I like playing football. I last played in middle school, when our physical education classes required us to have a stab at every kind of sport, and football was my favourite. I offered to play attacker (we called it centre forward), but the coach seemed to think of me as more of a defender; it isn’t perfectly clear to me why, but I’m nothing if not a cooperative team player type. And indeed, I remember getting some of my best thinking done next to the goalpost, possibly leaning on it, while some people ran around on the other end of the field, shouting.
No wonder, then, that every four years I wait with feverish devotion for the World Cup, which I believe is some kind of big tournament. Because the fact is, there is no better globally accepted justification for breaking out enormous quantities of beer. Four years ago, when Germany hosted the World Cup, I was backpacking around Europe and found myself in Sorrento, Italy on the night that the Italian team won the final. My ears are still ringing from that night, and my liver and I didn’t talk for a while.
But the excellent thing about football is that there’s so much goodwill and good cheer floating around that you can break out the beer at the drop of a hat, for just anything, at any time, without inviting censure. You could be drinking at breakfast, or while walking in a forest, and nobody would bat an eyelid—and you can blame it on football.
So this is what I did last weekend. Some friends and I drove up to Shimla after a long and intricately plotted night of defiance, recklessness, intrigue, violence, loss and suspense, the details of which I am not at liberty to share, but let’s just say that they make Stieg Larsson look like a little old lady. The car had seen better days—two windows were inoperable, the wipers were trailing rubbery ribbons, the stereo volume bore no relation to the direction in which one turned the knob, and every time we hit a bump the face of the stereo fell off—but we got there in time to watch South Africa vs. Mexico.
Pretty much everything from that point on involved some sort of alcohol, which, for any children who are reading this, is very bad for you but does help mitigate the maddening buzz of vuvuzelas. It’s true that we had beer with our breakfast eggs and slipped some whiskey into our breakfast coffee, but we weren’t completely off our faces, and still deeply connected to the spirit of sport: we fought like wildcats over the last half-bottle of wine, resorting to dealmaking and horsetrading like the most successful teams; and we played a sweaty, screaming, occasionally violent game of pitthu in the middle of a forest, with a rolled-up pair of socks for a ball, and a tiny patch of nettled slope for a field. My team came very close to winning, given my skills as a defender, but I had to send an sms just as something exciting happened on the field and the rules of pitthu weren’t that clear to me anyway. What are you supposed to do with two balls and two piles of stone anyway?
Now I’m back, more or less detoxed enough to start all over again, and fully into the swing of football. I’ve been reading carefully about the players, the history of the teams, the statistics and the cool side stories about ball technology, and have come to my own decision about whom to support. May the team with the best socks win.