World Cup 2014: The agony and the ecstasy

By the end of the semi-final between Argentina and the Netherlands I had tears in my eyes. I am not a football follower, and though I was backing Argentina, it was quite a low energy backing, simply because I have never watched football games, played very few matches, that too only in the games periods in my school, and the game never set me on fire. But still, the semi-final turned me a bit into jelly by the time it ended.

That’s because though football is not my game, it is ecstasy and despair for people in both the countries playing the semi-final. Through a large part of the match I was a detached observer of a brilliant game of soccer in which every player on both sides seemed to be playing for his very life. The dance of footballing energy on the field was mesmerising, lilting, other-worldly. It seemed the two sides were at war. There were numerous rough moments, and the friendly gestures among rival players after such moments only brought out the powerful underlying current of tension electrifying the field. After a foul tackle, a pat on the back of the aggrieved by the aggressor seemed to say, ‘You see buddy, these things will happen, but I don’t want this to get in the way of my dream. So let’s get on. Cool nerves make a better player.’ And then the dance would resume.
If somebody said all paths ultimately lead to nirvana, the match was its proof. The players were in a samadhi-like state. No wonder Swami Vivekanand said football can be more apt for the spiritual ascension of Indian youth than mere asceticism. And while love and war were happening together on the field, the reactions of the support staff, the coaches and the crowd made the theatre throb with life and death at every passing moment. The emotions dancing on the faces of the spectators showed how much football was not just a game but the whole world condensed into a playing field and an entire lifetime drawn into 90 minutes of play.
But through much of this titanic drama, I remained a riveted but still non-playing witness, unlike the spectators in the stadium shown on my TV. They were not just watching the game but playing it along with the players, matching them in involvement and intensity.

But then the regular playtime ended, and the flames leaping at me from the TV screen became redder and hotter. And from a spectator, I too started becoming a player, a player in the Argentinian blue and white jersey, playing the match of a lifetime with my dear Messi, passing balls to him, patting him on the back, pacing restlessly with his coach, my pulse rising and falling more and more with every move on the field. My heart followed my eyes as they ran back and forth, up and down with the ball on the field. But I still remained an indifferent onlooker of football, the game itself. No it was not football being played out there.

It’s never the game itself. Never any game, in any arena or field of activity, in any theatre of war or love. I called the semi-final game other-worldly earlier. Yes, all games, all human endeavour, all the striving, sweating, praying, swearing, yelling, crying and leaping is a leap of energy into higher realms, deeper planes, where we see men running on a field with a ball, transform into another world. Men become heroes, villains, gods, devils, and the little ball becomes large enough to contain the whole universe and anything that’s left after that too. Football was never my game, my universe. Football players were never my gods and devils. And that did not change with the semi-final game. But just as a spectator watching this piece of theatre casually began to grip me. When it got more and more real, I took in less and less of the humid monsoon air in my room as extra time rolled. I survived instead on higher voltages of bioelectricity, that touched me from everyone in the stadium.
Football means nothing to me. I hardly understand the game. I even find it rather stupid somehow, the very idea of 22 adults and their nations being driven nuts by a ball. But I could understand the play in the eyes of the spectators, the coaches, the players. This play was the real game. Football is just one of the games that stages this play. There are so many other games that do this, in fact, everything in the world is an excuse to make this play happen. A timeless and universal play happening all the time, everywhere.

And when this play started transcending the bounds of this world to leap further again  into realms of existence that don’t remain this-worldly but become other-worldly, when the sounds of the play started peaking into silences, I become a player too, not of the game of football, but of this play. The penalty shootout made me wonder whether there’s actually someone, maybe God, orchestrating the universe. For the shootout was the perfect crescendo of a magnificently composed piece of game. And when it all ended, I was crying, in joy for Argentina, and in pain for the Netherlands.
A few years back I had gone to Tirupati to visit Balaji, an idol of Lord Vishnu. Somehow, I was not quite in a reverential frame of mind while winding my way slowly to the black idol in a long queue of devotees. But everybody else was feverishly chanting their Lord’s name. ‘Govinda, Govinda’ rent the air. I was sceptical, all kinds of questions swirling in my mind: ‘What is it after all? Who is Balaji? What is this idol? What is special about it? Who is God? Is this idol God?’ And then I was in front of the idol. I tried to look for God in it, but could not see him. But as I started moving away, in a flash I saw God—in the eyes of the devotees. Yes, there was God in the way they were looking at the idol. The idol was God, because numerous devotees had God in their eyes when they saw the idol. And that moved me to tears. That’s what happened in the semi-final match. A game of football moved me to tears because there were tears in the eyes of its devotees.
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