Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Copa Larissa!

(Written for the August issue of Man's World)

Someday, somebody is going to place Larissa Riquelme in the Football, nay, World Sports Hall of Fame. And I (and, I’m sure, zillions of other football fans) will be cheering all the way!

Think about it. What is sport if it isn’t about entertaining people? About bringing people with differences together? What makes a sportsperson great if he or she is not able to spawn a generation of clones? And in today’s scenario, add to that gate and TV receipts as well as bringing in tourists?

Muhammad Ali, Diego Maradona, Roger Federer, Dawn Fraser, Tiger Woods (just talking about his game here), Lance Armstrong, Sachin Tendulkar, Steffi Graf, Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt.... Heroes. Legends. People who made their sports what they are today. People we respect and revere; people lesser mortals have tried to emulate over the years, usually without success.

Now then...Larissa. I don’t know if she’s ever played a sport, but she could. Any sport. But consider her pioneering efforts as far as international fandom is concerned. A promise. A big smile. A flash of her...umm, mobile phone. And football will never be the same again. Nor will football fandom.

Facetious, am I? Well, maybe. But things do get serious as we move on.

Not right now though.

Let’s start at the start. One small statement: “I’ll strip and run down the city square naked if Paraguay wins the World Cup.” That was last year. Most thought she was being a bit random. Paraguay had no chance anyway, so Miss Larissa could keep her clothes on. But she had her nation’s best interests in mind after all, and stripped anyway for a magazine cover only to tell her boys that it was all right that they couldn’t win. Long as they did want to see her naked!

Just over a year later, Larissa has taken the Copa America by storm. The Copa is not among the more followed football tournaments in India. It doesn’t involve La Liga or the Premiership, for starters. And, because of the time difference between India and Latin America, matches usually start at an ungodly hour in the morning. But ask any football fan you know, and they would have been tracking the tournament with a magnifying glass. Literally. Because most of the coverage has been centred around Larissa. Her promise remained the same. Paraguay wins, she strips and runs around the streets of her country.

And did Paraguay try! For themselves. And for the rest of the world. Give me one other reason why they could step past Argentina and Brazil and reach the Copa America final. Finally, right at the end, the most improved football nation in the world – Uruguay – stopped their march. The Paraguay team isn’t any better than it was when it finished nowhere in most international tournaments. The only thing that’s changed in the last two years is Larissa’s presence in the stands. Every day. Every match. Fans from Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador...everyone wants a souvenir photograph with her. And there’s Larissa; a Paraguay-coloured shirt with a plunging neckline highlighted by the strategically-placed mobile phone. Sometimes, no phone. And often, depending on the circumstances, a little extra treat for the fans. And the cameras.

And in case Larissa is too far away from where you are sitting, there’s Javy. As well as Patty Orue. The Larissaheads. Part of the growing tribe of smiling, sexily-dressed, bust-on-camera groupies of the Paraguay team – or, maybe, just Team Larissa.
Not many of us even know the name of the captain of the Paraguay team. Or their number ten. It’s a team no one outside of Paraguay has ever cared about. But today, it’s the Neutral Fan’s favourite team – by far. Everyone wants Paraguay to keep winning. Everyone knows Paraguay is not really good enough to beat the top teams.

But what’s sport without hope? And fun...entertainment? Because it’s not like Larissa will be the first nude woman any of us will see – in real life or otherwise. Especially in Latin American football, where the likes of Larissa are a dime a dozen in the stands during football matches. She isn’t even the most gorgeous, is she?

It’s the fun of the occasion. It’s the unlikeliness of the occasion ever coming true. It’s in how a sport that’s littered with examples of fan clashes and violence, a bit of voyeuristic pleasure is attracting fans from around the world to one corner of the stands. For a while at least, fans of Paraguay’s opponents also want Paraguay to win. One Copa title less won’t change Brazil or Argentina or Uruguay’s rich history much. Certainly not in any dramatic way. From the point of view of their fans then, it’s an ‘I was there’ opportunity. A couple of photographs. An embarrassed smile of explanation to the wife or girlfriend. And a little memory. A memory that doesn’t really add up to too much.

But, to go back to the start, think about what Larissa has done for football. Eyeballs. Not that football needed it, but what’s the harm? She’s brought The Football Fan to the forefront. At the World Cup, it’s only a sidelight. At the Copa, it’s a headline, especially with Brazil and Argentina doing their bit to let Larissa live her promise.

Pity the wait’s just gotten longer. Or wait, maybe that’s just added to the fun.

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