Under the world cup tree, oh where will you and I next be?

The age of trees can be measured by looking at tree rings, concentric circles visible upon cutting cross-sections through a trunk. Each ring marks a complete cycle of seasons forming a year in a tree’s life, the closest ring to the bark being the youngest and the innermost at the centre, the oldest. The larger the number of rings, the older a tree.

The quadrennial World Cup provides a similar measurement of the passage of time – age, both chronologically as well as historically – in an individual’s life. Most of us tend to muddle up, or even forget, key moments in our lives and national or world events. Did the Skylab fall from the sky in 1980 or 1979? Did you go to see Dharam Veer in the cinema in 1977 or later? Was IK Gujral prime minister in the late- or mid-1990s, or ever? Was the last time you saw your grandmother in the winter or summer of 1998? The World Cup, coming at the optimal interval of four years, provides a dependable yardstick.

Where were you when Roberto Baggio missed the penalty against Brazil (1994)? What were you up to when Zinadine Zidane headbutted Marco Materazzi (2006)? Which class were you in when requiring a 4-goal difference win, Argentina ‘remarkably’ scored 6 goals against Peru to nudge out Brazil (who won their semifinal match against Poland two-and-a-half hours earlier) to reach the final (1978)? And, where were you in the summer of 1986? (With Diego Maradona in Mexico all the time.)Like dendrochronology that reveals much more than the age of trees – one also gains insights into the climatic and atmospheric conditions during a tree’s life – worldcupology too recalls much more than just what went on in 90 minute-plus installments on level-playing football fields. Every World Cup time, for instance, I remember the black-and-white EC TV with a blue plastic screen (‘to protect the eyes’) on which I watched the giant midday shadows of the Azteca Stadium fall on the pitch in June 1986. I remember scrabbling about with friends with the ball at my feet, giving a literal running commentary in which I was West Germany forward Karl-Heinz Rummenigge because I really liked him, but more because I loved saying his name aloud.

The World Cup has continuity hardwired in it, with players segueing in and out like generational field substitutions. Like when collecting stamps, suddenly geographies you never heard or cared about become totemic – Belo Horizonte, for instance, taking on an ominous tone at par with Waterloo ever since hosts Brazil were destroyed 7-1 in 2014 by the Germans.
Then there are the little joys of reading up World Cup history and match reports, and watching documentaries and old clips on YouTube before a new tournament is around the corner. It’s really like seeing the world in which you grew up, and now grow old in, with fondness.

If the 2010 World in South Africa made the plastic banshee, the vuvuzela, a recognisable word and sound, I discover while reading Argentine sports writer Luciano Wernicke‘s updated The Most Incredible World Cup Stories how North Korea managed to have supporters in the Johannesburg stadium in their opening match against Brazil despite Pyongyang banning fans from leaving the country. ‘The leaders had a brilliant idea to hire a claque of Chinese workers living in South Africa… The ‘rent’ of the fans was in charge of the company China Sports Management group, to which the Koreans gave them a thousand tickets for each game,’ writes Wernicke. Who said fake accounts exist only in social media?

Qatar as host itself will leave a sour memory in my scrapbook. But if Argentina wins the World Cup – something I have been waiting for since 1990 when Claudio Caniggia was by Maradona’s side and I was leaving school to join the midfield of college – then it will be despite Qatar, which paid its way to host a World Cup and thereby play in it like the prat who’s allowed to join in simply because he owns the bat and stumps. Till then, let the rings of our World Cup tree keep growing.

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