Arrey O Samba

Memorable moments from an ardent Brazil football fan

It’s the break of dawn. The IPhone alarm chimes but is swiftly stopped on one ring- a quick dash to the TV room to see the poetry in motion. 90 minutes later, Brazil completes a stroll in the park against Paraguay. Three goals orchestrated by the kingpin Neymar and ‘The Selecao’ become the first team to qualify for Russia ’18. They also reach the no.1 FIFA ranking with this win.

As the final whistle goes, and I do an imaginary high five, I go back in time.  Our middle class joint family in Kolkata was united by football- it used to be a month long celebration during World Cup years. A small black and white TV used to be the most prized asset of the house during those single screen household days. We were united by the love for Brazil. How can I ever forget the Zico penalty miss which knocked us out of the Mexico 86’ World Cup- when there was so much of expectations but it ended as a teary eyed night for us all.

My dad is an ardent Brazil fan and from him have I inherited the Samba genes. He always spoke of how Brazil played ‘Joga Bonito’- the beautiful game. There were stories of the 1970 final with the Carlos Alberto goal capping a memorable win- with Pele and company retaining the Jules Rimet Trophy for keeps. The ‘Class of 82’- the best ever team not to win the World Cup. Brazil played with the soul. It was always the heart over the head, art over science. These stories created a lifelong Samba fan in me.

In this post, I pen down some memorable moments as a Samba fan, through the ages…

To start with, penning a few which took my breath away.

The 94 World Cup was the first one in Uncle Sam’s country. Late night outs and early morning alarms to manage the challenging time zone. Romario was in full flow. I remember the Bebeto cradle celebrations, that last gap Branco free kick against the Netherlands. To top it all, the nerve wracking tie breaker in the final when Baggio wept and Dunga roared to take Brazil to #4.

Cut to the 2002 final- the first one in Asia, jointly hosted by Japan and Korea. Brazil started as an underdog in the cup after a tough round of qualifiers. But once the tournament started, they began to do the Samba. The 3 R’s (Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho) created a sweet symphony. We bunked MBA classes to see Ronaldinho’s audacious chip to beat Seaman in the hostel common room. We jumped with joy when Ronaldo finally managed to put it across Oliver Kahn in the finals as we watched in the class auditorium on big projector screens, with face paint et al.

There’s one from the recent past also- when Neymar buried the ghost of the Maracana by scoring the winning goal in the penalty shootout vs Germany in the Olympics final last year. It was the same venue where Uruguay beat us in ’50 against all odds. Neymar broke a long curse and liberated a generation.

And then, there were few I would rather forget.

First, the mind goes back to Italia ’90, where Brazil ended up clashing with Argentina in the last 16 itself. The family was equally divided- half of us Samba loyalists and the other half cheering for Maradona’s army. Brazil dominated the match and how. They toyed with the Argentines but did everything but score. I still remember one sequence of play where Careca and company hit the post twice in the same move. But as the match went deep, it needed one deft touch from that dreaded left foot to open up the defense and set Caniggia free to douse all hopes. Brazil out in the second round- unthinkable!

Next was the 98 France World Cup- the TV had been set in the common area and all of us would huddle at night and cheer for our favourite team. Brazil was having a dream run, but the curse struck just before the final. Ronaldo had a fit attack and he and the team never recovered. Zizou was the cynosure of all eyes as ‘Des Blues’ won the World Cup for the first time by humiliating Brazil 3-0 in the finals.

Fast forward to 2014 and the World Cup was back to the ‘Home of the Game’. We had organized a family reunion in Kolkata with folks pouring in from all parts to watch the matches on a big projector screen in the drawing room of our ancestral home. Neymar and company made a nervous start but they were chugging along till the quarters when a Colombian knee put an end to Neymar’s cup dreams. I watched in disbelief as a Neymar-less Brazil was like a ship without a captain out in the stormy sea. The Sambas didn’t know what hit them that night. They were numbed by the Germans, the match ending with a scarcely believable 1-7 score.

It seemed like the 2014 debacle will be the end of an era. But like a true phoenix, the Selecao have risen again. The Olympic win at Maracana was part retribution, but the brilliant run under Tite gives me renewed hope. It is up to Neymar and company to add a 6th Star to the jersey next year. Long live ‘Joga Bonito’. Russia- here come the Samba!

Comfortably Dumb

The debate is on- “In Arsene We Trust” vs “Arsene Out”. A passionate Gunner’s prophecy on the ‘Professor’

An ode to Arsene- from a winner to a whiner!

I was an avid football follower as a kid- but interest would generally peak in the World Cup year. There weren’t a plethora of TV channels those days. So my love for club football was fueled by a small radio I got as a birthday gift. Saturday evenings changed forever- holding that archaic device close to the ear- following Sports Roundup on BBC and soaking in the EPL spirit.

Brazil is the team I support (no, worship!). So it was no surprise that I began rooting for the club whose playing style most resembled the Sambas- Arsenal. One big reason was also the manager- a misfit ‘Professor’ who had plied his trade in Japan before making the big move to Highbury. Good matches are made in heaven, but imagine the coincidence when the name of the manager also matches with the club he leads- so no surprise that Arsenal flourished under Arsene.

When Arsene ‘numb’ed us….

Here was Wenger- a visionary who looked much beyond the game itself, into other aspects of sports fitness- on eating habits and training methods- ages before his times. There was also a sense of magic the way the team played- slick passes, one touch play- so easy on the eye and different from the long ball game of the Brits. And the fierce determination and passion he drove among the players. Here was a team who could ‘wow’ you with their skills but also rough out 1-0 away wins on ice cold December evenings.

Wenger created a legacy by leading ‘The Invincibles’ in 2003/04 to an unbeaten EPL run- a feat which may go unmatched in history given the fierce rivalry in the league these days. Wiltord’s away goal at Old Trafford to clinch the EPL title, that glorious run into the Champions League final in 2006- those were the days!

He stayed the course and led the ship well even during troubled times when Arsenal moved from Highbury to the Emirates. With an eager eye for spotting talent early and using a shrewd ‘Money-ball’ approach, Wenger would buy early, buy smart and manage the club remarkably well during tough financial times.

There were many heart-warming moments during the ‘Comfortably Numb Days’- but I am sharing a link of a goal which best embodies Wenger’s philosophy- A Wilshere goal vs Norwich city.

When Arsene ‘dumb’ed us….

As an Arsenal fan, I am in minority these days- there are a few of us left and we are worried we will be extinct soon!

And I start reflecting on why this happened? When Wenger moved- from numbing us to ‘dumbing’ us.

A good friend once said, ‘You are only as good as your ambitions. Set high ambitions, actions follow’. Well, I guess no one told this to Arsene. In the last five years, he is like the lazy employee in the office who is happy with an ‘Achieved Expectations’ rating every year. A fourth place in EPL and a ‘Last 16’ spot in the Champions League seems to make him happy, with an occasional FA Cup win thrown in- while the fans hope for more, much, much more.

The Emirates move meant we had to manage our financial books very tightly for some time- but Arsenal under Arsene got engulfed in this ‘Money-ball fallacy’- when the bottom line became more important that the ‘trophy line’. From a buying club, we became a selling club- why else will you sell your best players- the likes of Van Persie to your closest rival in the league? When you pay peanuts, you get monkeys! Or, you may get a Walcott, Ramsey, or Ospina- nothing better.

They say, ‘It’s foolish to do the same things again and again- and expect different results’. Arsene has been doing just that for the last few years, so no wonder Arsenal have stagnated.

There are a few who have mastered the ‘Art of Leaving’- some went ahead of time like Borg, some timed it perfectly- like Dada and MSD. But some are just too unwilling to let go- Arsene has created this club brick by brick in the last 20 years- his managerial stay more than the combined experienced of the other 19 EPL managers put together! So the swansong is indeed difficult. But when you stop inspiring, it’s the clearest sign that you have to go.

Another EPL season draws to a close. A season which promised so much for Arsene and Arsenal, but we flattered to deceive again.

The debate is on- “In Arsene We Trust” vs “Arsene Out”. He has given us wonderful memories, shaped a generation, so bidding adieu is tough. But the time has indeed come now.

So Au Revoir Arsene- thanks for numbing us!


A Passionate Gunner