The Strange Obsession
Nine years ago, I bumped into Pakistan legend Javed Miandad by chance at Syed Ashraful Haque's residence, a sanctuary for the who's who of world cricket who come to visit Bangladesh.
Some of my cousins, all in our teens then, rounded up the great man and requested to sit with him.
We soon realised that one doesn't have to coax a Pakistani too much for a chat. True to his nature, Javed bhai obliged and let us watch the England-Pakistan Test match with him that evening, and call him Javed bhai.
This was huge for me as I was foolishly shy when Imran Khan wanted to shake my hand when I was four years old.
The obsession with Maradona and Argentina is all-encompassing.
The thing is, when you sit with a legend like Miandad, you stick to the routine of quietly nodding at the right places. But Pakistanis tend to be at large of such etiquettes and Javed bhai talked about everything from batting against Dennis Lillee to setting fields for Abdul Qadir to Saqlain Mushtaq's mystery doosra.
And naturally when you sit with Javed Miandad, you have to ask him about that last-ball six in Sharjah. As he dropped off anecdote after anecdote about players, umpires and great adversaries, the conversation settled on India-Pakistan rivalry.
One of my uncles decided to show off his Urdu by telling tales about folks in Old Dhaka reacting after India-Pakistan matches. The uncle mentioned how cows, goats and chickens are sacrificed after each Pakistan victory. To which the great Pakistani replied rather slyly: "So when we lose, do they go after your head?"
It never went that far I'm sure but I've only been around since 1984.
Old Dhaka's inclination towards west of the border for matters cricket and hockey is renowned. Strike up a conversation and the area's rich sporting history, both of playing and watching kind, comes to life. As the old-timers reminisce and debate about certain passages of play, the younger generations picked up and continued the rich tradition, albeit the players have dried up somewhat due to the lack of fields in the area (though it is true that most of the professional cricketers and footballers from Dhaka these days come from old town).
For the last month or so, the unending lines of Argentina and Brazil flags and graffiti gave away the ultimate passion of old and new Dhaka: football and those two South American nations.
Attraction to football is understandable. While cricket probably came at an earlier time to this region, football captured the imagination of the citizens more readily and it carried through into the times of East Pakistan and then to post-Liberation days of Kazi Salahuddin and Monem Munna. The period from the mid-1990s till date has seen the well documented fall of Bangladesh football but the sport's popularity and passion among the general public remains intact.
TVs need to be working when Argentina have a game on.
This last thread - the fall of the country's game and yet the unbroken love - could be one of many reasons behind the peculiar obsession with Argentina and Brazil. Maybe because we don't have a football team that can be liked, we tend to go for foreign ones (just like our support for India, Pakistan and West Indies before the Tigers took off). Since we are rooted to 157th in the FIFA rankings, flags of Brazil, Argentina, Germany and England enjoy more 'air time'.
For an important point in time, look no further than the 1986 World Cup. It is an important timeline for the Argentina obsession to take shape. A short, stocky and very talented Diego Maradona single-handedly took the title to Buenos Aires and without even knowing, became part of Bangladeshi hearts forever. Even after the 1990 tears or the 1994 drug ban, Maradona's popularity among his supporters remained undamaged. When the nearly 50-year-old bearded version led Argentina to the 2010 tournament as a coach, naturally the Argentina-loving went up a few degrees.
Now for those who didn't like Maradona, they had options. Germany were the defeated finalist in the 1986 World Cup but won the next one in Italy, beating Argentina and leaving Maradona in a puddle of tears. The European powerhouse garnered a sizable following since those days but with dwindling performances, it didn't have too much time to bring in the millions.
Brazil, on the other hand, were the team for the ages and masters of beautiful football. They won three World Cups before our Liberation War so whatever our elders say about Pele, it was probably from books or from what they have seen from a few clippings here and there. Trust me, there are very few people around these days who are Brazil fans solely for the Black Pearl.
Brazil's 1994 World Cup triumph was all the anti-Argentina fans needed to have a team of their own and with the emergence of the gap-toothed Ronaldo, they had their very own Maradona. But Ronaldo, who made Barcelona swoon, was injury-prone and had a forgettable 1998 final against France before recuperating and finding glory in the 2002 edition. But El Phenom (as he was known), or even Rivaldo or Ronaldinho, was no Maradona when it came to bluster and popularity in Bangladesh. But the dynamics changed a lot; Brazil were the new favourite for the younger generation and on a level playing field.
In 2006, the South American neighbours were at par again - ousted in the quarterfinals - but that year the enthusiasm in this country was at an acceptable level. Flags were hoisted on rooftops, mostly of those two nations, with a smattering of Germany and Italy colours like those in 1998 or 2002.
But the enthusiasm in 2006 turned into full-blown madness this year. People across Bangladesh, of all ages, simply went crazy with jerseys, flags, banners and graffiti.
This sudden rush towards the flag-sellers or t-shirt vendors and the immense support could be due to several factors. Argentina had Lionel Messi, the world player of the year, and a new generation Maradona. They don't look the same but with Messi having scored similar slalom-run as well as 'hand of God' specials, he had to be the sweetheart.
For Brazil, it was different this year. There were no Ronaldo or Ronaldinho, but a pair called Kaka and Robinho with a dash of Maicon coming in from the flank.
Kaka? Yes we relate to that name and since he came with a reputation of an awesome player, the Brazil fans liked him and likened him to 'their' Messi.
Neither men delivered when it really mattered and their teams fizzled out of the tournament with a week left.
Another legitimate reason could be the emergence of social networking sites in Bangladesh. Facebook made sure everyone knew who their friends were supporting and swiftly display pictures were changed according to the team they support. Banter was for all to see and while most of it was in good nature, it didn't take much to turn into an ugly brawl while watching on the many big-screens set up across the country.
Ultimately though, the Brazil-Argentina split is not different from India-Pakistan, Abahani-Mohammedan or our political choices but we tend to oscillate with the last one quite frequently while sticking with our sporting allegiances.
What Javed Miandad quipped back in 2001 could have been ominous had the two teams reached the World Cup final this time around but Spain and Holland did us a great favour.
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