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Football fidelity: An Indian diplomat’s dilemma (Special)
By R. Viswanathan, IANS
June 9th, 2010
I applauded and cheered when Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, the three countries of my accreditation as India’s ambassador, qualified for the World Cup in South Africa. But this diplomatic honour has now come under challenge from the football rivalry of the three countries.
The Argentines say that since I am resident in Buenos Aires I have no option but to cheer for the blue and white stripes. The Uruguayans tell me not to forget their country which won the first World Cup in 1930 beating Argentina. They went on to win a second cup in Rio de Janeiro in 1950, defeating the Brazilian team and shocking the 52 million noisy Brazilians into silence.
The Paraguayans say as an Indian diplomat I should show more solidarity with the underdog and should not be on the side of superpowers. Paraguay had beaten Brazil 2-0 and Argentina 1-0 in this World Cup qualifiers. While I face these three corner shots, there comes another one. ¨Don’t be a traitor,¨ shout my amigos from Brazil where I had spent four memorable years.
In this supercharged atmosphere of no-holds barred rivalry, I found the only way to survive is to practise the old-world diplomacy. In the olden days, much before people got into Twitter troubles, there was a saying, “a diplomat is someone who thinks twice before saying nothing”.
In the first few months of my arrival in Buenos Aires, the most important question I faced was not on the nuclear or climate change issue but, “Are you going to be a Boca or River?” The rivalry between Boca Juniors and Riverplate teams is one of the most intense in the world. Even marriages and friendships are built or broken on the issue of loyalty to the team which passes from generation to generation.
The match between the two teams in the Boca stadium La Bombonera is an unforgettable Argentine experience. I kept my neutrality until I fell into the trap of Francisco, the vice president of the Indo-Argentine chamber of commerce and a Boca fan. He offered to take me to La Bombonera and arranged the best seat. But when I was about to sit, he said very loudly, “This seat is only for the Boca fans who are ready to live and die for the team. Are you ready to take the oath of loyalty to Boca and be a fan through victories and defeats?” With hundreds of excited and fierce fans staring at me, I had no choice but to say “I do”. Then the ritual started.
I was made to jump up and down with Boca songs. I was indoctrinated with stories of the illegitimate ancestry of Riverplate players and the most appropriate words to describe them. They put a Boca shirt on me and said, “You can change wives but not this shirt!” In South America, marital infidelity is forgiven but not football disloyalty. So I am now stuck with the Boca shirt. My friends from River have vowed never to forgive me and are planning to petition the government of India to send a River fan as the next ambassador.
World Cup time in South America is low season for work and business. My Argentine colleagues in the embassy are converting the office into a sports bar stocking it with the essential liquid and solid necessities to last for a month. Conveniently for them, the game timings will be 8.30 a.m., 11 a.m. and 3.30 p.m. Argentine time. The game watching will be preceded by an hour of preparations and followed by two hours of analysis, celebration or singing of sad Tangos. The Argentines advise the Indian staff “In Argentina , do as the Argentines do.”
This is the time of “sonrisa de esperanza y sollozo de pasion” (smile of hope and cry of passion), as the Tango of Carlos Gardel says. It is an exciting and unique experience to be in this part of the world during the world cup. There is just no escape from the media frenzy and public fever with non-stop debates and analysis. The 40 million Argentines become judges, prosecutors, critics and umpires at the same time. The current topic of debate is on the freedom given to the Argentine team members to have sex during the World Cup, the only one among the 32 teams which has got this unique privilege.
One cannot talk about football without a reference to Maradona, who scored with the “Hand of God” and is now the irrepressible coach. Sociologists say the best way to understand Argentina is through an understanding of Maradona, who has gone through ups and downs like the country itself. When asked by the media, “what will you do if Argentina wins the World Cup?”, he said, “I will run naked around the Obelisk monument”.
It is not only the footballers who use provocative vocabulary. Even Argentine diplomacy sometimes adds colour to the drab world of the excellencies. In 1990, Guido di Tella, the Argentine foreign minister, said Argentina had “carnal relations” with the US…and the American diplomats did not know what to make of it!
(R. Viswanathan is Indian ambassador in Buenos Aires. The views expressed in this article, special to IANS, are personal. He can be contacted at email@example.com)