Claudio and Me

My sister and I bought the book, All Star Guide to the World Cup, at Dubai Airport in the summer of 1990. I discovered the book again recently when clearing out the store room in our house in Kerala. In it, the author David Scott had profiled each of the competing countries’ teams and had suggested that, “… you fill in the colours of the national flags.” My ten year old self had listened to Scott and duly coloured each of the flags rather meticulously using a large world map bordered with the flags of all countries that hung on our bedroom wall as a reference. 

While that World Cup was regarded by one all as not exactly the pinnacle of footballing excellence (“boring”, “dullest final ever”, “the best teams did not make the final”), it was my first experience watching a sporting tournament of such huge proportions. To my mind, it seemed to be truly glorious and destined to take on almost mythical proportions.  

Things were going on swimmingly until the 67th minute of the match being played in the Stadio San Paolo in Naples on July 3, 1990, the forward with the long, dirty blonde hair in the blue and white striped jersey received a yellow card. It was Claudio Caniggia’s second yellow card in the tournament and meant he would miss the finals. This act set a precedent – any player henceforth who would get a suspension for stupidity in any semi-final and thus miss out on the final, was inevitably labelled Caniggia-esque. This was also the moment that I experienced heartbreak for the first time.

I watched the match sitting in a hot flat in Muscat. The commentary was in Arabic and the commentator was getting hysterical about the incident. Words like unnecessary and thoughtless were bandied about. I had adopted Argentina as my team and the fact that Caniggia, who had formed such a formidable goal scoring partnership with Maradona, would miss out on the final seemed to spell doom for the Argentines. It came to be so when West Germany beat Argentina in penalties in the final - a match that dragged on and on and would eventually be regarded as a good cure for insomnia. At the time, I was excited, jumpy and nervous and eventually blubbered along with Maradona as he went up to collect his silver medal. I don’t know if Caniggia was blubbering along with us in the stands or dressing room, but I hoped he was. 

Ten year olds don’t have much judgement, especially ten year old girls. It is a fact of life that has hardly changed through generations. My questionable crush on Caniggia and his Michael Bolton like hair was a big low in my life, taste-wise. Eventually, I outgrew my crush on him (after seeing him and Maradona kiss each other on the lips). However, I still looked back on Italia 90 with a lot of affection. I learned to love football through Caniggia and the Argentines that summer. After that tournament nothing seemed to go right for either Caniggia or Maradona or the Argentinian teams at World Cups. Argentina has not reached a World Cup final since and Maradona went on to disgrace himself in 1994 in a drugs scandal. Caniggia scored only twice in the 1994 World Cup in the USA. When Daniel Passarella became the national team’s coach, he had a blanket rule that said he would not select players with long hair or earrings. Poor Caniggia, still believing in the Michael Bolton school of thought on follicle care, refused to shear off his golden locks and found himself cast out in the wilderness. 

Caniggia was brought back into the national team when Marcelo Biesla took the reins of the national team in the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea. At the time Caniggia was 35 years old and playing in Scotland – which was a just reflection of his decreased abilities at the time. Caniggia never played a match in that tournament but did get himself a red card for abusing the referee from the sidelines in Argentina’s match against Sweden. Poor Claudio, it seemed, was unable to keep himself from getting booked in truly bizarre situations. I was in college at the time and watched him rage against the dying of the light and the flash of red with the sort of affection one reserved for curmudgeonly uncles. 

But of all the stories that surround this once talented footballer, one remains in my mind years after reading it. His love for the game was so strong that as a child and even as a young adult, he would go to sleep with the football in his arms. Hindsight is always 20/20 and David Scott’s statement in the All Star Guide to the World Cup that “…Caniggia showed that he has a bright international future”, seems particularly poignant given how things turned out. But at least his love for football was infectious enough for me to absorb it while watching him play. And for that, Claudio, thank you.  

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