Argentina · World Cup 2010

The child within

Back in my formative years, during the previous century, I was one very concerned 5-year-old. Concerned for football, that is.

1978 FIFA World Cup PosterThat was a very important year for me. I was already a football nut thanks to my family’s influence, particularly my grandfather who instilled a deep love for the sport, though never managed to instill love for his club side, San Lorenzo. My mother and father are both River Plate fans, so that was pretty much that when it came to choosing a side.

But that year, 1978, was also significant because the FIFA World Cup was played in, and won by, my native Argentina. Some of my earliest memories are of celebrating the “miraculous” 6-0 win over Peru that qualified Argentina for the final of the Cup and of being out in the street with my parents and brother, and just about every one of the 25 million Argentines across the country, to celebrate the 3-1 overtime victory over the Dutch.

None of this is what made me concerned of course. In many ways, cheering for a country that won the World Cup when I was 5 and 13 years old has given me an unjustified sense of entitlement in regard to the World Cup.

Back in 78, however, my biggest concern wasn’t whether Argentina would repeat in ’82 (Of course they would! They were the best team in the world and they had this new kid called Maradona who was supposedly pretty good), but rather the growing realisation that the year 2000 was a mere 22 years away. My burgeoning math skills had helped me reach the conclusion that I would be 27 when football would end forever. After all, I reasoned, who could possibly concentrate on football when by that time we would all be riding in flying cars, talking on video phones and travelling to the moon with mundane regularity.

Yes, my predictions were very wrong. But at 5, I could hardly be expected to see the coming of the Internet and other, more sensible, developments. A child’s view of the world is shaped very much by their early experiences and those things we love, and hate, are bigger than life. Our teams are all unbeatable, until, of course, they are actually beaten. An event that seemed to occur with frustrating regularity to this toddle’s point-of-view.

My parents tell me that I actually cried when Argentina lost against a “Rest of the World” team in a post-World Cup exhibition match. Talk about meaningless games, now I would see that as barely worth watching. (I would still watch, of course, because that’s the kind of sheep-like fan that I am.)

I remember a scene that stuck with me when I was reading Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, a book which is a must-read for any football fan, and even more so for those people who love football fans but have little passion or interest for the sport.

Hornby recalls a match shortly after becoming an Arsenal fan. Arsenal had won the league in the previous season and were playing a pre-season match. The players had barely bothered to show up to the pitch, much less put in an effort. The fans likewise, attending more out of inertia from the previous season’s league title and desire to see their heroes than actual interest in the result. It all added up to an Arsenal loss that was as predictable as it was comprehensive. Neither players nor fans were much bothered by the result, except of course for young Nick.

Hornby was standing in the Clock End in Highbury, bawling his eyes out and watching, incredulously, as his fellow “fans” filed out of the ground with little concern in their manner. How could they be so calm? How could they crack jokes even? Arsenal had lost! LOST!!

Yes, I remember that feeling. That “don’t-you-care?” feeling, that wave of nausea as you realise that one of the things you love most in this world has been horribly treated and it … just … doesn’t … matter.

And that’s when you start growing up as a football fan.

Fortunately for me, I never had to put any money on the line on my notions of my own teams’ superiority. The objectivity required for betting was far beyond me at that point. But not beyond Thailand’s youth it seems.

The government of Thailand will be issuing printed guides for parents to help them teach children not to gamble. Apparently, during this past World Cup, there were reports of children as young as 7 making bets on game outcomes and other wagers.

As a young boy, could I ever really have put money on anything but Argentina winning? My religious faith was already flagging at that young age, riddled with doubts which would only grow stronger, but my faith in the albiceleste was absolute and overwhelming.

That boy is still inside me. He was the one waking up my wife at 2 am in the morning when Gabriel Heinze scored a header against Nigeria to put Argentina ahead in their first group match (and 4 times against South Korea, I was banned to watch matches in the living room after that). He was the one telling me that maybe Maradona could do it. That it was possible, after all we had Messi, Tévez, Mascherano — living gods of football practically.

But that boy is only now a small voice in my mind, dominated by the much larger one that was born from defeat and frustration. His concerns are still there, they’re just tempered by experience and logic.

But just in case, I still don’t gamble on football.

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