Italia ‘90. FIFA World Cup. England versus Belgium. In extra-time after 119 goalless minutes, Paul Gascoigne, affectionately known as ‘Gazza’ by fellow players and supporters, floats in a free kick in the Belgium penalty box. David Platt, hitherto an unknown name in international football, spins 180 degrees, sees the ball dropping over his shoulder, instinctively shoots out his right foot, volleys the ball and buries it in the back of the net. Platt writes himself into the annals of history, England is in the quarter finals and my life is irrevocably changed forever.
The Portuguese term for ‘The Beautiful Game’ is Jogo Bonito, which through the years has morphed into Joga Bonito. These two words encapsulate the spirit of football as succinctly and wholesomely as nothing else. The exact origins of the term are disputed. Valdir Pereira, a Brazilian footballer, is thought to have coined the phrase but the BBC presenter Stuart Hall claims to have originated it in 1958. But the phrase probably owes its now omnipotent popularity thanks to Pele, arguably the greatest exponent of the game, and his autobiography titled My Life and the Beautiful Game. And thanks to Nike.
Back to my life changing event. In 1990 I was a 9 year-old school boy, in 4th grade. Like most other 9 year-old boys I was energetic, into games and sports and presumably a pain-in-the-neck for my parents. Unlike most other 9 year-olds I was (and still am) blessed to have for my father, an extremely passionate connoisseur of the game.
[Sidenote: My Dad is an extremely gifted player himself. He had played for the 2nd division team of Mohun Bagan, the oldest and biggest football club in India. He could have very well gone on to play for the 1st division team, which plays in the national league, but for familial constraints he had to make choice between his passion and providing for his family, consisting of 7 siblings and his widowed mother. In the 1960s India, a ‘career in football’ was an oxymoron in middle class families, and still is to an extent. He inevitably took the logical course and went into the family business.]
The games during Italia ’90 were held late in the night and early morning, Indian time. Our black and white TV was on for all the games that were televised by the then owned state broadcasting corporation, Doordarshan (which literally means, ‘peering into the future’!) [On a sidenote again – DD was anything but futuristic. The only futuristic thing on DD, was The World This Week. Thank you Dr. Prannoy Roy for being the umbilical cord to rest of the world]. Cable television was still a concept and seeing international stars plying their trade was once-in-a-4-year opportunity. In retrospect, after the high of the marauding Maradona and Argentina’s triumph in 1986 (and no, I do not claim to have any recollection from 1986; my information is based on future studying of the game), the games of ’90 were a definite low. The tactics employed by a lot of coaches and teams harped so much on the ‘defence first’ approach that the ‘beauty’ of the beautiful game was tarnished. In fact, the dourness of this World Cup prompted the back-pass rule and the 3-points a win (earlier it used to be 2 points for win, so 3 points would be an incentive to win, and get 2 more points than a draw). But back then, I didn’t care a bit. I had discovered something so good …so divine and that I had no other option but to be swept away by it.
Before the World Cup I had no particular affinity to football. I religiously devoted my time to cricket, flying kites, cycling, running and football. My allegiance, slowly but surely, turned to football. I had a group of friends who were also struck by the World Cup bug. We played on actual football grounds, the ones with grass. We played on dirt holes, we played on concrete floors, we played on the rug. A regular football ‘ball’ was the preferred ‘instrument of play’, but we made do with smaller sized rubber ball, newspapers-bunched-into-a-ball-and-then-held-in-place-by-rubber-bands, heck, we used a pebble as a ball! A regular football ball, at that time, was an expensive commodity.
By the time I was in 6th grade, I was playing football on a daily basis, with most days being devoted to just football. The 6th grade is important here. Only from the 6th grade onwards were you allowed to even appear for trials for the school team. My school had a number of football teams, which were then sent out to participate in various tournaments. There were 4 such teams: 4’10”, 5’3”, A and Super A. The first two are self-evident, though may not seem so. 4 feet 10 inches – that was the limit. You could only be a part of this team if your height was 4’10” or less! Same with 5’3”. The A team consisted of players who were taller than 5’3” and up to 10th grade. Super A was made up of only 11th and 12th graders.
I went for the trials and was selected for the 4’10” team. Not much of a story here. My Dad expected it, my friends knew it (most were selected too) and I would have been devastated if I had not been. It was after the selection that the bigger event, which would have bearings in my future life, took place. The 4’10” tournaments were held in one of the 2 formats. Either it was held in Kolkata (where I’m from), over a period of few weeks, with one or two games per week. These games were scheduled after school hours. Or it was held in a boarding school in Asansol – a small town, 250 Km, or 6 hours by train, north-west of Kolkata – over 4 days. All teams went to Asansol for 5 or 6 days, stayed there in the ‘hostel’ and came back after the tourney was over. For a 11-year old staying away from home and family for almost a week, was a big deal. I left home when I was 18, for college. My week in Asansol gave me an edge over others.
In later years, I would make the 5’3” team. When I entered 10th grade, I had to pull myself away from getting into the team. This was solely on the insistence of my parents on the impending board exams (sort of like junior SAT, but with perhaps 10 times the pressure). I missed the 5’3” season. A few months to the actual exams, I was asked by the coach to come and play for the A team. I was excited, it was an honour. But he still needed to convince my parents; which he did by promising them that I would not have to attend any training sessions, and only turn up for the games. Similar incident played out again when I was in 12th grade (the actual SAT with maybe 20 times the pressure) and played in the Super A team.
In college, I was the first ever “1st year” (freshman) to be in the college team (not to be confused with the University team – I don’t even know if Nagpur University had a football team). I represented Infosys (my old work) in inter-office tourneys. But progressively, since my high school days, the days of actually playing football was looking like the 1st quadrant of the rectangular hyperbola. That changed in 2008 when I discovered the various football leagues in and around Minneapolis. My graph now looks like a parabola with axis parallel to the y-axis! Since January of 2008, in any time of the year, I have played in at least one league, generally in two. These are adult recreational leagues.
Not by any stretch of the imagination was I the best player my school had ever turned out. Make that ditto for my college, my old work and the amateur clubs that I currently play with. Neither did I ever match my father’s sublime skills. But what the hell – Joga Bonito! As for David Platt’s goal, I’m still working on the nuances and situations that would make me emulate the goal.