A friend pointed out to me recently that I didn’t appear to be such a fanatic tennis follower 20 years ago as I appear to have become now, or worse, I didn’t even seem to be interested in sport at all in those days. Was that below the belt or really true? I did lots of athletics in school but not much after that. I’ve watched every Wimbledon they showed on TV since the first in the 1970s. In my youth I walked the minefield of fandom between Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, once even defecting to Roscoe Tanner because I liked his perm. I remember the great Jal Pardiwala, sports consultant to my school in Mumbai, enthralling us with his experiences at the Montreal Olympics of 1976 and especially the perfection of wunderkind gymnast Nadia Commenici. We all looked at the horses and parallel bars at the gym with greater enthusiasm but little skill.
I have seen several cricket matches live and a few tennis ones. But even as sport re-entered my life a few years ago as perhaps it had exited in my 20s and early 30s, I have yet to get my head around the beautiful game. It was when I moved to Calcutta in the late 1970s that I realised what an addiction football was. Mohun Bagan played East Bengal and the city came to a standstill. Half the people bought prawns to celebrate, the other half bought hilsa either to celebrate or commiserate. Don’t know which is which but do know that everything is about food to a Bengali!
The closest I had been to football before in Bombay were the matches played at the Cooperage which we saw and heard when Road Safety Patrol duty took us to the traffic park next door. It is safe to say that Bombay did not stop on those days. I saw Pele bring all of Calcutta out on the streets. I watched the 1986 World Cup on television and all I remember are the names Platini, Schumacher and a penalty shootout.
But every attempt to retain the difference between a midfielder and a centre-forward has been futile. I can watch tennis all day. But 10 minutes of watching men run around a giant field chasing a ball and my eyes glaze over, my hand stretches for the remote. I find to my shame that I would rather watch curling, that oddly intriguing winter Olympic sport where a squat granite ball is pushed along a stretch of ice. I even watch cricket now and then especially that much-hated IPL (being female, this is allowed).
I have tried every World Cup and some leagues, know the names of football teams, can recognise some footballers and even some of their surgically enhanced groupies. I read the newspaper articles. I even tried this Euro. But it still looks the same, these tiny little figures running, running, running. Sometimes they fall on the ground and squirm and then they run some more. Yes it’s exciting when they score a goal but you don’t need a philistine like me to tell you that!
When I try too hard, it gets worse. I start thinking about how this game perhaps originated when rival English villagers gathered to kick stones along the roads, paths, fields as hundreds gathered and no one cared if anyone got hurt or died. And then notice how that war-like atmosphere still prevails. A football match is far more likely to feature violence outside the sports field than perhaps any other sport. See, all this is judgmental and unfair. To some their vuvuzelas, to me the umpire going “Quiet please”.
And so the order of my Universe is restored. So what does that say about me and the sporting life?
Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona