Why Venezuela? I asked.
“A friend from the States sent it to me as a gift. He liked Chavez and sympathized with Venezuela while Chavez was still alive.”
Venezuela’s national team, nicknamed La Vinotinto, has never qualified for the World Cup. I imagine, there is not much space for football in the nation crazy about baseball. But La Vinotinto jersey made it all the way to Sarajevo. Boris is my brother and these days our Bosnia and Herzegovina team plays in its first World Cup tournament in Brazil. So will Venezuela one day, I hope.
Why Italy? I asked.
“I’m from Italy. Actually not from Italy, I’m from Brazil. But my ancestors are from Italy”
At Tutty’s, sovereign behind a cashier he operates, Luciano smiles. Italy just won against England in an unexpectedly entertaining match and Andrea Pirlo, a football genius in the body of priest, or vice versa, is on TV. The largely empty restaurant in a small street behind the church in Porto Alegre is, apart from a dodgy night club offering pleasures of unknown sex, the only facility opened at this time of night. Two fat waiters with enormous quantity of gel in hair dance between empty tables serving unhealthy food to few customers. Naturally, football is on all of many screens mounted on Tutty’s walls.
To make almost poetic picture perfect, Luciano wears a Pirlo shirt. I immediately walk to him and, in a short conversation full of understanding using a meta-Latin language, we agree on number of things. Above all is our love for football with less running and more improvisation. And sometimes painful love for countries of our forefathers (my Bosnia played day after in its virgin World Cup match and I was already very nervous). Luciano’s, just like of many great Brazilians (Luis Felipe Scolari, Felipe Massa, Falcao…) came from Italy. Centuries later, that duality proved to be a win-win situation – no other combination in football offers more pleasure and trophies.
Andrea Pirlo fits perfectly in that picture. To re-phrase a friend – if the God played football he would be just like him. He doesn’t run, he sees it all and he can alone win a big match without even touching the ball, as he did against England. I’m not religious and nothing can be done about that but if Pirlo brings Italy to the throne this time I may consider starting at least a sect. I’m sure it would not be hard to find followers.
Why Man united? I asked.
“I’ve been watching football from when I was very young. This is when Cantona played, and I fell in love.”
Okay, that is possibly the most normal of all the answers to a question asked but, honestly, I didn’t expect to hear it. If not made clear, Ling’s bright red shirt, one of about a thousand at Aqsa road just outside Bangkok that morning could have suggested something else – perhaps affiliation to “red shirt” movement that, in Thailand’s color coded politics, fights for what they believe is right wearing all sorts of red clothes. Football jerseys included.
But, no. Ling said his Man United shirt has nothing to do with protests and that he is visiting a friend near the area where red shirts have been gathering for weeks. He just likes Cantona and his moves with the ball a lot, that’s all. Fair enough. Football uber alles.
A day after, Thailand’s mighty military staged another coup d’etat and immediately desaturated the streets of its protesting colors. Reds and others were sent home. Military fatigues are dominating again in a country in whose turbulent times you better be careful what color of shirt you wear.
Why Stoke City? I asked.
“I like Stoke.”
Then, after I insisted on more, he added “I like them all (teams), I like football.” Which explains it all. It was the first time I met someone wearing the Potters‘ jersey and I was trilled. Koffi and his family arrived to Montreal, from Ivory Coast, only two months ago. I quickly reminded him how Bosnia and Herzegovina beat Ivory Coast just a couple of days earlier in a friendly warmup match before the WC. He wasn’t concerned.
Why Marseille? I asked.
“Always, always, from when I was a kid, always only Olympique de Marseille!”
Frederic didn’t mind the rain and was happy to show his colours for the camera. He is from Togo and came to Montreal 5 years ago to study economics and is just finishing his last term. He was to young to remember his team playing Red Star Belgrade in the European Cup final in 1991 but I made sure to remind him of that match. Frederic intends to stay in Montreal – it’s a beautiful city, we agreed – and plans to work in real estate. May you sell many homes Frederic!
Why Liverpool?, I asked many times and got always the same answer in a language I don’t speak with the attitude I understand perfectly. There is no need for translation – a raised eyebrow and a pose of someone who will never give up speak volumes.
I know Khun Suarez for many years. He is one of tough motorcycle taxi drivers working in my street and he wears his football shirts to work. Most of the time it is one from his vast Liverpool collection although recently I’ve seen an Atletico Madrid emblem under his taxi vest. He takes me through the madness of Bangkok traffic almost every day – without people like Suarez (not his real name but we both like it) I would be just another miserable passenger stranded in what often looks like one huge parking lot in the streets of a monster city.
Our conversation, always short but pleasant is a combination of gabbling in my non-existing Thai and his equally understandable English, with important elements of pantomime. The words we understand are always the same: Liverpool (followed by his smile, a rare moment in the world of Bangkok’s taxi drivers), Manchester and Chelsea (with a face expression of someone who is about to vomit) and number of goals from last night’s matches. At the end of the day when I come back home and when he had already taken off his taxi jacket, we share a few glasses of poisonous Thai whiskey, rarely a beer. The conversation however remains the same, about football. It’s been like this for years and I don’t want it to change. He is one of very few things that can make me feel Bangkok home.
Tomorrow morning I will be again on the back of his decomposing 125cc Yamaha and he will wear a Liverpool shirt. There is a slim chance Liverpool is snatching that trophy tonight but that will change nothing. Some things are just bigger than anything money can buy, including the title.
Why DDR?, I asked.
Instead of the answer, I will copy here a few verses from Ahmed’s book The God of Transition. The poem is called “Ulf Kirsten, a star man” (the star here is a five pointed one, symbol of the revolution) and it’s obviously about the legendary player from East Germany who would raise his arms and spread legs making it look like a star after scoring a goal. After the Wall was brought down, Ulf played for re-unified Germany, hundred caps in total: 49 for the East, 51 for what came after.
When he came out to play in that white Germany shirt with Bundesadler on his heart
Instead of blue one with the sickle and hammer and DDR sign
Nothing was the same anymore.
We were not the same; the Europe was not the same
Only Ulf, firm on strong legs, suggested we can survive
And still score a goal.
Talking football with Ahmed, a Bosnian journalist, poet and great friend, is bit of a festival that requires special skills. Even if you consider yourself an expert, you will still be just a mere listener. Your knowledge is void, your observations shallow, your predictions pointless. Anything else you think you know – better keep it for yourself, open your heart and listen to Ahmed. He is a football encyclopedia filled with facts, emotions and hard to control passion. Watching matches with him, our routine for many years, is a rare pleasure in which I’m not sure what’s more important and entertaining – what is happening on screen or in front of it.
Ahmed, just like every real lover of the game, cheers for not only one team. Teams Ahmed loves, and whose jerseys he wears, have to be very special, just as he is special – a combination of power, knowledge and charm but above everything with often irrational and seductive moves of a genius underdog who came from nowhere to play against big powers. In his own team Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Miles Davis would be creators, Hendrix striker no matter the result. The final score is important but the game Ahmed plays is above everything.
I will be going to Brazil for the World Cup soon, to take pictures and enjoy the tournament. That is great and I’m humbly thankful to all gods involved in making it happen. But, what makes me even happier is that my beloved friend Ahmed will be there, to follow the tournament and dribble with verses about it. If you ever come across his byline or meet him in person, stop and listen what he has to say – I promise you won’t be disappointed.