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 they were the team of the tournament and they won many fans.
There were two other young sensations whose careers have moved slightly differently since. Wayne Rooney, just 20 played with Cristiano Ronaldo, only 21 himself, at Manchester United. Portugal vs England was always going to be exciting though we didn’t quite anticipate how much with the Rooney send off and the Ronaldo wink. And then Ronaldo walked up to take the last penalty and I was struck by his confidence and poise. In our studio, Steve McMahon was so angry, we didn’t need another summariser!!
Argentina had the master Riquelme controlling the game and came up with that 26 pass goal before Cambiasso finally scored. We played that so many times we could actually draw a diagram of it by the end! Lionel Messi was just 18 and I don’t think anyone saw him!
I was looking forward to seeing Ivory Coast play. I had a soft corner for African teams, there was the French connection and I thought with the Toures, Eboue, Zokora, the wonderfully named Aruna Dindane and the master Drogba, they would go far but the group of death buried them. Maybe this year? One last flourish from Drogba?
Brazil, with a sluggish Ronaldo, were the disappointment. But I wanted to see a final flourish from the dazzling Cafu and Roberto Carlos, full backs only in name, but at 36 and 33, they were on the wrong side of the game and our experts actually thought their best player was the unassuming Ze Roberto , the defensive mid-fielder. Apparently Ronaldinho played too! But this year Brazil will be different. Hopefully!
Quite apart from the dramatic Zidane-Materazzi head butt, there are two memories of that World Cup, both from the France-Spain quarter final. Spain by now, were like South Africa at cricket; always looked good and found reasons to lose. But that match produced a wonderful tactical moment from the great Thierry Henry.
It was an aging French side playing with but one forward. Spain played the off-side trap well against Henry and as if to counter it he moved towards the centre-line thus drawing the Spanish defence further up. In one of the game’s dramatic moments, Patrick Vieira looks to Henry who signals “not me” because of course he is off-side. But he has created so much space in the Spanish defence that Viera’s ball to a young but lightning fast Franck Ribery leaves him free to score and turn the match around. France’s ageing stars beat a young Spain 3-1. Now look at that Spanish squad again. The magnificent Xavi was only 26 and Casillas 25 but of the others Torres was 22, Iniesta 22, Xabi Alonso 24, Sergio Ramos 20, Fabregas 19 and Villa 24. You can see why, soon thereafter, Spain were ready to take on the world! Has that great team seen its best years? Or can they like France in 2006 with Zidane, Vieira, Henry, Makelele, Barthez and Thurram make another final?
In the first week of that tournament, I was treated like an intruder, got more brickbats than ever from the clannish fans. But then things changed, acceptance grew and I now look back on that month long all-night period as one of the most satisfying broadcasting experiences of my career. I will watch again but without barracking for a team. And I will be intrigued to see if Messi can do with Argentina what Maradona did so many years ago.
By the time it ends will we be saying Messi of Argentina or will it still be Messi of Barcelona?