But as I sit down to write this column, which is six days before the D-day, the fun had already gone out of the tournament: can you imagine a World Cup final without the spirit of Brazil or the temperament of Argentina?
Two European teams clashing in the final is rather a tame affair — it is like two teams from the neighbourhood playing soccer in the local park. That’s why I prefer cricket, because a cricket match becomes interesting — and fierce — when two neighbours play.
But then, I know you hate cricket and you are probably more familiar with Manchester United that Lancashire. By ‘you’, I mean readers who not only love football but also hate cricket, and it is to them I am presenting my case.
Cricket, its critics always say, is a game of chance. One moment you hit a six, and the next moment you are out. Cricket, they might love to quote George Bernard Shaw, “is a game played by 22 fools and followed by 22,000 fools.” But for me, it is a far more pleasant sight to watch two men chasing a small ball than two men trying to wrest control of a much bigger ball. The former act is gentlemanly, while the latter is roguish. If I were a woman — especially an Indian woman — I would fall for a ball-chaser than a ball-grabber.
Moreover, the dramatist’s namesake, George Orwell, has referred to football as a sport that is “bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.”
Orwell said this in his 1945 essay, “The Sporting Spirit”. Not that he was particularly lenient towards cricket. Said he: “Even a leisurely game like cricket, demanding grace rather than strength, can cause much ill-will, as we saw in the controversy over body-line bowling and over the rough tactics of the Australian team that visited England in 1921. Football, a game in which everyone gets hurt and every nation has its own style of play which seems unfair to foreigners, is far worse. Worst of all is boxing. One of the most horrible sights in the world is a fight between white and coloured boxers before a mixed audience.”
But at least he acknowledged the grace of cricket. That is why I love cricket. Did I hear you saying that it is just a game of chance? I was coming to that. True, cricket can be a game of chance. Imagine a bowler coming in to bat when his team is 295 for nine and the target is 300. And he is facing the last bowl of the last over. He blindly swings the bat without even seeing the ball and in the process hits a six. His team has won! Alternatively, he could have been clean bowled and his team would have lost. That's a matter of chance. But it is certainly not a matter of chance that his team could put together a total of 295.
If you still insist that cricket is a game of chance, then what is penalty shoot-out in football? Two teams, as in 22 men, kick a ball around for nearly two hours, and still no goal is scored. Victory is, finally, decided by the ability of their respective goalkeepers to stop the ball, kicked by a member of the opposing team from only a few yards away, from reaching the goal. The predicament of the goalkeeper, in such a nail-biting moment, is no different from that of the no. 10 batsman coming out to face the last ball of the match. It's a do or die situation for them.
But such a do-or-die situation is more frustrating in football, because the penalty shoot-out happens only after the two teams have settled the match between themselves — 0-0, 1-1, 2-2 and so on — in front of millions of spectators. But since there can be only one winner, the penalty shootout brings about an artificial result on the basis of five kicks each.
Can it get more frustrating? Ask the Argentinian team, which was kicked out of the tournament even though it was eyeball to eyeball with the Germans. Ask David Beckham, whose years of stardom climaxed into a disgraceful exit as the England captain after his team lost to Portugal on the basis of penalty shootout. In short, the penalty shootout makes you the loser even when you have not lost a match. It reduces a fiercely-fought match into a game of chance.
That's why I prefer cricket. In any case, football matches are awfully short: they get over even before you can finish your drink or popcorn. Cricket matches, on the other hand, suit the lazy Indian temperament. They are like family picnic: you take it easy the whole day but still manage to do your own thing in between overs.
(The column was written for Sunday morning.)