Every four years, when the world crowns a new football champion, I root for Brazil. I grew up a being a Brazil fan — my father told me Pele was the greatest athlete ever.
As I grew older I wondered why my homeland wasn’t able to field a team to play in the World Cup. After all, when I was a young girl in Kolkata, I watched my cousins and friends kick the ball around with bare feet on a dirt field in the neighborhood park. Even now, every open field sports a goal net or stumps and bails.
So why then can’t an emerging global power, a nation of 1 billion plus, compete in soccer?
Why is India ranked a miserable 133rd out of the 202 football playing countries. Yes, India ranks even below war-ravaged nations like Rwanda and Sierra Leone. I suppose our only solace is that Pakistan and Bangladesh come even further down the list.
Many theories abound on India’s poor performance.
Some say India’s soccer program is run by people who are corrupt. They are more interested in lining their pockets than they are in athletics. The head of the football federation is, for God’s sake, the aviation minister!
Others say India’s real love is that other sport that Americans have yet to embrace, the one that involved the stumps and bails: cricket. Or that club football has never attained the kind of professionalism it has in other countries.
India last qualified for the World Cup in 1950. But the barefooted team never made it to Brazil to play because they couldn’t afford plane tickets to the other side of the world.
A football fanatic friend of mine says India can’t play anymore because it has fallen behind the curve. For many years, players insisted on bare feet when other nations were speeding ahead with fancy spikes, special grass and other new technology.
Instead, in my hometown, millions of people are crazy for Brazil. I remember watching World Cup games in 1998 — the crowds lining the streets were awash in yellow, blue and green. They cried openly when France defeated their team in the final. I felt as though I were on the beach in Ipanema, among Rio de Janeiro’s Cariocas — not in a middle-class Bengali neighborhood of Kolkata.
So I am forced to root for a country other than my own again this year. I have to reserve the Indian flag for that other World Cup, the one that involves the stumps and bails. India plays host next year. Maybe they will even nab their second Cup win.