My first reaction when I was asked was “Me? No, thank you”. ESPN Star Sports wanted me to host the entire FIFA World Cup in 2006 and while I enjoyed watching it, I wasn’t sure I was the right person. In fact, I quite enjoyed watching John Dykes host football and a couple of times I stayed back in the Singapore studios to see how he worked off the tele-prompter because I had never used it. I knew there would be a backlash because John was popular, for a good reason, and because football fans tend to be clannish. I was to discover that in the first week.
But because the telecast was primarily for India, and in India the audience for a World Cup is markedly different from the audience for the usual EPL or La Liga games, they needed an Indian face, someone who would relate to the migrant audience. So there I was in a studio in Singapore where I met Steve McMahon, who I knew as a former Liverpool player, the wonderfully friendly Gerry Armstrong whose goal for Northern Ireland against Spain in 1982 was part of folklore and of course the big hearted Goan Noel de lima Leitao who brought enough cashews to feed all of Singapore. And yes, I made friends with Vinay Pathak and Ranvir Shorey who were putting together a wacky show between matches.
I prepared for it like it was an exam. I had followed football of course, from the time Luque and Kempes won it for a brilliant Argentinian team in 1978; then, for no reason at all, I decided I was a fan of Platini, Giresse and Tigana over Zico and Socrates and of course, I followed the famous Dutch trio of Gullit, van Basten and Rijkaard. But hosting a football World Cup needed more especially if you were working through the night in Singapore. For a little over a month I reached the studio at around 5pm and left a little before 6 am, waited for breakfast to begin at 7 and slept till 3! Preparing meant getting a password to ESPN’s soccer site, learning pronunciations of players from Poland and Serbia and Montenegro and reading about players from Togo that weren’t called Adebayor!
It turned out to be an excellent World Cup from the time Torsten Frings scored a brilliant goal and we were all enamoured by the arrival on the big stage of a wonderfully gifted German team under their often non-resident coach Jurgen Klinsmann. Germany played such pleasing flowing football it was hard not to want them to win and it was the first sighting on a big world stage of Phillip Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger, just 22 and 21. Germany didn’t win but for me continued…