My mom is almost never emotionally invested in anyone she hasn’t birthed or is related to by blood. Worse, for someone who brought up – and even indulged, in her own way – a sports-obsessed child, she has very little interest in sport, emotional or intellectual. There has always been one glorious exception – the fate of the Argentina men’s football team every four years at the FIFA World Cup.
If you have been born and brought up (particularly in the 80s/90s) in the eastern part of India, chances are your love for the game is hardwired in your genes. I know, because mine was. I was but a babe-in-arms when Diego Maradona weaved his magic in Mexico, and won Argentina their second world title in 8 years with some spellbinding football. My mother’s connection with the Argentine team began there, and as I became old enough to actually follow football (the first World Cup I remember is 1990), I found out that everyone in my family were ardent La Albiceleste fans. It’s a peculiar Bengali thing, an ineffable affinity for the football team representing a country that’s thousands of miles away, and the only things I knew about it then was that its capital is called Buenos Aires and the grasslands are called pampas. That too, because I had carried an out of syllabus geography book home once.
But 1990 onwards, or more precisely from the moment Argentina won against Yugoslavia (they were a kick away from being eliminated in the penalty shootout), a match I remember watching half asleep in my mom’s lap, I was an Argentina fan too, and while my overactive and curious mind kept trying to intellectualise the choice, the truth was there really was no rational explanation to this umbilical bond I had developed. Eduardo Galleano had written that football is like God, in that it inspires devotion among believers and distrust among intellectuals. And come the (men’s) World Cup every four years, you see that manifested in many ways, like the story of Kalu Di, a tea vendor whose story went viral on Twitter because she was offering free tea to anyone who’s an Argentina supporter. The reactions to her story is divided between those who find it baffling that someone with no real Argentine connections is making a material sacrifice (the opportunity cost of forgone income of the free tea) and those, like Swati Moitra (who shared the story) who find it beautiful.
I firmly fall in the latter camp because of my own experiences and what I have seen of my mother. In 1990, one could say she was interested because Maradona, who she remembers from the last World Cup she saw – 1986, which was also her first because televisions were just becoming mainstream and our neighbour had got one – was playing. The same can be said of 1994, when there was an almost funeral atmosphere in our house the day Maradona’s doping story came out.
The Maradona story – one of a preternatural talent breaking free from a cycle of poverty – was heavily covered in the Bengali press and would have found resonance but then what explains her watching every Argentina game in 1998, when she barely knew anyone on the squad? And her reaction of pity mixed with sadness on seeing Ariel Ortega red carded as the team imploded against a Dennis Bergkamp inspired Netherlands? Or 2002, when I was away for grad school but we did manage to sneak in a sports conversation around Argentina’s elimination during one of the weekly calls that I could afford at that time? You get the idea.
Every four years she watches, even if she doesn’t have the entire context, she believes, even if she has no pillar of analysis to rest that belief on. She doesn’t know much about Messi, or his narrative arc, but this time when I broach the world cup football topic again she tells me that many people were saying Croatia would win the semifinal but she stood firm that Argentina would. We talk about a lot of things, but on sport, there is always one common topic between us – how will Argentina do at the world cup?
So much has happened in between, for her, and in our lives. She could easily have given up on this. On seeking out and cheering this team she barely even knows now every four years. Instead, it became an unacknowledged emotional bond to share in their fate.
Maybe that’s why that 36-year long wait that Lionel Messi’s Argentina ended at Lusail Stadium on Sunday felt so cathartic to me personally. Because it was a longing born of seeing Maradona lift that trophy in 1986, and maybe wanting to see that repeated by players who wore the same blue and white striped shirts, who they were – whether Messi, or Ortega, or Riquelme – didn’t really matter in that cosmic scheme; what mattered was being able to share a universal sporting moment with her. The continuity, that there was an Argentina competing at a world cup, and there was a possibility they could lift the trophy again, was what became the driver of this destiny.
Tonight, as the greatest final of all time drew to a close after twists and turns dramatic enough to make Shakespeare consider a trip to Qatar, I called my mom in jubilation. She had decided to watch the game at my grandparents’ place and with the extended family watching she said she couldn’t be happier to have chosen to watch it in that setting. Because, she excitedly relayed back to me, that even the youngest one in the audience – my younger cousin’s two year old son – raised his hands up as Gonzalo Montiel slotted home the winning penalty for Argentina in the shootout.
Perhaps, I was that toddler in 1986. Nothing closes a loop like sport does sometimes. I don’t know if we are all bound by some kind of common, intertwined fate, but the fact that you can draw a straight line from Maradona’s World Cup in 1986, to Messi’s in 2022, is one heck of an exhibit that football in particular and sport in general are handsome prisoners of destiny.
Tareque Laskar is a research scholar and a former features writer at a national newsweekly. He currently heads the research practice at ITW – a leading sports consulting firm. The article was originally published on his blog here.