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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

My memories of World Cup matches

The World Cup finals ended two days ago, and I finally got a good night's sleep. I can finally say goodbye to the days when I have to wake up at 4am with dad to catch a match, and go back to my normal routine (... of sleeping at 4am instead)

After a nice World Cup-less night of sleep, I woke up and read some articles on Grantland (it's one of my favourite daily reads these days). Ever since my mom discontinued subscription to The Star newspapers earlier this year, the internet became my replacement for "things to read while having breakfast", after all, it's hard to kick off a routine that I had for more than twenty years.

What caught my eye today was Brian Phillips' article, Full Time: Fading Images of the World Cup, which has one of the most beautiful paragraphs ever about sports-watching.

Watching sports is, among other things, a special way of experiencing time. Sport is like music or fiction or film in that, for a predetermined duration, it asks you to give it control over your emotions, to feel what it makes you feel. Unlike (most) forms of art, though, a game has no foreordained plan or plot or intention. The rules of a game impose a certain kind of order, but it’s different from the order of an artwork. A movie knows where it wants to take you; no one can say in advance where a game will go. All of its beauty, ugliness, boredom, and excitement, all of its rage and sadness emerge spontaneously out of the players’ competing desires to win. For however long the clock runs, your feelings are at the mercy of chance. This happens and then this happens and then this happens. You’re experiencing, in a contained and intensified way, something like the everyday movement of life.

I guess this is one of the main reasons I have been following the NBA for more than two decades, the relationship with time is apparent, watching players arrive, grow and then retire, being replaced by other younger players, it's a cycle that is both beautiful and horrifying, just like life. As a child, these NBA players are larger-than-life Greek gods, performing superheroic feats in a battle for eternal glory, as I grow older, I started noticing that the players are becoming younger and younger, and players I have watched in my teens are gone, one by one, some disappearing, some becoming coaches, I recognize some names, either from memories of watching them in rare telecasts during weekends, or through the NBA Live games that I used to play on the Playstation.

It is impossible not to notice the passing of time, when you witness the slow decline of a player.

Perhaps this is why people follow football, because they can create narratives within their mind. Who is the hero? Who is the villain? Who is the underdog? There is something mythical about sports, especially if you are well-versed in their history. You look back at players of yesteryears with nostalgia, you compare players of present to players of the past, hoping for familiar parallels.

I have never been a football fan, yet spending most of my lives in football-crazed countries like Malaysia and Japan, once cannot really escape from these non-stop discussion of football unless you are consciously taking a stand against it, unless you deliberately shut yourself away from everyone.

I have to confess that I belonged to the latter, so lonely it is to be a NBA fan in Malaysia, so annoyingly ubiquitous football is in the fabric of our everyday life, I viewed the act of following football as an act of conformity, to trivialize the passion that football lovers had for their sports, because my black heart is constantly overwhelmed by spite and anger. It is a feeling that I tried very hard to shake off.

I'm a man of contradictions, despite my non-interest in football, I DO watch it once every four years, during the World Cup. It's boring, and I struggled to keep awake during most stretches of a game (those 0-0 ones are lethal sleep-inducers for me), but it's the World Cup, and I want to witness the unfolding of history (like 7-1 semifinal games).

And somehow, watching the World Cup has provided numerous markers for my own memories.

Where was I when the four Rs (Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldino, Roberto Carlos) led Brazil to World Cup 2002 victory?
Where was I during Zidane's glorious headbutt?
Where was I when Senegal beat defending champs France in the opening match of World Cup 2002?
Where was I when Germany destroyed England and Argentina in World Cup 2010?


My earliest memory of watching a World Cup match was the 1998 finals. I was 14, I was indifferent to the previous World Cups that my father had been following all along. Curious to know about this Ronaldo guy that everyone had been talking about, I decided to switch on the TV and see what he was capable of.

I have missed most of the match, but I caught immediately was another man creating his own history, heading in the second of his two goals. Or maybe it was a recap. I'm not sure. The guy was Zinedine Zidane. The score was 3-0. France won. Fireworks.

It was crazy. I assumed that Brazil was an indestructible dynasty like the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls, seeing them lose to France was like... I don't know, seeing the Bulls lose to the Toronto Raptors or something in the NBA Finals. That one match felt like a blurry distant dream.

I was at home. At that time, my home was the same home that I have been living in until now, the same house I was living in since I was 3. But 17 years ago, my home had just been demolished and rebuilt from ground up. So the house was new, so was the experience of watching a World Cup finals match.


Four years later, I was in Japan for a family vacation, it was then that I realized the World Cup was being co-hosted by Japan and Korea. The World Cup anthem was played everywhere, the streets of Osaka was covered in blue, people everywhere were wearing the blue jerseys of the Japanese football team.

Dad and I rushed back to the hotel to watch the opening match between Senegal and defending champions France on TV. Senegal, playing with exuberant joy and flair, pulled off a glorious upset. I remember the celebration, but most of all, I remember Zinedine Zidane's pain-filled expression at the sidelines. He wasn't playing due to injury.

A day later, still in the Osaka hotel, I watched Germany - Saudi Arabia. Germany won 8-0. I will always remember it because I never knew that such a scoreline was possible in a football game. "Who is that Klose guy?" "Wow, this goalkeeper Oliver Kahn is so badass!" "That Ballack dude looks like Mark Wahlberg!"

I liked telling people that I was in Japan during the World Cup 2002, even though I was only catching games on hotel TV.

I caught the remainder of the matches when we were back in Malaysia. Some of the dramatic ones remained in my mind. South Korea's dramatic win against Spain and Italy (the latter was particularly insane), Brazil vs England, and finally, Brazil vs Germany in the 2002 final. Dad and I were at the living room, watching Ronaldo cement his greatness, redeeming himself from the 1998 nightmare. I rooted for Brazil then, because it's a story of redemption.


My memories of World Cup 2006 were less clear, perhaps I watched less games. I was studying in Perth then, but came back to Malaysia for a break. I was at the same living room with dad, watching France - Brazil, and the France - Italy final. I guess the main narrative then was France's fairytale run into the finals with the guidance of an aging Zidane. His last hurrah, the swansong of a legend etc.

Of course, in the end, I would remember The Headbutt most.

In fact, I remember The Headbutt more than the rest of the match. Italy won, but most people were talking about The Headbutt. My cute round-faced sister imitated it too.

(Writing this post made me remember that I actually wrote quite a lot about the headbutt on this blog, sometimes it blew my mind to know that this blog's been around for ten years already) That was my defining memory of World Cup 2010.


July 2010, I was in Brignogan, France for a script workshop. I saw some beautiful sights that would stay with me forever. I also missed my flight back to Japan and was stranded in Brest for two more nights.

At the Brest hotel, I was desperately talking to the staffers, trying to find a way flight back to Paris, but there weren't any flights throughout the weekend.

Crestfallen and traumatized, I went to the nearby sports bar for some food, and stayed there when the Germany - England game was happening. Germany won 4-1. Lots of German supporters around me then.

But I remained crestfallen and traumatized that I missed my flight, I managed to find myself a hotel to stay for two nights. That same night, I think I caught a bit of an Argentina match too (checked Wikipedia, it was an Argentina-Mexico match. Argentina won 3-0)

I was back in Tokyo on the night that Argentina lost to Germany 0-4. I don't remember watching that match, but I heard a lot of cheering and roaring from the people in my dorm.

The rest of the matches were a blur. I remember that I managed to catch the Spain - Netherlands final, but was I in Japan then? Or in Malaysia? It is odd that my memories from the 2002 World Cup seemed easier to "mark" compared to one that happened merely 4 years ago. It took me a while, as I was writing this, to confirm that I was in Tokyo when it happened. Nothing special, it was a solitary experience, I was merely watching the game on TV in my small tiny room in Tokyo. I've almost forgotten about the old plasma TV in my room, before Japan phased out all of them for digital TVs, for 3 years after that, my TV remained in my room a mere decoration.

So it seems that I watched the 2010 World Cup in a room that isn't mine anymore, on a television that became obsolete shortly after the tournament. It would be the only World Cup Final match that happened when I was in Tokyo. The only Final match I watched without my dad.


Once again, I wasn't entirely interested in the games. My mind was mostly on the NBA Finals, when the Finals were over, it became impossible to avoid the games. A few times in Mamak stalls at night, the games were playing, the people were cheering.

And I gradually gave in to the World Cup fever that swept through the whole world. Here are a few games that remain in my mind.

During the group stages, I was staying at the Mamak stall until 3am as the France-Switzerland was about to begin. And suddenly, there was blackout. The entire place plunged into darkness. I've never experienced that in a Mamak stall before. I tried to go home, but due to the power outage, my electric gate was unable to work. So I ended up having to climb over the gate (with the help of stools and chairs) to get back into my house. It felt more epic than the match itself.

It was only during the knockout stages that my dad started joining me to watch the games with regularity. Although we were mostly watching the midnight games. And then, as the tournament progressed, the games were all held later in the evening (which was 4am for us). Because the games were all at 4am, the routine became like this:

Dad would go and sleep earlier, and then I myself would catch around 2-3 hours of sleep. Wake up at 3:55am, wake dad up, and catch the game on the TV at the living room, where we watched the matches in 2002 and 2006.

Some matches were difficult for me to stay awake, and I would drift to sleep during certain stretches of the game (just like previous matches in previous World Cups) and wake up just in time for a goal, or penalty kicks. It really depended on the commentator of the night, some are really funny and could sustain your interest throughout the match, but some would remain quiet most of the time, doing nothing but yelling the names of the players who were controlling the ball.

I will always remember the "7-1" semifinals match between Brazil and Germany. My Facebook feed was absolutely busy, and I was Whatsapping with friends about the match. Brazil! BRAZIL! I expected a 3-0 or at most a 4-0 for Germany, but not 5-0 in 30 minutes!

The next morning, Mom asked why Dad and I had been so quiet while watching the match. In her room, all she could hear was me exclaiming "wait, was that a goal???"

I told mom that we were both too shocked to react at all.

I will also remember this match because someone in my country chose to be a fool about it.

And finally, the Germany - Argentina final. I rooted for Messi and Argentina because they were more like the underdogs, and I always automatically root for the underdogs. I also wanted to see Messi cement his place in football history. It didn't happen. the German team was too good.

While the goal was beautiful, the images that lingered in my mind in the last two days was Messi receiving his Golden Ball award, and walking down the stands again, a forlorn dejected figure, he was seething inside. Even the best footballer now has to deal with crushing disappointment.

The very interesting thing about the World Cup is that, throughout all these years of following them, they never ever seem to convert me into a football fan. Maybe I would click a few football articles when I were on a sports site, with passing interest and curiosity, to see what sort of narratives and mythologies have made their ways into the game, yet there would never be any urge to catch a game on TV. It would just be another 4 years of non-interest in football before I get sucked into this crazy World Cup fever again.

And then, just as I watch those World Cup games in the far future in unknown places during unknown times, I am sure my mind will once again stretch to these moments, deceptively brief intervals that mark my life, those moments in the airport, in a hotel room in Brest, in my tiny room in Tokyo, in the living room with dad, in a Mamak stall with some friends. These tiny little moments that accumulate into a kaleidoscope of images to mark my own memories during the passing of time.

This blog, when I started it in 2004, was more about something to chronicle about the "now". What am I doing now? What did I do yesterday? How do I feel about something that was happening today? I guess all these had been replaced by the likes of Facebook and Twitter.

This blog is gradually becoming something that help me remember the past.