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The very stuff of life

Monsieur Bernard Koko makes a comeback for World Cup 2018 and Hartman is sure of a new World Cup winner

You would have thought that being a senile Goan gentleman, overly fond of his feni and indigenous sausage, I would catch the inauguration and the first match of the World Cup 2018 coming as he does from the land of pigs, priests and palm trees — and, indeed, football…

Didn’t happen that way. Instead, I was stuck between Goa and Pune.

First, I got a terse text message from my wife, followed by even worse messages from the two kids, asking me to haul my sorry self back to Pune and make myself useful and not wander off in the Western Ghats where nobody can contact me. My resurrected dog, Koko, of course, would have understood that avidly following the football soon to be upon us, analysing and dissecting every move, understanding context and politics, style and flavour, was more than just ‘useful’. It was the very stuff of life, the reason to be.

But it was either being interned in an old age home by the kids or getting my arse back to Pune and back to the joys of cooking for the wife and getting my head chopped off in return.

I got to the office in Margao two days before World Cup 2018 kicked off.

“Only R1,900 for a ticket Sir,” the man told me.

“I paid R750 when I came in from Pune,” I replied indignantly.

“This is ‘peak season’,” he said, not even looking up from watching his thumb hammer his smartphone. “Now it is demand season,” he mumbled, “ticket is there, you want it, you take it; you don’t want it, you don’t take it…”

I was thinking how nice it would be to grab his phone, bang it on the floor, jump up and down on it and watch the little bits and pieces in his phone lose their smartness, when the lout looked up, perhaps saw a sorry-looking old man, and his heart melted.
“There are seats in the bus leaving at the time when World Cup 2018 starts,” he said. “Everybody wanting to watch football man, nobody wants to leave their TV…special ticket only for you Uncle, 1,500 rupees…”

What the hell I said to myself, welcome to the world of ‘surge-pricing’ until customers start getting their head around boycotts. Like me. Who wanted to watch Russia play with Saudi Arabia? Old cats like me know how to rationalise matters: who wants to watch two countries led by dictators playing a game that exemplifies freedom?

It was very easy for me to boycott the inaugural match.

*********

The A/C bus to Goa made me feel at home. It had every seat taken by people aged 68 to 80 perhaps, except the guy sitting in the seat next to mine. I was the youngest in the bus so you can imagine his paranoia at being trapped in the Geriatric Express leaving the Margao bus stand at 7 pm on the day World Cup 2018 got underway.

He seemed to be in his thirties; restless, fidgety, his earphones wrapped around his head like a muffler. I got his angst at being trapped with all us fuddy-duddies in the bus. Time for my good deed for the day.

“Relax kid,” I told him, “old age happens to everyone, can’t run away from it…comes the time, sure as shit, when your kids will put you in an old age home…”

“Not worried about old age,” he replied, tears welling up in his eyes. “Today’s the World Cup, Uncle, the first match, Saudi versus Russia, and I am going to miss it…”

“Not worth watching,” I told him. “As good as watching India play Taiwan…”

I gave him my speech about not watching two dictatorships play. “Catch up on your sleep kid,” I told him.

“No Uncle, it’s World Cup man, how I can miss it??” He was really going to cry, I thought.

“Uncle,” he said, like he was talking to an idiot, “in my village Varca, all of us belong to a different country during the World Cup…some people support Brazil because they have names similar to Goan names…some support Portugal or Argentina…some Germany…but I am supporting Saudi Arabia because my father and two of my uncles — all worked in Saudi and even I am working there…I must watch this match Uncle…”

I cluck sympathetically and pat his shoulder before he bawls. After a break of three minutes or so, he’s on the phone to his friends, barking in my ear, wanting to know if the match had started.

Ten minutes after the match starts, the bus stops at a place for dinner. Here too, in the places where the buses stop, ‘surge-pricing’ prevails.

Passengers pay 5-star rates for a bread-omelette or whatever because there isn’t another place to eat for two kilometres and the drivers get their chicken biriyani for free. And I boycott the dinner stops, so everyone was happy except the poor boy from Varca who definitely looked like he was going to weep on my shoulder…

But from the bus window, he catches sight of a TV in the restaurant, and a huge crowd watching the match being telecast. “The bus only stops from ten minutes,” I tell him with glee.

“No Uncle,” he tells me, “the drivers are Goan, they’ll want to watch football, maybe one of them is supporting Russia, and all you old people in the bus can happily sleep…”

I happily sleep.

When the kid returns, he’s even closer to weeping. Saudi Arabia has been thumped by five goals. He is distraught. My shoulder beckons.

“Whom you wanted to win Uncle?”

“Neither of them…”

“No Uncle,” he replies, “this is football, you have to support one of the teams…”

“Can’t both of them lose?”

“How Uncle?” he asks me, grief in his voice as he cries and buries his head in my shoulder. I am not crying. As far as I am concerned, the inaugural match never took place.

*********

After another bout of ‘surge-pricing’ practised by Pune’s famed auto-rickshaw drivers, when the bus stops at a deserted street at 6 am, coming back to the city was good. The wife made her nasty comments about my long, bedraggled, unkempt hair and my dirty jeans, but made me a nice hot cup of coffee. And right there, under the table, licking my toes, was Monsieur Bernard Koko!

I grinned from ear to ear. The wife looked at me suspiciously. “It’s only 6.30 in the morning”, I told her, “hardly the time to start tippling…”

She walked off in disgust, not believing me. Below me, the dog howled with mirth.

“Hey dude,” he said, tongue lolling out stylishly, “Saudi Arabia got their comeuppance last night.”
“I boycotted the match,” I replied gruffly.

“Yeah,” he said, “so did I! But wasn’t it lovely that Saudi Arabia had to eat five goals?? The real tournament starts tomorrow with Egypt playing Uruguay. I am just going to watch all the African teams and ‘undermen’…”

“Undermen?”

“Yeah, you guys use the word ‘underdog’ — have you any idea how hurtful that is??”

“Undermen, it is,” I agreed. The dog made sense. “Iran, Australia, Iceland, Costa Rica, South Korea, Panama and Japan…”
“You’re only saying that because you have no choice, you know that India hasn’t a hope in hell of qualifying for the World Cup!”

*********

We stuck with the plan, waiting every evening for the wife to go to sleep while we settled in for the matches, the dog with some warm milk laced with a spot of whiskey, I, with a large spot of whiskey laced with ice.

What can I say? We watched Egypt lose all the matches, including one against Saudi Arabia. Koko and I saw this solitary victory for Saudi Arabia as a victory for ‘human rights’ – even if by default. Koko was sure that if they lost all their matches the entire Saudi team, coaches included, would lose their heads to the royal executioner’s blade. We cried with Morocco who dominated the match against Iran but lost to a quirky goal, grieved with them for being unlucky against Spain and Portugal, but quickly shifted allegiance to Iran. I told Koko about the Iranian team in World Cup 1998, coached by an Iranian (who lived in the US) to a historic victory against the US…

We watched Australia fight to the bitter end, which is what they do very well, unless it’s their cricket team who lose their captain and star opening batsman to cheating. We expected Tunisia and Panama to stun England, 2-0 and 2-1 respectively and both draw with Belgium but that was not to be. We expected Costa Rica to draw with Brazil but beat Switzerland and Serbia — didn’t happen. We knew South Korea would beat Germany and yelled ourselves hoarse, but they were unlucky against Sweden and Mexico.

And then the matches that shattered the dreams of Koko and I: Nigeria coming to a whisker of qualifying and Senegal going out by virtue of having more yellow cards than Japan, the sole survivor from Asia. So, in the pre-quarters, there were five teams from Latin America, 10 from Europe and just one from Asia. To say we were sad, is putting it mildly.

Dogs, both young and old, know how to adapt. Koko and I had another pow-wow. Uruguay will lose to Portugal because Ghana’s curse will come back to haunt Luis Suarez. Argentina will beat France because they have taken so many players from Africa. Mexico will beat Brazil by two clear goals. Japan will beat Belgium.

On the other side of the draw, Russia will pip Spain, Denmark will beat Croatia, Sweden will beat Switzerland, and Colombia will beat England.

In the four quarter-finals, Argentina will thrash Portugal, and Mexico will beat Japan: Denmark will beat Russia, and Colombia will beat Sweden. In one of the semi-finals, Mexico will beat Argentina and Colombia will beat Denmark.
For the finals, I have decided to cheer Colombia, while Koko yells for Mexico. Either way, we get a new World Cup winner!!

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