The good, bad and ugly of Fifa
During the second half of the World Cup final, we were suddenly jolted by an explosion. I scrambled towards the tree with it's unlikely occupants and clung to an overhanging branch, as people thudded past like a herd of crazed elephants. Soon our lungs were burning with the acrid stench of tear gas. The area where the crowd had been packed cheek by jowl was now deserted.
The fact that football now is truly an international sport was dramatically illustrated by the hordes of fans who streamed into the open air arena in Paris for the finale of the World Cup. Snatches of English, Chinese, Bangla, Urdu, Hindi, Arabic, Spanish, Dutch and French swirled around me. Gasps of 'Ooh la la' as well as 'Ya Allah' resounded through the crowd as play ebbed and flowed on the big screen.
The match was a bad tempered one with fouls galore and it left many horrified at Hollands' offensive avatar. It was fairly obvious from the start where the sympathies of this gargantuan crowd lay. Every Spanish foray and tackle was cheered for with gusto as was the opposing team's inability to score despite myriad attempts.
During the match, I found myself next to a group of shaven headed youths who were steadily swigging beer and cheering on Holland. Their vociferous support caught the attention of another Holland supporter standing nearby who asked them if they were Dutch. One of the youths answered with a brig grin, "No, we are Algerian!" He pointed to the Algerian flag draped around his shoulders, and then asked the fan, "Are you Dutch?" "No, I'm Irish," came the bemused reply and everyone laughed.
The youths' penchant for imbibing and smoking steadily, breaking out into loud rants in French at Holland's mistakes on the field, peppered with ear deafening blowing on bugles forced me to change my place at half time. Some enterprising fans had managed to scale a nearby tree and were now perched amongst its foliage, with literally a birds' eye view. Someone warbling "Englaaaand, oh Englaand" snagged my attention and I smiled at an amiable Brit in a straw hat, holding out his mug of beer and asking, "Anyone for Englaaaand? Anyone? Anyone!"
During the second half, we were suddenly jolted by an explosion. As a cloud of red smoke started spreading it's tentacles through the jampacked rows, ripples of fear ran through the screaming crowd who turned and ran in panic. I scrambled towards the tree with it's unlikely occupants and clung to an overhanging branch, as people thudded past like a herd of crazed elephants. Soon our lungs were burning with the acrid stench of tear gas. The area where the crowd had been packed cheek by jowl was now deserted, with scores of smashed bottles, broken barriers and torn hedges. I skirted, bruised and breathless people lying on the ground who were being attended to by their friends.
Once realisation dawned that it was not a bomb, but only tear gas set off by trouble makers, I decided to go back and watch extra time, while being on alert for any more misdemeanours. Since the women had fled by now, I was surrounded by men taking off their shirts to wrap around their faces as protection against the debilitating effects of tear gas. I could not do the same, hence I tied the cord of my shirt around my face and settled down to watch the match. When my face started burning, an old memory came to my rescue. Some of my media colleagues, who were avowed tear gas veterans, had mentioned that applying a moistened a towel or tissue on the face relieved the burning sensation. Once I doused my tissue in water, I dabbed it all over my face and the burning was alleviated. I had barely drawn a sigh of relief when I was inundated with requests from my right and left to sprinkle water on tissues. My companions turned out to be excitable Egyptians and a bemused Afghan who spoke flawless Urdu. The latter had lived in Peshawar and Karachi before heading back to Aghanistan for "jihad against the infidels."
Naturally they were also rooting for Spain and as we watched the Europeans battle it out, the Egyptians and Afghani proudly proclaimed brotherhood with Pakistan and confidently claimed, "In our countries we face not just tear gas, but bullets and bombs too. What is tear gas? It only scares these Europeans.." Hardly a badge of honour, I tried to tell them, but they brushed it off with huge grins.
Since I set great store in Paul the Oracle's prediction that Spain would clinch the World Cup, I was elated but not surprised when Spain finally scored and the crowd rose to it's feet in celebration. As victory laps took place on screen, I said good bye to the friendly Egyptians and fobbed off an invitation dine with the Afghan who kept insisting that since Pakistan had helped Afghanistan's refugees for 30 years, the least I do was accept his hospitality in return.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, as the Spanish captain held aloft the coveted World Cup and the squad shouted with joy, a corresponding roar went up in Paris. Flag waving and festooned in Spanish colours, the crowd went wild with delight, drumming their feet and screaming in jubilation. But one could not help feeling sorry for the disconsolate Dutch team who had played well throughout the tournament, only to falter at the final stage. So near and yet so far.