Seven World Cups: A Personal History

Shakespeare’s Jacques divided life into the seven ages of man, and Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock measured his life in coffee spoons. But the soccer fan knows there are only two ages of man: life before and after football. And the best measure of life is by the four-year beat of World Cups. From the memories of my own life in fandom, therefore, I propose today an alternative schema — the Seven World Cups of Youth.

That would be the football fan’s dramatic 24-year period between childhood and middle age, bookended and syncopated by World Cups. It is not until middle age, when one’s awareness of time deepens, that the structure under these memories suddenly emerges and the World Cup becomes a measure of more than just footballing progress. To the middle-age fan, a World Cup represents a theater not just of fandom, but also of his or her own past selves. As evidence, I offer my autobiography, the seven World Cups of my own youth.

It is 1990, and I am 10. My family has just moved to Bombay. Like most Indian boys, I am mad about cricket, not football, but the arrival of the World Cup is an occasion too big to pass up for the whole subcontinent. It brings the world to India at a time when India has no claim on the world.

After all, this is pre-liberalization India. Even those who are not actually poor conform to the all-pervading atmosphere of thrift and slow aggregation. Careers in sport are strenuously discouraged. My parents are members of the salaried middle class. Few Indians expect ever to travel abroad. So in the next few weeks, millions of Indians will join me in making or confirming assumptions about national and continental character — Latin Americans are fiery and temperamental, Africans spontaneous and mercurial, Germans just Germanic — from the glimpses they see of a few young men on screen.

I pore over the pictures and factoids in special World Cup previews of Sportstar magazine and its more sophisticated, literary competitor, Sportsworld. When the tournament begins, I learn from the commentators how to pronounce such a mass of strange names. What a worldly set of men these all-comprehending observers must be!

I gravitate toward the feats of Diego Maradona and Argentina, the team in blue and white. When Argentina, playing rugged, attritional football, concedes a late penalty in the final and loses to West Germany, I swear lifelong hostility toward Germany.

It is 1994, and I am 14 — and desperate to repudiate every childish notion about life that I held during the last World Cup. And why not, when entire countries can repudiate themselves? West Germany, winner of the last tournament, is gone for good and replaced at USA ’94 by a united Germany. Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia have disappeared from the map.

At the tournament itself, soccer makes a proper splash in North America for the first time (what have they been doing all these years!). Maradona is there again, but I have a new favorite: Bulgaria’s temperamental genius Hristo Stoichkov, whose bewitching left foot takes his unfancied team all the way to the semifinals. After watching these two, for many years I hold to the notion that if a football star doesn’t glower on the pitch, he doesn’t glow, either.

France 1998: I can now drive a car and vote. I have already fallen in love several times. And what footballers do with their feet is suddenly not the most important thing about them — what they do with their hair matters, too. And France offers a thrilling panorama of male plumage and comportment: the flowing locks of Gabriel Batistuta, the ponytail of Mustapha Hadji, the ear stud of Roberto Baggio, the beetle-browed smoulder of Zinedine Zidane, the catwalk swagger of David Beckham.

America has impinged itself on the consciousness of my generation in several ways. After India opened its economy to the world in 1991, those demonic forces — multinational corporations — began trickling in. I drink my first Coke in 1995, eat my first McDonald’s burger in 1996.

But there is a political tinge to the relationship, too, when the U.S. imposes stringent sanctions on India for testing a nuclear bomb in May 1998, a month before the World Cup. So it’s fine if the other guys do it, but not us, huh? We’ll show you. When America takes on Iran in the group stages in what was described by one U.S. soccer official as “the mother of all games,” all of India is cheering, too — for the Iranians, who work themselves and the whole subcontinent into a frenzy by winning 2-1. Football: merely war by other means.

It is 2002 — and I am a man! And not just any other man, but a man far from me mum, as the British would put it. In 1998, I had never spoken to someone who wasn’t Indian. Now, for South Korea and Japan, the first World Cup in Asia, I have, in a marvelous inversion, decamped to another continent: Who’d have thought the study of Chaucer and Donne, Shakespeare and Dickens, would get me a scholarship to further study in England? My scholarly self has passed Amartya Sen and Stephen Hawking on the street, heard Edward Said lecture. I watch the games at one of many Cambridge pubs or the common room of Trinity College, alongside students from many countries swearing in many a language. I can taste the world in the World Cup more sharply than ever before. Youth is wonderful. Everything’s going to be fine.

Fast-forward to 2006, and everything is wrong, wrong, wrong about the world save for the World Cup. In 2002, I hadn’t even entered the job market; by Germany 2006, I’ve already left it, a single stint in cricket journalism having led to the most frustrating and intellectually stagnant years of my life. My girlfriend’s left me, I’m back to living with my mother, I write book reviews for a bit of spending money, I spend mornings cocooned in an old cinema in Bombay, I work on the first draft of a novel.

The World Cup is one of the few things in a harsh universe that appears to be a stable source of happiness, security and beauty: Zidane’s uncanny awareness of space, Ronaldo’s absolute focus on goal, Gianluigi Buffon’s command of his penalty box. Deep into extra time in the tense semifinal, the Italian defender Fabio Grosso curls a sensational left-footed shot into the German goal and wheels away in utter disbelief. It’s a moment of such cathartic power that even my own stuttering life seems redeemed.

South Africa 2010. For the first time, I am older than most players in the World Cup and able to view their sallies and their squabbles, their rapture and their tears, with a measure of worldly detachment. It’s the first World Cup when I mean something to the world, and indeed to myself, having recently published a novel and a short introduction to Indian literature and turned the chaos of my 20s into something coherent.

Around me, India has changed so much, too. The time lag between the developed world and India has mostly disappeared. More than a decade of steady economic growth has transformed both India’s realities and expectations. Televised European league football now has a vast Indian audience, even if Indian football itself remains moribund. Where once it was a miracle just to be able to catch the World Cup on TV, now thousands of passionate fans have coughed up plenty of cash to travel all the way to South Africa for the tournament. I begin to betray the first signs of middle age: a false sense that the world has lost its innocence. Spain’s all-conquering tiki-taka, taking football back to its very basics, is there to remind me that time may be cyclical, not linear.

And now Brazil 2014. At 34, I am, it seems, a mature man, not easily shaken from my multiple realities of writer, liver, lover, jester, traveler. In the best possible sense, the World Cup now means everything and nothing. I know I will enjoy every moment, thrill to the grand pleasures of footballing form and pattern, point and counterpoint, as before. But I’m now more interested in how successful teams work; as much as passion, I also comprehend the value of preparation. Neither young nor old, neither rich nor poor, neither desperate nor complacent, neither at home nor away, Mr. Choudhury sometimes feels like football itself, always in motion between two poles. If this is the last World Cup of the grand seven-part cycle of youth, perhaps it is also the first of a new cycle stretching from middle age to old age.

Ah, the beautiful game!

Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is based in New Delhi. His novel Arzee the Dwarf is published by New York Review Books.

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