Some call him Loinel. I won’t be surprised if the odd guy calls him Linen. No matter how people pronounce his first name, the sports news of the moment is that Lionel Messi will play here, in India, today. The Argentine football wizard traps and dribbles as if the ball were an extension of his body. It is pure magic. Many football lovers will place the likes of Pele and Diego Maradona ahead of him. However, Messi is assured of a high rank in practically any list of great footballers of all time.
Argentina played a friendly match with Venezuela in a while. However, we, the Indians, were ecstatic since Messi was expected to showcase his enviable skills on our turf. Fans both old and young were eager to catch a glimpse of the man, if not in the fortunate city of Kolkata, at least on the television. TV watchers experienced a special pleasure because Messi, accompanied by cheering Indian fans inside the stadium, was psychologically closer. Although the master has stayed away from the spotlight and did not deliver as expected, photographs and articles have created so much curiosity that even non-watchers of the game wished to witness the moment when he will touch the ball for the first time.
Life, in other words, is so Messi. As the magic promises to unfurl, we are waiting with bated breath. One possible consequence of his coming lies beyond his playing in a friendly outing. While watching Messi and co. do magic with the ball, chances are that we will think about the state of Indian football.
Despite having a fairly high football-playing population – especially in the rural areas – India is an insignificant player in the arena of international football. Are we okay on the talent front? That question can be conclusively answered only when we start delivering on the big stage. As of now, the possibility seems remote. What we do know is that Indian football, like its many other counterparts barring cricket, is a hapless victim of inadequate facilities and very little exposure. Those players who promise in the initial stages do not go beyond a certain – exceptionally limited – level since they aren’t well looked after. What is worse, far worse, is that few seem to care. The voices of some who do get buried in the sustained cacophony of cricket.
It is in such a nation that Messi will unveil his magic. As we watch him play, some of us might ask ourselves: when will an Indian footballer run with the ball so smoothly, dodging human obstacles with divine ease as he does? While football is an ignored sport, shall we ever produce a Pele who practiced with a sock stuffed with paper since he could not afford the real thing?
How and when Indian football will attain some significant recognition is a question that all lovers of the game wish to answer. That we had a decent enough team is a reality of decades ago, its counterpart of today being thoroughly incapable of making an impact on the big stage of the world.
When Messi plays, our journey through the match will be a trek in trance. But, once the show is over, some of us might sit back and think: when will India’s footballing poverty finally end?