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     Volume 5 Issue 100 | June 23, 2006 |

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Penalties and Ponytails

Nader Rahman

While cricket may always be my sport of choice, football has never been too far behind. In fact my earliest memories of sport come from the 1994 Football world cup, well before my passion for cricket was ignited. It is simple to understand why football is the world's favourite sport, all one needs is a ball and more than one player to kick it. Its universal appeal stems from its simplicity; it is an art from without a real medium, it turns paupers into princes, it gives wings to our dreams and will always remain quite simply, "The Beautiful Game".

The 1994 World Cup in the USA was my arrival into the world of sports. When one is asked why one likes a sport, we always find some childhood anecdote that relates appropriately. If one were to ask me why my life is seemingly dedicated to the world of sports, I would say the reason is the '94 World Cup. I was in awe of the stadiums that were seemingly filled to capacity, every single one of them looking at the twenty two players on the field. I wondered what was so interesting about them that people would pay money, sit down, look and cheer. It boggled the mind, then I decided to actually watch a game and see what the fuss was about. All the games seemed to be played at some ungodly hour of the night, not something my parents were going to allow. After much begging and promising to sleep in the afternoon they let me stay up with my older brothers and sister to watch one full game, till then all I had seen was a few minutes here and there.

I still remember the first game I saw, it was Italy versus Ireland. The game seemed highly charged and to be honest now I seem to remember the commentary more than the game its self. Baggio, that name was repeated over and over again, the commentator called him the greatest player in the world, and all ready he had become my favourite. His natural charm and charisma was even evident to me, half way around the world. The Italians were all style and class, the Irish were workman like and rugged. The result was an eye opener, style without substance was not a good combination. Baggio and his team mates sulked off the field as lowly Ireland beat mighty Italy by a goal to nil. I had stayed up all night to watch the match, and when it was over sleep was the last thing on my mind. That night I tossed and turned in bed, wondering why Italy lost. The beauty and artistry came form them, surely they deserved to win. Why should any game be that cruel to deny the rightful winner a victory?

It was indeed a bitter pill to swallow, and I completely immersed myself into the tournament, I knew all the local papers World Cup supplements by heart and Italy was the team closest to my heart. As they fumbled towards ecstasy, I was busy eating up anything and everything I could find about the world cup. I also remember a fat player with a hairstyle resembling a skunk creating a fuss. Only years later did I realise who he was and what a drugs test actually did. "Cocaine" was added to my vocabulary, so was the word "cheater". People took out processions across the city and on the news it seemed as if this one fat player was bigger than the world cup its self, little did I know that was partially true.

The World Cup had me caught in its web, there were a few other stories here and there that interested me. Saudi Arabia qualified for the round of 16 and was hailed as the next big Asian team. The players were offered fabulous sums of money and they became superstars over night in the Middle East. This only served to show me how sport can make dreams come true. Even I realised the enormity of their achievement and only after that did I realise that sport actually changes people's lives.

Throughout the tournament while I may have focussed my attention on the Italians even I had to admit that Brazil were slowly but surely coming up in the tournament. And one name I heard over and over again was Romario. I must have heard his name a thousand times before I actually saw him on the field, and much like Baggio he had become some sort of mythic creature. Funnily enough I followed most of the tournament in the papers, two days after most of the games had taken place, my parents did not take kindly to me wanting to stay up every night just for the sake of football. Every now and then on a Thursday or Friday night I would be given the rare privilege of watching a match, the only rules were that I had to stay awake for the game myself (which at that age was as good as not staying up at all) and that the volume had to be turned down because the T.V was in my parents room. Much to my disappointment I could hardly stay awake for the games, but the newspapers the following morning were the next best thing. It was through the newspapers that I followed Brazil's and Italy's almost inevitable march towards the final. The very first time I would associate the name Romario to a face would be in the grand final. It was almost like meeting a long lost friend, except that the feelings I harboured for him were anything but welcoming, to me he was Baggio's and Italy's nemesis. A man I loved to hate, without ever having seen him, a name without a face and I would have loved for it to have stayed that way.

My parents decided not to fight with me and even before I asked they gave me permission to watch the final. The stage was set, and back then when I was blinded by religion I had no trouble in believing that if I prayed enough for Italy to win, they would. I prayed day and night, I would have been satisfied with a Baggio hat trick and four nil to Italy. My belief in a team that I had only once seen play (and lose) was admirable, nothing could convince me otherwise. I had not fully learned the lessons of the defeat to Ireland. That night I ate dinner silently, tensed and nervous about the game. I seemed to be going through the feelings and emotions that the players must have. The wait between dinner and the start of the game seemed endless, but eventually at some unearthly hour the game started. The first few encounters were cagey, like the opening rounds of a boxing match both teams seemed to be feeling out each other. There were no real attacks, just nervous jabs. Baggio was a shadow of the player I remembered and had read about, he seemed preoccupied and sluggish. The game was far from what I had imagined, the Italians had lost all their artistry and Brazil seemed to play the role of Ireland, all workmen like without much bite. If it really were a boxing match they did not land a punch on each other till the 15th round.

That round should rightly be called penalties, the game remained scoreless after full time. And even with extra time, they both seemed happy with a draw. But this was a world cup final, there were no draws. The game was to be decided on penalties, this was no place for the faint hearted. I don't remember much of the penalties, but I do remember that after it was all said and done, the Brazilian goalkeeper was to be known as "Saint" Taffarel. It came down to Baggio and he had to score to keep Italian hopes alive. With his thigh strapped and shirt half out he coolly stood before the ball, gently ran up and kicked it with his right foot. The ball went high over the crossbar as he put his hands on his hips and looked to the earth to swallow him. The Brazilians celebrated as my hero walked away dazed, the divine ponytail was only human. The rest is a blur because even now it's tough to see with tears in one's eyes.

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