“Oi, son ah, make up your mind leh! Who should Papa bet on?” Father’s pen hovers nervously over the betting slip that lies on the sleek black glass of our dining table.
I shake my head. Like many people I know, Father is only interested in football when the World Cup comes around. He really has no excuse. He studied in Liverpool in the 80s, and there ever was a perfect time and place to fall in love with the beautiful game, it was then, during the heyday of Kenny Dalglish and his Double winning side. I asked him once why he’d never gone to watch a game and he’d spun me that tired old line of how young people these days are so lucky they have time watch football because when he was young he had to study hard to provide for his family and when he walked to school it was uphill, both ways.
“It’s not that simple,” I say. “There are a lot of factors to take into account. Do you want a risky dark horse that pays well, or do you want one of the teams more likely to win?”
Risk and profit. These are terms Father can understand. He drums his fingers on the dinner table, and I imagine a little calculator in his head furiously clicking away. I wonder if this is what he looks like when signing a contract or auditing an account. I do not know much about his work. I know he was trained as an accountant and is on the board of any number of firms whose stock is listed in the back pages of the morning paper and on the ticker below the evening news and that his mood at dinner that night will depend on whether the arrows beside those little black numbers flash red or green – but beyond that, nothing. I have never been to his office or peeked in his briefcase, and at dinner we talk about politics or my grades.
Father’s fingers cease their drumming.
“Let’s hedge our bets,” he says. “Gimme your top four choices. We’ll put money on them all and one of them confirm win one.”
The Singlish does not suit him. It never has, but Father clings to it anyway. It’s not that he cannot speak English properly – when we’re on holiday overseas he speaks in clear, accentless tones, but back home he insists on peppering his speech with local slang. Though he will never admit to it, I know that it is one of the many mannerisms he affects in order to show the world that he belongs here, that despite his success and time abroad he is still that boy who grew up in a HDB flat and went to a school where the teachers themselves learnt English by memorizing the dictionary. He is the type of man who will take the train to work despite owning two cars and buy his coffee from a kopitiam though there is a Starbucks next door because in his mind that is what Real Singaporeans do. And so when the World Cup comes around he will send our driver down to Singapore Pools and place a bet for him, in an effort to identify with the fever that sweeps through the heartlands of Singapore once every four years.
“Well,” I say. “Spain won the Euro two years ago and they probably have the best team, but they aren’t going to give you very good odds. Holland has have the best forwards and the second-best midfield, behind Spain, though they always choke in big games. Brazil are Brazil so I’d place a bet on them too.”
I scrutinize the other big names on the betting slip.
“Hmm… Argentina’s coach is certifiably insane, France and Italy are in transition after their golden generation retired and I can’t even name half the players on the German team. I wouldn’t bet on any of them at these odds. Sorry, but I don’t really have a fourth for you.”
“Okay then,” Father says. “I’ll bet on England, for old times’ sake.”
“Dad, England never win.”
“Never mind one! It’s my money anyway.” Father pulls the newspaper over and does a couple of quick calculations in the margins.
“Shiok!” he says, filling in the betting slip. “If I place fifty on each I’ll make money if any of them win!”
Father pulls out his wallet and carefully counts out four fifty-dollar bills. He hands them to me along with his betting slip and sends me downstairs to give them to the waiting driver.
The days fly by and soon the first round of group games come and go. I stay up to watch as many of them as I can, and I do badly in a test because sleep claims me before I can finish the last few pages. Mother, furious, threatens to ban me from watching anymore football matches. I point out that my form teacher wore a Spain jersey to school and, by all accounts, slept through the entire test as well. Unsurprisingly, that does not help my case.
I am far from the only person who has sacrificed their sleep to the beautiful game. In school, you can tell who the genuine football fans are by their bleary, unfocused eyes and zombie-like gait. But mention last night’s match to them and they snap back to life, eager to relive every pass and goal and save. Informal betting pools form and we make ridiculous wagers with all the bravado of youth.
Father’s bets are not going well. Brazil labor to a 2-1 win over unfancied North Korea, and dark rumors spread that the North Koreans begged Brazil to play below their best so they would not be executed when they went home. England are held to a draw by the United States, and the English expat who teaches Literature in my school spends the next lesson ranting about the folly of playing a 4-4-2. Worst of all, Spain, the red-hot favorites to win the whole tournament, falls at the first hurdle, losing 1-0 to Switzerland in their first competitive defeat in over 2 years. Holland win their game handily, but that is scant consolation.
Naturally, Father blames me for giving him faulty advice.
“I thought you said Spain confirm win leh,” he moans to me one night over dinner. “Then they go and lose to Switzerland! Switzerland! Where got like that one ah?”
I am not worried. Form is temporary, but class is permanent – Spain have a history of starting tournaments slow, and I am still convinced that they have the best team. I try explaining this to Father. He does not seem to listen.
“You know ah, I asked Uncle Peter about this. You know he knows a lot about football, right?” Uncle Peter was a family friend who had been to university with Father and, unlike him, had become a massive Liverpool fan. “And Uncle Peter said what, the Spain captain – that goalkeeper – was distracted by his girlfriend? Some reporter who was there?”
I nod. I have read the stories the tabloids have been running but I do not believe them. Iker Casillas is one of the best goalkeepers ever to stand between the sticks and one does not get that good without learning to ignore distractions. I know that Father believes them. He is surprisingly credulous when it comes to things the tabloids print – whenever he makes one of his frequent business trips to Britain he brings back old issues of the Daily Mail to read in the evenings when he gets back from work, and for the next few days our dining room discussions revolve around whatever right-wing shock story dominated the paper’s back pages.
“I tell you ah,” he says. He is trying to turn this into a life lesson for me. He does this all the time. “Papa had a Spanish friend in university – they are all the same one. All they care about are their wine and their women. Very nice guy, but when the exams came he was too busy with his girlfriend, and what happened? He failed.”
Father places a somber emphasis on the last two words. To him, failure is the worst of all sins.
“Son, you must be careful ah. You cannot let yourself get distracted by women – they are never worth the trouble.” I glance at Mother out of the corner of my eye. She does not look amused.
Father pauses. “Although,” he says, “Uncle Peter did show me a picture of the girlfriend. And I must say ah, I can understand why he got distracted – damn pretty one.” Mother sits in stony silence, her chopsticks mechanically dismembering the piece of chicken on her plate.
I judge it prudent to excuse myself, and am in my room before their argument can begin.
I have invited some of my friends over to watch the quarter-final between Germany and Argentina. My parents are heading out – Mother has dinner with a client and Uncle Peter is dragging Father to an alumni event. Before they leave, Mother warns me not to make a mess and reminds me to ask after Gerald’s mother, who has recently recovered from a serious illness.
Father is nervous. He has made a side bet on the match with Uncle Peter and is having a strong case of gambler’s remorse.
“You sure Germany can win? All the paper say that Argentina are damn power one. You see how they beat Mexico the other night?”
“Yeah,” I say. “Trust me.”
I feel like I have earned some measure of trust from Father. The teams I helped him pick have been doing well lately: Brazil, Holland and Spain have all made the quarter-finals after breezing through the Round of 16. England have fallen by the wayside, smashed 4-1 by the Germans in a brutal display of Teutonic efficiency – but then I did warn him that England never win.
I do not tell him that Gerald is so skeptical of my prediction he has offered to shave his head bald if Germany win by more than two goals. If Argentina win by the same amount, I have promised to do the same.
“Okay lah,” he says. “I’ll trust you. But look more concerned, can? A hundred dollars is a lot of money one. I tell you ah, in my time one hundred dollars would last Papa one whole month – food, clothes, everything! Your generation ah, spend money like water like that. If you had to work hard like Papa you’d know how to take money more seriously.”
I stifle a yawn. I’ve heard this all before.
“If you’re so worried about losing just cancel the bet,” I say. “I’m sure Uncle Peter won’t mind.”
“Cannot. How can like that? I say I’ll do it already. That means I have to do it.”
From the driveway, Mother yells at him to hurry up and Father quickly takes his leave. When it comes down to it he is more afraid of her than he lets on.
My friends come over an hour or two later – a group of rowdy, happy-go-lucky guys who grew up with me in school. I tell them to make themselves at home, and we open a few beers and jostle for the best seat on the couch. On the screen, pundits and players from countries who did not qualify are discussing the upcoming game. Most of them think it will be a tight match, and my friends agree. I am not so sure. Argentina’s coach, the legendary Diego Maradona, has packed his team with attacking talent but has an incoherent defensive strategy. The Germans have brought a team of relative unknowns to the tournament, but they are young and fast and play with an almost palpable hunger.
I make these points to my friends and we trade opinions for a while. Gerald has brought an electric razor with him, and waves it playfully at my hair whenever he wants to emphasize a point. Soon, it is time for kick off, and we settle down to watch the game.
Three minutes later, Thomas Müller scores to put Germany ahead. Gerald turns the razor off and stares unbelievingly at the television screen. For the next hour, Germany continue to dominate, but somehow fail to add to their tally, and Gerald begins to breathe more easily and even joins in the laughter at the bald jokes the rest of us take turns to tell.
Then in 68th minute Miroslave Klose, the veteran German striker playing in his third World Cup, receives a long through ball and hammers it past the opposing keeper. Finally, the battered Argentinian defense begins to give way. Five minutes later, Frederich adds a third, heading the ball in from a corner kick and Gerald gets up to leave, muttering something about needing to be home early to study for a test. Laughing maliciously, we pin him to the sofa and force him to watch, shell-shocked, as Klose finishes the rout by adding a fourth goal in the last minute of the game.
I shave Gerald’s head in the basin of my bathroom, using the razor he has so conveniently provided. He protests, but not too strongly and takes it relatively well. I am glad that Gerald has kept his word. I would have too, had the football match gone the other way. I am not sure why I take words said half in jest so seriously, but then I think of Father frowning and know that there is something about reneging on your promises that seems ill-suited to my conception of what a man should be.
My friends take their leave, still mocking Gerald and his newly bald scalp. I check my messages for the first time since they came and see that I have missed a message from Father. I open it, and a photo of a glum-looking Uncle Peter pops up on my screen. He is handing Father a hundred dollars.
Later that night, when I am about to go to sleep, Father comes into my room and lays a hundred dollars on my bedside. I am of that age where that sum is no longer a fortune – yet for some reason I am inordinately pleased.
The World Cup Final is being broadcast late on a Sunday night. Our school principal finally realizes the futility of trying to get students and teachers to turn up on time after they’d been watching football till 3 a.m. the night before, and gives my entire school the Monday off. Those of my friends who are old enough are out at bars, and the rest have gathered at Stephen’s house to watch the game together.
I am not there – I have caught a cruel cold, and have been forced to stay at home. Father is out at a dinner meeting with his associates which will run “very late”, and Mother, well-meaning but disinterested, has made me a cup of tea and gone upstairs to get ready for bed. Feeling sick and sorry for myself, I prepare to watch the game alone in my living room.
I take some comfort in the fact that my pre-tournament predictions have been proven correct, for Spain and Holland are meeting in the final tonight. No matter who wins, Father and I will be due a hefty payout from the local bookies. I am torn on who to root for – on one hand I like the Spanish players for but on the other hand if Holland win we will make more money. Eventually I decide that Father would probably want me to root for Holland, and I transfer my loyalties irrevocably to the men in orange.
The pre-match rituals are as gaudy as always: a quick reel of the highlights of each team’s laborious progression to the final, another lengthy discussion by washed-up old pros who are paid by the word, the camera panning the crowd to pick out pretty girls dressed in their team colors and not much else (I approve of this), all playing out against the incessant droning of the vuvuzelas that have, overnight, become something of a global sensation.
I am miserable. The life and color and excitement I see on the screen all seem to underline the fact that a football match is something that has to be shared with friends. My friends send me an incessant stream of text messages and offer to Skype me in when the match starts. They mean well, but they do not help. I would rather not be reminded that my friends are all together right now. I would rather pretend that, like me, they too are watching the final alone in the gloom of a half-lit living room. I tell them that I am too sick and to go on without me.
The match kicks off. Spain play their usual brand of possession football, stringing together short passes between players who all seem to have magnets glued to their shoes, patiently waiting for Holland to make a mistake. The Dutch are content to defend deep and break up the Spanish rhythm with harsh, crunching tackles and strong physical play. It is a game of waiting, of tentative probing and hasty retreats – full of fouls, stoppages and many, many cards.
The cerebral side of me vaguely appreciates that I am watching a mental and technical duel of the highest level. The rest of me is bored stiff. I do not want this to be a chess match – I want both teams to go at each other like boxers in the final round, and play out a match full of spills and thrills that will absorb me and take my mind off my illness and my solitude. Eventually, between one sideways pass and the next, I fall asleep.
I am shaken awake by a firm hand on my shoulder. I look up to see Father standing over me, a can of beer in his hand.
“I thought you didn’t want to miss the game?” he says, settling down on the couch next to me.
I look at the screen. Regulation time is over, and the score is still nil-nil.
“It’s not much of a game,” I say. “Aren’t you supposed to be at your meeting?”
“It ended early,” he says.
“Yah. I think they all also want to watch the Final.” Father cracks open his beer, and holds it out to me. “Want some?”
“No thanks. I’m pretty sick.”
He shrugs his shoulders, and retracts his hand.
“Your loss.” He takes a few more sips. “Eh, why is nothing happening ah?”
“The teams are taking a break before extra time,” I explain. “It’s a draw right now so they’ll play for another half an hour and if its still a draw then it’ll go to penalties.”
“Ah. I see. You cheering for who?”
“Holland,” I say.
“Mm. Good boy. Like that we win more.”
The minutes tick away. I wonder to myself, idly, how television channels rearrange their programming when matches like these go over time. I think of asking Father about this, but the topic seems inane.
“Eh, son ah,” Father says. “I should probably tell you something.”
“At the meeting today I agreed to become head of the company’s operations in Britain.”
“I’ll have to move there for the next two years at least.” His accent is gone now. “Ordinarily I wouldn’t have agreed to it, but it’s a big promotion and next year you’ll be going into the army anyway.”
“Does Mother know about this?”
“Yes. We’ve been talking about this for a while.”
“And is she okay with it?”
“Yes. I’m sorry we didn’t tell you earlier, but-”
“Shh… Look – they’re starting to play.”
Half a world away, twenty-two world class footballers are marching out onto the pitch for the final thirty minutes of the biggest match in the world. Thousands of people are watching them at the stadium and millions more are watching them on TV, but here in this room it is just my father and I and we are watching them together. I know that there may be more important things in life, but in this moment, nothing comes to mind.