers declared for televisions, when Dennis stayed on till the last minute against Argentina in that dogfight of a France 1998 quarter final and scored a wonderful late decider after dribbling two defenders off a long Overmars cross into the opposition box. My admiration for the man and the team was complete at this point, and Holland was my new home team.

Imagine my identity crisis in the ensuing semi final that saw Brazil clashing with Holland! After some heartburn I decided to make Holland my 1st preference. They were unlucky and lost in the penalty shootout to a Brazil side that kept losing steam as the tournament climaxed. Till this day I believe that a thrilling final in the 1974 Beckenbauer-Cryuf mould was the only outcome possible had Holland moved to the finals, and Holland could have made France pay for their strikers' profligacy over an entire tourmanent.

Japan 2002 was a strange World Cup in that upsets started taking their toll pretty early. France, Argentina and Italy were out even before the players' boots had warmed up and Ronaldinho's brilliance ensured the same fate for England in quarter finals. The only big European country that hung on to their reputation, and far exceeded the popular expectation by doing that, were Germany.

Brazil, on the other hand, looked more Brazilian than the previous two cups, a fact endorsed by the brand of football they displayed in a memorable last league match against Costa Rica [5-2]. I was back supporting Brazil, and they again kept my head high by winning the Cup far more convincingly than in USA 1994.

A point of time just before Poland's 1st match in Germany must rank as the sweetest moment for me in 2006 World Cup viewing long after the Cup is won. For that is when I came to know that Ebi Smolarek was indeed the
son of a Smolarek all of West Bengal knows from the 1984 Nehru Gold Cup tournament held in Kolkata. It featured Poland, Hungary, Romania, China, Argentina and India. I felt amazed at the fact that I had indeed travelled the equivalent of a generation length on the road called sports viewing!

My old flames Brazil and Holland continue to own soft spots down inside me. This year I have earned two new home teams for myself - Ivory Coast and Australia.
Ivory Coast reminded me of Nigeria of 1998 and Cameroon of 1990 and their Didier Drogba is simply a reminder of Zidane's 1998 incarnation. However this team was significantly less fortunate than the African teams mentioned above in first drawing the pool of death and then having less luck in the opposition's half than their opponents had in theirs.
The Australia-Japan group league match gave me the other new home team. There was a touch of Steve Waugh and that 1999 cricket world Cup semi final in Australia's first win ever at the Soccer showpiece.

As Brazil remained lacklustre for most of their league tie versus Australia I found myself swaying with emotions that were more Aussie than Samba. The late second goal in that 2-0 result for Brazil did not have much of an impact as the match was more or less decided by then, but the wish to see Australia into the next round was far outweighing a willingness to egg on the South American stylists to a few late goals that would redeem them from the low flight they have had till date. Against another team I would have wanted Brazil to net at least another goal but not today.

Welcome home, Australia. I have admired your cricket in its early 1990's ugliness and loved it in turn-of-the-millenium ethereal form, and now I cannot but admire your never-say-die football.

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