Some time ago, I transferred my loyalty firmly from cricket to football. It has music. The players move in a pattern of waves, which can suddenly turn into cascading beauty.


It is in some ways like the gliding notes of a Raag that get self-indulgently waylaid by a staccato phrase. The final match of the European Cup 2016 could thus be likened to a Shostakovich symphony or a mesmeric moment in Chitti Babu’s mind as the veena wizard flirted, say, with a radiant Raag like Devgandhari. The solitary goal of the Sunday match was scored for Portugal by the battle-scarred Éder. The lanky player was substituting for skipper Cristiano Ronaldo, injured minutes into the game. Allow me the musical allegory here again, for Ronaldo’s injury and Éder’s arrival was like a moment in Ali Akbar Khan’s imperious concert at the Modern School lawns in Delhi in the late 1970s. The main string of the sarod had snapped. The concert paused though the tabla accompanist continued to softly keep the beat going. The ustad put on his professorial pince-nez to deal with the delicate surgery. The string carefully replaced, the sarod returned, the concert resumed, somewhat like Éder’s entry. His pirouetting goal was like the ‘sum’, the rhythmic climax, after a long undulating phrase in a musical bandish. Football, I am beginning to feel, kindles an amateur but possibly political interest too in the sociology and history of human compact. Football for one has a far more impressive genealogy than cricket. When Alauddin Khilji, one of the controversial sultans of Delhi, to conjure an example, was branding his military horses as an administrative innovation in 1314, the lord mayor of London was dictating a proclamation that year to forbid football within the city for the chaos it usually caused.

Football kindles an amateur but possibly political interest too in the sociology and history of human compact.

Sir Arthur Grimble has recorded in an absorbing account in A Pattern of Islands of how cricket spread to far-flung Gilbert and Ellice Islands following the British conquest of Australia. The book provides early sociology into Harbhajan Singh saying (or not saying) decades later something abusive to a colored Australian player. Grimble also anticipated in a way Javed Miandad’s on-field threat to smash Dennis Lillee’s head with the bat, which was in response to a push he got from the bowler. What is today called sledding in cricket terms may have had its nascent rise on the Ocean Island in the 1920s.“One Abakuka (Habakkuk) so played a rising ball that it span up his arm and, by some fluke, lodged inside the yellow and purple shirt with which he was honoring our game,” Grimble observed of a match one day. The wicketkeeper ran forward and grappled with the batsman, intending to seize the ball and so catch him out.“After a severe struggle, Abakuka escaped and fled. The whole field gave chase. The fugitive, hampered by pads donned upside down (to protect his insteps from full-pitchers) was overtaken on the boundary. Even handicapped as he was, he would hardly have been caught had he not tried there, by standing on his head, to decant the ball from his shirt-front; and though held, feet in air, he resisted the interference with such fury that it took all that eleven masses of brown brawn could do to persuade the leather from his bosom.”I am sure there was romance too in cricket. It was at least partly his cricketing prowess that made Indian movie actress Sharmila Tagore find her Prince Charming in the Nawab of Pataudi. But cricket’s halcyon days seem to have been buried deep with the arrival of Nita Ambani and Shahrukh Khan as the sport’s nouveau riche entrepreneurs. What must be standard fare for veteran soccer fans, came to me, a newcomer, as a sociological experience. Watching the players line up for the national anthems, I could not help noticing that half of the Portugal team and half of the French team were made up of African Europeans, Éder being one among the lot. There was Eliseu, Jaoa Mário, Danilo Pereira, William Carvalho and Renato Sanches on the Portuguese side. The French team had Blaise Matuidi, Bacary Sagna, Paul Pogba and Dimitri Payet. Patrice Evra who played for France was born in Senegal, the erstwhile hub of the nefarious slave trade of which both Portugal and France were the leading rivals. If this is how we have evolved so be it. It was a blessing to see the intense racial mingling even if the scars of the past continue to resurface periodically, as they have done over the last few days in the United States. Then again, in Wimbledon the other day, Serena Williams had the last laugh as she equaled Steffi Graff’s record of seven wins. It is saddening that some people in northern India have not grasped the way to show respect to black African visitors as Indians once did. Since the human family is supposed to have branched out from Africa into the distant corners of the world, soccer may well be linked to the movement. The very earliest form of the game for which there is scientific evidence was an exercise from a military manual dating back to the second and third centuries BC in China. This Han dynasty forebear of football was called Tsu’ Chu and it is believed to have consisted of kicking a leather ball filled with feathers and hair through an opening, measuring only 30-40cm in width, into a small net fixed onto long bamboo canes. What could be behind the lack of its popularity in much of north India? As I grapple with the questions, I notice that Bengalis do play good soccer, on both sides of the border. So do Malayalis and Goans. A vague hunch could be that these are all areas where beef is a staple food. But then why is it not popular in Pakistan?

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.