Everyone’s journey with football is unique in its own way, and is more often than not encapsulated by one poignant memory. World Cups are usually the building block for one’s love for the beautiful game: hazy memories stem from watching the game, but not understanding it. But it is through watching national teams spar against one another on a world stage where we realise one important truth. For all of the club rivalries, there is something special about international football, whether it be the rare spectacle of a World Cup, the passion or national pride. And hence while we all love our dose of weekly football, excitement is dialed up several notches when the World Cup nears.
It may seem strange then that my journey with football began with the 2014 World Cup. It was neither my first nor my last interaction with the sport, but it certainly was the first time I fell in love with the game and the thrills it produces. I fell in love with football off-pitch. There have been four World Cups in my lifetime: I was too young for 2002, remember vague newspaper cuttings from 2006, while I followed 2010 sporadically during a holiday, other than Siphiwe Tshabalala’s opening goal. Growing up, I used to scoff at football – funnily, preferring cricket, the chosen Indian way of life. But something clicked in 2014.
Everyone needs a catalyst. I began to realise the widespread influence football has on societies as the World Cup neared. I began to realise the spectacle that it was. And there was no better time to embrace this than Brazil 2014, the spiritual home of football, home of the samba and the outrageous skills. There was romanticism to it, and it felt like a big party in a foreign, unique land. I was hooked immediately, and why wouldn’t I be? Robin van Persie’s flying header and a 5-1 demolition of Spain displayed the utter brilliance of the sport in one short, brutal game.
Spending the group stages high up in Lhasa was no deterrent to following the game. There was Pepe’s characteristic red card against Germany. I struggled to keep my eyes open in a hotel far away from Salvador, Brazil, host to the tantalising encounter between Germany and Portugal. I was in Lhasa, Tibet, at an altitude of around 3,500 metres, but height was no deterrent as I tried to stay awake for the game. This was the 2014 World Cup, the first one I was truly invested in.
Living in Southeast Asia provides a paradox to football fans. The national teams don’t pose enough (or any) competition to the big guns in the continent and are often reduced to sideshows in World Cup qualifications. Most successes stem from regional tournaments, but that is hardly a dampener for the sport’s popularity. In Singapore, local football has its ardent followers, but as with the rest of Asia, the Premier League is the real deal. But when the World Cup rolls into town, everyone is hooked on it, with a wide variety of countries supported, whether it be Germany, Spain, France or England. Loyalties lie with favourite players, and that’s generally the determining factor. Singapore may not compete in the World Cup, but the fever is universal.
With my support in its infancy, I was eager to lap it up, as much as possible. The time difference should not be forgotten – Brazil was on the other side of the world, meaning games were generally in the 12am, 3am and 6am slots. It’s hardly ideal to wake up with an alarm to watch football, but for the World Cup you’d do anything. I remember sitting up to watch Brazil-Chile, where Mauricio Pinilla’s extra time shot careened off the crossbar. It was a moment of heartbreak, especially after Chile lost the penalty shootout. And yet the hosts, Brazil, lived on for another day. The World Cup is all about dreams hanging on a thin line. It ramps up the anxiety and excitement.
I remember Tim Howard’s 16 saves against Belgium, a Captain America-esque show of pure shot-stopping brilliance. My team of choice was Belgium, the underdogs, but was wowed by Howard’s heroism. This was a tournament for goalkeepers – Guillermo Ochoa, Keylor Navas, Rais M’Bolhi and Tim Krul would all make headlines. Belgium eventually got through, but that game, and Howard, remains freshly imprinted on my mind. They lost to Argentina in the next round, of course, to much disappointment.
It’s impossible to forget Brazil’s 7-1 capitulation to Germany, neither can the manner of those four goals in six minutes be erased. It was an epochal moment: one of deep failure for the home country, one of stunned euphoria for the Germans. It was certainly the defining moment of the World Cup, with a dream crushed in mere minutes. And then, of course, was the final: cagey and tight until Mario Gotze’s dream winner as a substitute. All went to bedlam as Germany lifted the cup. Four years was a long time to wait back then.
But it’s always worth it. That World Cup kicked off an interest in football that was always dormant; I eventually got into writing on the sport. Standing on the brink of Russia 2018, it stuns me to think that I had no interest in the sport one World Cup cycle ago. Life is strange: we fall into unlikely situations by chance only to find that it’s a perfect fit. This was akin to that; I had no skill in football, but you don’t need to play to understand the game. I am no tactical aficionado, but my love for the game is centered around stories. Heroes and villains. National pride. That’s why 2014 will always have a special place in my heart, as the year when a new chapter of my sporting journey unexpectedly opened.
Thanks Brazil, thanks for everything. Football, we’re just getting started.