Why doesn’t India play the FIFA world cup?

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In West Africa lies the landlocked country of Mali, about one seventh the size of India, a large part of which is made up of the world’s largest desert, the Sahara. A river, the Niger, runs through the country, passing through the port city of Mopti to embark on a journey into the heart of the Sahara. Just to the southeast of Mopti, the floodplains of the river rise gently into a large plateau that ends dramatically in the Bandiagara cliffs.

At the edge and base of these cliffs, inhabits an ancient people called the Dogon. In 2001, I began a master’s degree in architecture in France during which I worked to build a school with the Dogon people of Begnematou. The Dogon were great storytellers and lived with a great sense of fun and curiosity. Even for those who had barely traveled, India was the land of movies, of Vijay and Jimmy, heroes of our Bollywood movies of yore. They loved singing and dancing routines and considered the heroines of Indian movies to be the most beautiful in the world. They were impressed with the size of India, and some, who had traveled, were amazed at its progress in the field of computers. But for everyone, regardless of age, education, or travel exposure, the most important part was that India was the land of black magic, and by extension, every Indian was therefore a black magician. The Dogon themselves were famous for their magical powers, masked dancers, and complex cosmology. However, with a mixture of astonishment and disappointment, they told me: “We Dogon are powerful magicians, but you Indians are even more powerful. What we Dogon do is red magic and what you Indians master is black magic! Red is powerful, but black is the most powerful.” And, just before I could explain that I had never come across that in my life, they would smile and slip in: “Hey, my friend, won’t you, before you go, teach me some black magic?” The conversation usually ends in laughter. But sometimes I felt like they were taking this black magic business too seriously.

A Dogon with a hedgehog. (Peeyush Sejsaria)

Backpacking was popular in the region with many young Dogon men working as guides. Getting a Japanese tourist was a lottery, you could ask them for any amount and they would agree, they never bargained and were always very polite. A guide would run towards me, every time he saw me, he would take my hand and place it on his head, and say: “You are my black magician. Bless me. Every time I receive your blessing, I receive a Japanese tourist!” He Got Japanese Tourists Three Times in a Row! That scared me a bit and I stopped going to the restaurant where the guides hung out.

An illustration of children from Mali representing their favorite sport, soccer.

Meanwhile, soccer was a popular sport in the region. Mali’s national soccer team called The Eagles. Its archrivals were the neighboring country of Côte d’Ivoire. One afternoon, in the village of Begnematou, they asked me: “India is such a big country, so advanced in computers, how come India doesn’t play in the soccer world cup?” They all looked at me with great interest, as if waiting for a great revelation. I was surprised, but I tried to answer: “India had no sports culture, we don’t value sport. There is only one sport and that is cricket.” My answer was met with silence; they were not impressed.

After a few moments of silence, one of them said: “Wait, this is not the reason, we will tell you why!”. A story was brewing. “Once upon a time, India was at the FIFA World Cup. If they lost, they would be eliminated. The Indian defense had failed, the forwards were screwing up, the midfielders were lost and the rivals scored as they pleased. The Indian porter watched all this in silence. Our narrator stopped to pause and work on the twist of the story. “But you know Indians, the Indian gatekeeper was a powerful black magician. It was clear to him that something dramatic had to be done. With his black magic, he turned the soccer ball into a snake. The Indian players who saw this treated the ball with respect and kept their distance. However, for the opposition, it was just a ball. Soon, one after another, his players were rolling on the ground writhing in pain. The opposing team and the referees of the match could not understand what was happening. They panicked and the match was cancelled. India was saved from elimination! However, someone among the bystanders also knew some black magic and could tell what was going on. He told the beans to FIFA who banned India for life! My friend Dogon caught his breath and continued: “You see, black magic is the reason why India doesn’t play in the FIFA World Cup.” There was a triumphant pause, and we all burst out laughing. Although, to this day, I’m pretty sure most of them believed the story!

The writer is an amateur naturalist, architect and geographer by training

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