x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Copa America interest shows Indians like their football samba style

India has a passion for football, particularly the style played by Brazil, Argentina and their South American rivals. No wonder the Copa America has been must-see-TV in the subcontinent.

Enzo Francescoli and many other South American stars are still household names in India.
Enzo Francescoli and many other South American stars are still household names in India.

His wonderful playmaking skills so impressed a teenaged Zinedine Zidane that, years later, he named his eldest son after him.

uruguayEnzo Francescoli, El Principe (The Prince) to his admirers, spent four years in France in the 1980s, including one memorable season at Zidane's beloved Stade Velodrome, scoring 11 goals and teeing up many others for Jean-Pierre Papin as Marseille won the second of four successive titles.

Francescoli's itinerant career took in six clubs in four countries, and he is best remembered as the talisman of Argentina's River Plate side that won the Copa Libertadores in 1996.

He also won five league titles with Los Millonarios, who were recently relegated for the first time in their history.

Francescoli also played 73 times for Uruguay over a 15-year period, and though La Celeste made no impression at World Cups during that time, he was rightly regarded as the heir to a proud tradition that went back even further than legendary names such as Obdulio Varela and Juan Schiaffino.

The history books will tell you that Francescoli scored his first goal for Uruguay in the first leg of the Copa America final against Brazil in 1983 - a beautiful curling free kick from just outside the left edge of the area.

Uruguay went on to win the trophy that year, and Francescoli would add two more continental titles in 1987 and 1995.

But there is a twist in the tale, a trivia question that few would have the answer to.

Where did The Prince make his debut, and when did he first find the net in the national shirt?

Again, the record books only tell half the story.

His first full game for Uruguay came against South Korea at Calcutta (as it was known then) in the Nehru Cup of 1982.

Three days prior to that, Uruguay had taken on Yugoslavia B. Back then, the team from the Balkans was in transition, with the Dragan Dzajic era having faded, and the world yet to glimpse the golden generation epitomised by the skill of Dragan Stojkovic.

It was the Francescoli goal against Yugoslavia B that gave Uruguay full points. A fortnight later, they would see off China in the final. So imperious was some of the football that Uruguay played that three decades on, old-timers still speak of the game that India gave them, with Manas Bhattacharya scoring a wonder goal in a 1-3 defeat.

The passion for Brazilian and Argentine football in the subcontinent is well documented, thanks in no small measure to the larger-than-life personalities of Pele and Diego Maradona.

But as with those that marvelled at Francescoli's skill as a 20 year old, there is far more to the committed Indian fan than mere hero worship.

When it seemed that no television channel would be broadcasting the ongoing Copa America, the Nainamvalappu Football Fans Association, established in 1996 at a small hamlet in Kerala's Calicut district, went to the extent of sending a fax to Manmohan Singh, India's prime minister.

"As you are aware, football is the world's largest and most popular game, and has large number of fans in India alone," it said.

"As far as football fans are concerned, the Copa America championship is one of the most favourite championships in the world as Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay are participating in the tournament."

Ultimately though, it did not need government interference to arrange for the tournament to be screened.

Neo Sports, which has the rights to Indian cricket matches on home soil, stepped in to cover the competition and, though the timings are hardly conducive to the average office-goer or student, found there is considerable interest in watching the fortunes of South America's finest.

Over the years, Indian fans have also taken a shine to teams and players from outside the big two.

In the early 1990s, Colombia's Carlos Valderrama was a cult figure. Later in the decade, Chile's Ivan Zamorano and Marcelo Salas had many admirers for their buccaneering play.

There was also the goalkeeper with the matted locks. The short story adjudged the best in over 100 years of Malayalam literature is about a priest, Geevarghese, who used to be a football sevens star. Its name? Higuita, like the former Colombia stopper Rene "El Loco" Higuita.

"The dharma [duty] of a goalkeeper is to witness," writes NS Madhavan. "Only rarely does he deviate, when he faces a penalty kick. This is when he gets struck with stage fright.

"But not Higuita. He walks nonchalantly into happenings. Like a ship's captain discovering new meridians, dribbling the ball, to the left now, now to the right, he surges forward to midfield, land hitherto uncharted by goalkeepers."

With the traditional favourites, Brazil and Argentina, starting so poorly - as the Guardian Newspaper's Rob Smyth perceptively pointed out, it is a quarter-century since Brazil truly played the beautiful game - it may be another Rene, Carlos, Luis or Enzo that captures a million hearts half a world away.