Soccer and Srinagar

 By  Faheem Jeelani



Great creative pursuits have an inherent capacity in them to transcend the actual performance. Some of the most finest musical concerts in past couple of decades, like Guns n Roses’ ’92  Tokyo, wasn’t just about the music.

It reached to a folklore stage where the color of Axl Rose’s chequered skirt is probably discussed as much as Slash’s joint puff right in between the performance on stage. The packed crowd in the stadium singing in choir ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ is probably as much closer as one can get to a heaven’s door.Literally. At least that’s what it felt like.

Every four years there was a sort of migration in our home at downtown Khanyar- living with a large joint family. TV would be shifted to the drawing room and men folk would stay up till late in the night watching the greatest spectacle in sports perhaps matching only the Roman gladiator games of yore. Yes, the football world cup.

My love affair began in Italia ’90. My first world cup. Enamored already by the sport, a couple of years ago when the dread locked Dutch captain Rudd Gullit took Holland to Euro ’88 victory, defeating the erstwhile Soviet Union in the final.

I remember watching the game with my football fan uncle and pestering him by the end of the game to get me Gullit’s dreadlocks. My bedroom wall many years later when we shifted to Srinagar suburban’s, was still laden with Gullit and Marco Van Basten posters. There is somethings about first love which is impossible to overcome.

In the summer of ’90, Kashmir was under the throes of a war. The armed uprising that had had begun the preceding autumn had engulfed the city especially. Rebels would roam openly with arms on shoulders in the by lanes of downtown Srinagar- bemused and naive, still carrying images of Afghan war in our consciousness- the hope of a new dawn rose every day with the sun in us, in what was a pleasantly sunny summer.

Greatly inspired but naive, images of victory of the Afghan war were figuring large in our consciousness. The hope of a new dawn rose every day with the sun in us, in what was a pleasantly sunny summer.

The inaugural world cup match witnessed the mother of all upsets. The enterprising African side, Cameroon, defeated the defending champions Argentina, led by the dancing feet owner- the mercurial prodigy Diego Maradona.

I remember the match ended well into past the midnight and we were all disappointed at seeing a champion disgraced in the manner he was. But the sport was the winner that night in Italy. The corner dance by Roger Miller is a signature memory from that year.

As the world cup progressed, Italia ’90 continued to sprungmore surprises and new heroes. The Sicilian eyed Salvatore Schillaci became a household name around the world in a matter of few weeks. The ease with which he scored goals ensured Italia ’90 had its moments of drama.

It was also the last world cup for many countries like Yugoslavia, Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and West Germany. With the cold war coming to an end, Europe’s geography was redrawn again. In a way Italia ’90 was the last draw of straw into a world of post-World WarII that was fast changing.

West Germany went onto win the world cup, defeating Argentina in the final, but it wasn’t before some drama in the semi-finals- both games etched into the legends of world cup history. Gary Lineker, bad boy Paul Gascoigne, Roberto Baggio, Zenga, Peter Shilton were names that I over played in my mind that year, well after the world cup ended.

In between those 31 days, I somewhere fell in love with Italy. My first real introduction to names like Rome, Milan, Palermo, Napoli, and Genoa had me in primeval tap. The child in me dreamt of the magic there sound produced in my ears.

The flirtation with the sport with time waned, as cricket took precedence, however, the enthusiasm was reignited in the next world cup in USA ’94. The matches were played in the heat of the summer to match the timings in Europe. For us it was again a month of sleepless nights. Heated and tense drawing room saw our family again regrouping; hot tea pots keeping us awake. Roberto Baggio’s pony tail was the biggest fashion statement of the decade- him missing the goal post in the penalty shoot of the final against Brazil, crest fallen, hands on the hips, was a classic story of soccer world cup too.

For us in Srinagar, it was once again a month of sleepless nights. Our family was again gathering in a heated and tense drawing room.  Unending cups of steaming tea were keeping us awake.

In the second round game, bitter adversaries, US and Iran played each other – a political pot boiler if there was any. The match however was played in a sporting spirit with the captains exchanging their jerseys after the game ended, suggesting how a sport has the capacity to transcend. Enmities can be forgotten. Temporarily however.

The marked difference in how Latin Americans approached the sport as compared to their European counterparts is always evident in world cups. It is widely believed that the SouthAmerican’s play with heart and Europeans with mind.

No side other than Germany proves this adage. They will bore you with their tactics- tight on defence, rarely giving away a goal, with the results mostly on their side. They are consistently good, but not exciting.

As the new world cup approaches, played in Russia- it will be a sort of redemption on the battle turfs of Stalingard for favorites Germans. While the cold and snow of Russia of 40s, halted a high on nationalist Fuhrer’s panzer army, the Axis forces must be ready to reclaim, come June the 14th.


Faheem is a IT professional, based in Dubai, with interest in travel, history and literature.


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