3 years

Cover Story: FIFA World Cup 2018

What Are We Doing There?

Deepak Narayanan is a Goa-based freelance journalist
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With no dog in the fight, Indians still travel the world to see the Cup

THE DECISION TO go to Brazil for the World Cup was taken the day they won the bid to host the 2014 finals—in July 2007. A friend-colleague-boss and I were at work and our logic was simple: South America’s turn to host the tournament— based on FIFA’s continental rotation policy—would next come in a couple of decades. And it was extremely unlikely that Brazil—the home of football if there ever was one—would host another one in our (for want of a better word) primes.

Now, by the time 2014 rolled along, the bravado of the twenty-seven-year-old me had been replaced by general middle-aged pragmatism—no time, no money... no point?

What changed? The friend-colleague-boss with whom the pact was made seven years ago was definitely going. Their tickets were booked, their hotels were sorted. “Are you guys coming?”

My wife and I discussed it for a week (maybe it was a month) before taking the only logical decision: max out our credit cards. And let me tell you one thing, maxing out our credit cards was possibly the single greatest decision we’ve taken in our lives.

The next few weeks were spent convincing others, and by the time the 2014 FIFA World Cup kicked off, eight of us had booked our flight tickets and we were on our way to the biggest party on earth—our very own version of Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara.

Let’s be clear what this is about: it’s one part self- indulgent recollection of the best vacation of my life. It’s also, at some level, an attempt to convince you to get into the World Cup ticket draw—for Russia (too late now, but give it a shot), Qatar, or maybe the one after that; to consider making the journey.

When all this started, it was about ‘going for a World Cup in Brazil’. Having been there, I can assure you it’s actually about ‘going for a World Cup’—even if you don’t watch football.

Here we go then, an attempt to piece together something coherent from what was a long, manic, exhilarating blur.

By the time the 2014 FIFA World Cup kicked off, eight of us had booked our flight tickets and we were on our way to the biggest party on earth

 

WE GET THERE in time for the first semi- final—favourites Germany versus hosts Brazil. We don’t have match tickets, but watching the game with 20,000 Brazilians at the fanzone in Sao Paulo is exciting enough (80 people at Cafe Mondegar in Colaba, Mumbai, was probably the largest football-watching ‘mob’ I’d been a part of).

I usually support Germany at international tournaments, but that day I really do want Brazil to win—I want to see the hosts explode out on to the streets to celebrate.

Brazil lose 7-1, and there is only the silence through those excruciating 90 minutes, and the ironic cheers when Brazil score a consolation goal at the end.

So how does a proud footballing nation respond to such public humiliation? What was the immediate aftermath of a result described in the papers the next morning as ‘the disgrace of all disgraces’ and ‘the biggest shame in history’?

Not wanting to get caught in any kind of rioting, we pick out a little roadside bar close to the apartment our friends are staying at. Here we meet a very angry bartender. He is pissed about the result, he is pissed with his boss, he is generally pissed with the world.

He has an interesting way of dealing with his misery—pouring giant drinks. I see him pour half a bottle of cachaca in a caipirinha. I switch to whisky. He pours me a glass topped up with whisky—that’s approximately a 220-ml drink. He truly gets our party started.

The only clear memory left of the night is of eight Indians sitting outside the bar chanting ‘Sachiiiiiin... Sachin’. I blame the bartender.

 

THE SECOND SEMI-FINAL is being played between two old favourites—Argentina and the Netherlands. We’re at Vila Madalena, a street lined with pubs and bars packed with football fans who’ve travelled from all over the world.

The Argentines settled all along the Copacabana stretch—Literally, as in they're cooking there, washing there, drying clothes on temporary lines there

Argentina win a tense penalty shoot-out to seal their place in the final. Outside the bar, a true football party is kicking off. The hosts—dealing with their hangovers—have ceded the street to the visitors, and a globe-trotting collection of football fanatics are making the most of it.

The only real street party I’d experienced before this was when India won the 2011 World Cup. We ended up at Carter Road in Mumbai, packed to the gills with singing, dancing, flag-waving, horn-tooting Indians. It was mad fun.

This is different, and not only because there’s also a lot of very chilled beer—cerveja—being sold out of thermocol boxes (if there’s one thing you learn very quickly about Brazilians it’s that they take the temperature of their beer very, very seriously).

A group of Sombrero-sporting Mexicans start a chant, ‘Messi-Messi-Messi’. As they raise the tempo, they sneakily switch to ‘Mexico-Mexico-Mexico’ leading to much amusement all around.

A bunch of Englishmen spot my Arsenal jacket (tip: football club accessories can be used for instant bonding) and we spend an hour buying each other drinks and singing Arsenal songs. We’re friends on Facebook even now.

The Argentinians sing loudest and proudest:

Brasil Decime Qui Se Siente/ Tener en Casa tu Papa.

Brazil how does it feel/ to have your daddy in your house.

And later in the chant...

A Messi lo van a ver, la Copa se va a traer/
Maradona es mas grande que Pele.

Messi with no fuss, will bring the Cup to us/

Maradona is greater than Pele.

This song will ring in our ears for the next four days. You literally can’t move 10 yards without hearing another bunch of Argentinians breaking into it.

This night is a celebration of a sport, not a result. It’s a coming together of fans from around the world, many of them with similarly maxed-out credit cards, bonded only by the love of watching 22 people kick a ball. It’s absolutely brilliant.

 

WE LAND IN Rio de Janeiro. We do a lot of sight-seeing. Some of us are exhausted. One of us has a toothache. We’re walking proof that there is such a thing as too much partying. We need some rest. So what do we do? We drag ourselves to Lapa, the nerve centre of Rio’s nightlife. We’ve sipped on a few cervejas, partaken of pastels but even though the streets are heaving, our heart’s really not in it.

This trip has been fairly unique in that we’ve been here almost a week and still haven’t run into any fellow Indians. Our ears perk up when we hear a group speak in Hindi on the next table. “India se?” we ask. “Nahin, Pakistan se.”

We’ve made half-hearted attempts to get our hands on tickets for the final, but at some point it became obvious watching the match on the beach would be pretty awesome

I don’t know if you’ve experienced this, but there’s an incredible and instant feeling of brotherhood I’ve felt every time I’ve met someone from Pakistan (in press boxes around the world, a hospital in Singapore, a pub in Nottingham... always the same).

This was no different. Within seconds, two tables become one. Within minutes, we’re best friends with Salman, Ali, Hassan and Noor. In ten minutes, we’re practically family. We discuss cricket. We discuss movies. We discuss how Argentina winning the World Cup at the Maracanã would be like Pakistan winning the cricket World Cup at the Wankhede. We might have discussed politics, I don’t remember.

Four hours later, we’re still at it, except that high- fives have now turned to hugs.

Four years later, I message Salman: ‘Hello Hello’.

His response, moments later: ‘Merey bhai!’

See, I told you, we’re family.

“HEY, CAN WE bum a smoke?”

“Sure, have you smoked Indian cigarettes before?”

Many, many conversations started with this exchange over the three weeks we were in Brazil, but none turned out to be as entertaining as the one on the night before the final.

We’re walking down the promenade adjoining the Copacabana. As you’d expect, there’s a street party of fairly epic proportions along the four-kilometre stretch.

“So, do you recognise this guy?” one of the cigarette- bummers asks, pointing at his friend.

“Nope, should I?”

“He’s Jimmy Jump. He jumps at football matches.”

“What does that mean? Don’t most fans jump at football matches?”

“No, he jumps the fence and runs on to the field.”

“Ah, got it, like the guy who almost got to the World Cup trophy before the final in South Africa?”

“That was Jimmy Jump! This is Jimmy Jump!”

The next few minutes are spent verifying this (apart from football matches, he has also managed to find his way on stage at the 2010 Eurovision. Google him on a rainy day, it’s guaranteed to impress you).

We start again, now playing the role of wide-eyed fans: “What happens once the cops tackle you?”

“Not much. A night in jail, a fine. Cops have bigger problems than a man running on to a field. In South Africa, they were strict. Two nights in jail... Hey can you get me tickets for a cricket match in India? I’ve never jumped at a cricket match.”

“I could, but I don’t know what the cops back home will do to you.”

“Don’t worry about that. I’ll manage.”

Really, Jimmy? Doesn’t going to jail put you off even one bit? For most people, one time in prison would be one time too many.

Not really. “Tonight jail, tomorrow legend.”

Someone needs to put that on a t-shirt.

 

IMAGINE YOU’RE part of this massive crowd described above. You spot a news camera, and a journalist valiantly trying to interview some fans. What do you do? The answer is universal, you sneak into the frame and wave.

The fact that we're from India wins us some points with the Argentinians fans, as has the fact that one of our gang has gone full Argentine. He had mugged up the lyrics of Brasil Decime Qui Se Siente, and every other chant he heard that week

Now imagine your surprise when you realise of all the cameras you could’ve jumped in front of—there were 40 or 50 of them from all over the world that night—the one you’ve picked belongs to an Indian news channel. Twelve hours and a few Whatsapp messages later, we have a clip of my wife maniacally video-bombing a broadcast, recorded off a television screen back in Chennai.

This was, without doubt, the most bizarre moment of the trip.

 

I WAS ROOTING FOR Brazil in the semi-final against Germany because I was hoping to see an entire country out celebrating on the streets. We got to see exactly that, but with Argentine fans instead.

Through the World Cup, they’ve been taking over Brazilian cities where Argentina have played, descending in such large numbers that it’s been described in a few places as an ‘invasion’.

The semi-final win seems to have been the cue for anyone left in Argentina to get into cars, vans, mini-buses, any set of wheels, and drive to Rio in time for the final.

The takeover of the Copacabana is complete. They’ve settled all along the stretch—literally settled, as in they’re cooking there, washing there, drying clothes on temporary lines there.

Rio’s locals—Cariocas—love this stretch. They play football here, work out here, hang out with their mates here. Every day. For these few days, they’ve been driven out to Ipanema, a few kilometres away.

Copa is officially base camp for the Argentine World Cup dream.

 

WE’VE MADE half-hearted attempts to get our hands on tickets for the final, but at some point it became obvious that watching the clash on the beach would be pretty awesome. The renovated Maracanã has a capacity of 75,000 people. Around 500,000 are expected to watch on this four- kilometre stretch of pristine, white sand.

Three of us are in Germany colours—three in a sea of blue-and-white. They treat us with amusement. For days now, the Copa stretch has been split down the middle: on the beach side are the Argentines singing, dancing, playing football; the other side of the stretch, at the fancier hotels, cafes and bistros, is where you see the German fans.

The fact that we’re from India wins us some points with the Argentinian fans around us, as has the fact that one of our gang has gone full Argentine (he had mugged up the lyrics of Brasil Decime Qui Se Siente, and every other chant he heard from any Argentine that week).

We find a spot four hours before kick-off, at one of the five or six giant screens that have been set up. Clear view of the screen? Check. Caipirinha guy within shouting distance? Check.

By kick-off time, both boxes have been unchecked. The crowd’s packed in so tight that no one except the tallest among us has a really clear view of the screen. And we’ve been there for so long now that we don’t really need any Caipirinhas any more.

Unlike most football games, I remember very little of the match itself: I remember Gonzalo Higuain’s miss in the first half, which sparked the loudest collective groan I have ever heard. I remember Mario Götze scoring towards the end of injury time, which sparked the loudest collective silence I have ever heard. I remember being ushered out before the final whistle by friends we had made that day. They’d spotted trouble brewing and knew the German colours would not go down as well now as it had done earlier in the day.

And I remember a lot of people. Not just from the beach that day, but from the entire trip. The angry bartender in Sao Paulo, the Arsenal fan at Vila Madelena, merey bhai from Pakistan, Jimmy Jump, the couple that tapped us on our shoulder at Copa to say “go, go quickly now... this way”, the brothers from Uruguay who made the best Caipirinhas in the world, the Cariocas who my friend played football with (brave man), another friend meeting a journalist he follows on Twitter. So many people from so many countries and so many different cultures all packed into one great memory.

Maxing out your credit cards to go for a party is never a good idea—if that party is the football World Cup, it becomes kind of acceptable.

PS: The bills have finally been paid off.

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The Last Glory
Golden Feet
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Big Bear Hug
Romancing Brazil
The Fault in Their Stars
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