Prime Edition

Shougat Dasgupta
A Fan’s Notes

Can football save the idea of the World Cup?

Sony Six’s panel of “experts”

fter the sound and the fury, it's a relief when the footballers line up on the green, green, apparently spray-painted grass and play begins. The opening game between the hosts Brazil and Croatia — as full of shoddiness and incompetence as it was athleticism, toughness and skill — was a reminder that football is beguiling because each game is a story. Sometimes there are longueurs, passages you wish you could skip; sometimes conclusions are unsatisfying or unjust; there is tragedy, comedy, farce; players achieve beauty, even grace, and are also venal, stupid, thuggish, mean.

Football — whether in the compressed intensity of a single game or the epic sprawl of an entire tournament — gives us the text on which we will perform a frenzied, month-long exegesis, the sort that reveals more about us, the readers, than it does about the thing itself. In the end, football is about shared experience. And if the ludicrous figures being bandied about are true, 40% of the world is tuned into the same unfolding narrative. What an opportunity, in our different interpretations built from different experiences, to learn something about each other!

Of course, people talking freely to each other is the sort of thing that causes autocratic, opaque organisations like FIFA to break out into hives. Hence, their obsession with mediating the World Cup experience. Think what it takes to host a World Cup now, the need to spend billions of dollars that the host country will not recoup — since FIFA takes so much, $4.5 billion, and redistributes so little — and to squeeze and twist the country, however tightly and temporarily, into an arbitrary

FIFA-approved shape. Fans will not be going to Brazil to watch the World Cup but to FIFA-land, populated by a global middle class wearing approved replica jerseys, eating McDonald's, drinking Coke and Budweiser, and listening not to samba but to the execrable Pitbull and Jennifer Lopez. It's a branded world hermetically sealed by RoboCop riot police.

f you're watching on TV, hopefully wearing an official replica kit, Bud in hand, the game itself is only a fraction of hours of propaganda programming helmed by a halfwit reading from a script, ex-footballers content to mouth clichés and cash their cheques, and "celebrities" incapable of anything other than inane small talk. It is a grotesque parody of discussion, of interpretation. On TV too, Brazil doesn't appear to exist beyond brochure-ready "pretty, pretty pictures", as Sony Six host Gaurav Kapur kept breathily, creepily repeating, saliva pooling at the corners of his mouth. 

People talking freely to each other causes autocratic, opaque organisations like FIFA to break out into hives. Hence, their obsession with mediating the World Cup experience.

How much contempt do they have for us?

But there is a depressing tendency I've noticed in Delhi, maybe confined to new football fans and day trippers, for people to refer to the World Cup as the FIFA World Cup or just FIFA, like the video game. When did the World Cup become the FIFA World Cup? When did FIFA go from being a steward of the global game to thinking of itself as the game's owner, the game's tinpot panjandrum? Surely stories are harder to control, to manipulate. Surely sanitised stories are easily seen through. Surely, sooner or later, people stop paying attention and seek out, or even create, newer stories, truer stories.

Not much can be speculated about the potential quality of this World Cup with just the opening match having been played before this column had to be filed, but the best World Cups have generally had the following: goals; a performance from the hosts (this host above all); an undeserving loser; a gallant underdog; at least one game of the highest possible tactical and technical sophistication; at least one game to exercise the emotions; and at least one manifestly great player at the apex of his ability and form.

Frankly, as a football fan, I need this to be a great World Cup to continue to care. FIFA has led a once magnificent competition to the precipice, waiting perhaps till 2022 to administer the fatal shove. Can the football played on the pitch save the idea of the World Cup? For that to happen, this World Cup will have to slip FIFA's anaesthetising grip and bewitch people into imagining, into fantasising, into talking, into thinking, into playing, into reclaiming the World Cup for the world. It's a lot to ask.

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