Nineteen ninety-eight was, for many reasons, one of the landmark years in my life. There was the transition from shorts to pants in school. There was the change of position from second in English to the topper in the same. There was the introduction to integers, which scared the hell out of me. Yes sir, ’98 was a definite leap into the world outside.
The summer of ninety-eight was also the season of the first World Cup I followed from the first match. My footballing experience was limited to breaking the window in the living room, knocking off the tea-cup from the coffee table, giving myself a hard time by bouncing the ball off my then-insanely tall brother’s legs onto my stomach, and general gambolling on the once lush green park outside the block. Not many people joined me. India was, and still is a cricket crazy nation, but I was gifted with my brother’s basketball, volleyball, tennis racquets, table tennis bats, badminton racquets, game of Life, chess set, Hungry Hippos (yes, I still played it, so eat me), and football, of course, apart from his cricket bats (in the plural, ladies and gentlemen). There were quite a few other things I inherited, including the miscellaneous Lego pieces that got jumbled up and distributed among three huge boxes, but let us stick to the physical sports for now.
Where was I? So, when the World Cup was supposed to kick off, I had already caught the fever for international sports that raged in my family. I had already worn out my Maradona belt (which is surprising, since my family supported A Selecao, no idea how to get the funny French ‘c’, all the way), though I am not entirely sure I ever outgrew it, and needed something new to proclaim my allegiance to the sport. My ever uneasy eyes turned to the TOI we used to get then, in that more innocent age, and I saw the Great Coke Challenge, as I now like to call it. It was pretty simple. ‘Describe, in 50 words, what you like about football, and WIN!’ The eleven year old I was, I took the task to heart, and since it was little more than writing practice, I got all the encouragement I needed. The top prize was a kick-off ball from the World Cup. I do not remember the second, but the third, which I did win, was a Coca-Cola key chain, and a red Coke t-shirt. For those of you who are raising eyebrows at this moment at the sheer genius of the eleven year old who could write something good enough to send to a competition and be received with more than mere laughs, nya-nya-nyaaaah! For the rest, yes, my brother helped me more than a little bit.
The shirt was beautiful. If Seinfeld loved Golden-Boy, there is little you could say that would describe how I cherished this one. Man U and Liverpool fans would have died for it, and the rest would have been awed by the splendour and vibrancy of the colour. There were problems, though. It was many sizes too large for me. And so it went to my brother, as his share of the spoils. I was quite happy with the key chain, having just got a new cycle, and itching to try out the new lock I had installed. Eight years ahead, I would get to know the frailty of the ring around the wheel.
The shirt was worn once. The day it was washed, my white socks turned pink, and I was glad I did not have my beloved Popeye t-shirt in the wash. And just like that, the colour went away. It was a pity. I could not wear the shirt for the first game, let alone the finals. But I did finger my key chain with the air of a person who had accomplished only half the goal, an assist that went perfectly, but a strike gone awry.
I grew into the shirt, but I never did wear it. It is kept somewhere in the recesses of the cupboard, a reminder of the craze that enveloped the house that time. I took it out in ’06, but put it back, resisting the urge to scream and shout as I used to.
The key chain fell and broke sometime in the first three years of the decade. It lived a long, full life.