Sports

Talking Messi With Neeskens And A Detour To A Monument

Neeskens was a teammate of the legendary Johan Cruyff. In the 1974 World Cup final against Germany, he scored after 90 seconds from a penalty to put Netherlands ahead. It remains the fastest goal in a World Cup final. 

Lionel Messi kissing the World Cup trophy at Lusail Stadium, Qatar
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Lionel Messi and Argentina’s victory at the World Cup will rank as the sports story of the year. Back in August, on a cloudy day in Mumbai, the probability of Messi realizing his dream was discussed on a bench at Cooperage football ground. 

I was interviewing Johan Neeskens, the former Dutch football star. We sat on a bench beside a practice turf, the odd football and dry leaves from overhead trees around us. 

Neeskens was a teammate of the legendary Johan Cruyff. In the 1974 World Cup final against Germany, he scored after 90 seconds from a penalty to put Netherlands ahead. It remains the fastest goal in a World Cup final. 

More aptly, Neeskens was one of Messi’s early mentors at Barcelona. He was an assistant coach at the club from 2006-8. 

“We could already see in his movements, in his technique, in his awareness during practice in a small space, or in a big space, that he had a lot of qualities,” Neeskens said about the young Messi. “He proved he had quality, (because) from the moment he came in the team, he stayed in the team.”  

That, however, was a teenaged Messi. The Messi of August 2022 was 35. His only World Cup final had been eight years ago. The previous World Cup (2018) had been a near-disaster for Argentina. Though Messi had his moments, the pressure on him was so great that during the national anthem, he once rubbed his throbbing forehead. Argentina crashed out in the Round of 16.  

I asked Neeskens if Messi, nearing the end of his career, could pull off a miracle in Qatar. 

The rangy 71-year-old, blue-green veins visible through the pale skin of his long arms, a whiff of the previous evening’s libation on his breath, answered sensibly. He did not appear to expect Messi to do it, but he did not rule it out. 

“He still has the quality to play very well, but when you get older, you are not the same player you were at 25,” Neeskens said. “You cannot keep running up and down the field. It depends on the coach when and how he wants to use him, make some adaptation in the team.”

Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni did all that, and so did Lionel Messi.  It was an absolutely lit No. 10 and Argentina in Qatar. The loss to Saudi Arabia in their opening game woke them up. And they played with sustained determination thereon. 

Looking back, it seems fascinating that on an unremarkable Mumbai day well before the World Cup, Johan Neeskens gave us a glimpse of what could be.  

A bit of Gujarat

Covering the Gujarat National Games provided an opportunity to witness some great performances, and “breathe in a bit of Gujarat”, as the basso profundo of Amitabh Bachchan urged in a campaign some years ago. 

Gandhinagar hosted many of the competitions, some at its leafy IIT campus, some others at the glass-walled Mahatma Mandir Convention Centre.

One of the attractions of the state – the Adalaj stepwell – was a short distance from the state capital. One morning I made a stop at the 15th century structure, built as a water source and a place for religious rituals. 

Stepwells, called ‘Vav’ in Gujarat and ‘Baoli’ in Rajasthan, were mostly built in hot and dry regions due to their scarcity of water. According to the Ahmedabad tourism website, Adalaj ni Vav was commissioned by Queen Rudabai, and then completed by the Sultan of Gujarat, Mahmud Begada. The full story is gory and complicated. Let’s leave it for another time. 

It’s not often that we touch something 500 years old. So when our palms come in contact with the cold stone of the pillars, we feel one with history. History is what we sink into when we climb down the steps and peer at the bottle green water. Monuments are often odorous due to the various creatures that inhabit them, such as bats. But that does not diminish their quiet aura. The same holds true for Adalaj ni Vav. 

Far more disappointing than the funk of the place was the lack of enough signboards, the selfie-obsession of visitors and a large deposit of human vomit on the steps. That’s something no one wants to breathe in. 

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