How to know what a person is really like? Imagine her in a football team


The world reimagined as a football pitch.



There are countless low points to choose from. Here’s a recurring one.

I play music from a sound machine for a friend; an alaap of a favorite Dhrupad composition of Zahiruddin and Wasifuddin Dagar. Just as one singer peaks with his flourish, the other takes over and sweeps it higher. I chuckle: “This is like Zinedine Zidane bursting forward with the ball and releasing it to be gathered by Ronaldo the Phenomenon’s perfectly-timed overlapping run that ends in the box.”

The friend screws his eyes and summons forbearance; the mentally ill must be treated with compassion: “That piece of music has nothing to do with football, Sopan. Get a grip.” Most of my friends lack an interest in football and don’t pay heed to my football analogies, which stretch hopelessly into the realm of incomprehension. But this is World Cup time, this is when the lunatics take over the column inches.

They tolerate me well, people, even when I tell them that they misread my pass and mistimed their run to trap the ball – that is, the nub of my submission. Occasionally, at a dinner or a get-together, I run into a friend who understands what it means to consume sports and be consumed by it in return. I latch on to that person for the rest of the evening.

No, I don’t want to discuss the recipe for that yummy dish, excuse me. Please leave us in peace to discuss how many more classy players Bayern Munich will buy to make them sit on its bench, depriving other Bundesliga clubs of their star performers. Or just fantasize about which team will knock out England in a penalty shoot-out in the second round of the World Cup this time, after it has bumbled through the first stage.

Or wonder at the disappointment of Marco Reus not featuring for Germany due to a freak injury in a friendly tie – leading to lists of great players who missed out on World Cup glory due to an unfortunate injury. Michael Ballack of Germany in ’10 (though nobody missed him); Alessandro Nesta of Italy in ’02 and ’06 (what a list of tragically-timed injuries there!); Alfredo di Stéfano of Spain (formerly of Argentina and Colombia) in ’62…


When I need to understand a person, I put him or her on the football pitch in my head. Take my friend J, who has never played much football but is etched in my imagination as a winger. A fine, rounded personality, he could’ve made a great attacking midfielder, the classic No. 10. But he has no patience with what happens in the middle of the pitch of life, little tolerance for its varied mediocrity. So he always looks to run towards the margins of understanding, always looking to stretch the game out wide.

J finds his space near the touchline, and he runs hard into that unoccupied space. Towards faraway borders with unknown people, towards the edge of what is known, darting laterally into the flank when everybody else is thinking vertical. A master craftsman, he manages to shoot at the target consistently from acute angles. Capable of great harmony in a team, he prefers to run on his own – both in terms of his varied interests and in terms of his profession. He’s not the new-age inverted winger playing on the flank opposite his good leg, always looking to cut back into the middle, to square up to the goal and get the ball on his good leg. No, that’s not J. He’s your classic, chalk-on-the-boots winger, running past defenders and accepted wisdom, releasing the ball with a thunderous bang right on the goal line. He has got crooked legs and a dodgy gait to go with it. If I had to give him a jersey, it would be No. 7.

Our friend R is a different kind of player. He has a taste for the abstract, and is drawn to the structure beneath whatever it is that he has to handle. Give him a matchstick, he will give you the plot for a novel – and a good one at that. Just that you can’t expect him to write it. He is too refined, too subtle to write things himself. He uses that remarkable vision of his to create play for others.

Playmakers in football tend to be frontmen, or at least they did till a decade ago. The last two World Cup finals have been won by teams with the two greatest deep-lying playmakers of our era. Andrea Pirlo was the architect of Italy’s 2006 triumph, the man of the match in a final that is remembered for Zidane’s head-butt. Pirlo was forced to sit out almost all of the 2010 World Cup; Italy did badly. He was fit for Euro 2012, so Italy made it to the final, only to be beaten by Spain, which has its own midfield wizard in Xavi Hernandez, whose presence and influence was critical to Spain’s victory in 2010 – as also at Euro 2008, in which he was named Player of the Tournament.

On the pitch of life, my friend R is cut from a similar cloth. Supremely confident yet selfless, willing to do the difficult stuff with minimum fuss. An aesthete with vision – and a lack of ambition. Comfortable sitting deep in a defensive role, driving others forward, using his vision for precise long passes to play other people into scoring positions. He’s a kind of insurance policy for friends, family and colleagues. I give him the No. 6 jersey – he is, to my mind, the fulcrum, the central midfielder.

P, by contrast, is the most temperamental of my friends. Putting his name on the team sheet is fraught with risk. He may turn up for the game or he may not. Depends on how much he had to drink last night, what he’s been reading and what he’s been smoking. He is a bigger football buff than I, and has finessed the over-extended football analogy into an art that few can appreciate.

Yet, if he turns up, you are guaranteed the spectacular. He will either produce jaw-dropping brilliance on the pitch, dribble past five men and lay the ball selflessly for somebody else to tap into the net, or he might slap the referee, call him a bourgeois conspirator, and be red-carded as soon as he is put in. He is my super-sub on the bench. When I am a goal down with eight minutes to whistle, I will need him for a dash of magic…or else.



K is an out-and-out No. 9 – the deadly center-forward who can settle a game with one stealthy strike. Enterprising, cunning, with a great ability to hold up the ball while others run forward to join her, she can play off the shoulder of the last defender and beat the offside trap with carefully timed runs. A goal-scoring machine. You put her in any other position, get her to operate in any way other than the one she has practiced, and she will stop running.

Which is very different from N, a more versatile player who wears the No. 3 jersey inside my head: the center-back. She is all concentration and intolerance for mistakes. Blessed with very good attacking abilities, she’s terribly shy and self-effacing. Besides, she is only too willing to pick up after the others, which tells me she is the stuff central defenders are make of. Her husband protests. But hey, this is my head, my PlayStation FIFA. With her acute eyes and the ability to quietly notice what others miss out, she will be useful in dead-ball situations, for free kicks.

And there is A, my oldest friend from childhood. Intense and uncompromising, he has always been there for me, always been the one to do the heavy lifting. He has a refined side, but he doesn’t employ it often, for he is made for the direct approach, the box-to-box midfielder full of bustle and deep reserves of emotional strength. There is scarcely a day when I do not argue with him on politics or economics, which easily degenerates into name-calling – across continents and through business meetings, over text messages and emails and phone calls.

For A is what I describe as a secularist-fundamentalist, who switches effortlessly between capitalism and the welfare state. Which poses a theoretical problem for me. For I can’t say when he will switch the play from a possession-based, close-control game to Hollywood balls halfway across the field.

Before I close, though, I must summon S, wearing jersey No. 8 inside my mind. The floating midfielder with a cheerful aspect and a light touch. She recently reminded me of the time we met because she needed to discuss a major project coming her way. We met at a coffee shop where she described what was a promising venture, but needed several collaborations with diverse people.

I described the possibilities to her on an imaginary chalk-board right there on the coffee table. I think I said something about lots of passing practice among different people, with two central midfielders controlling the play and offering the ball around. She says she went back assured it was possible. That was one year ago and the project is thriving. She still doesn’t care one bit about football.

All people described in this piece are real, though their descriptions are interpretative.


Categories: Football

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