The legend of Zidane Jayakumar Gourishetty
Perhaps fittingly, given her distaste for the sport, my wife is set to give birth to our first child in the first week of the 2018 FIFA World Cup
Afew years ago, on a visit to Bengaluru, I met a young couple and their three-year-old son. The husband, like so many in that city, had a job in technology. The wife was a director of television commercials—an accomplished, well-read, fairly normal pair of people.
After a beer or two, I happened to ask the name of their son. The husband’s eyes glinted in the yellow living-room light and he said, careful and proud: “Zidane Jayakumar Gourishetty".
I forget the couple’s last names now—it wasn’t actually Jayakumar Gourishetty—but it was something that sounded authentically, wholly Kannadiga. I immediately found the combination charming and amusing—the southern Indian patronyms with a given name from Algerian Arabic, referencing, of course, the shiny-pated, silver-eyed mascot-magician of the French footballing tradition, great streams of global civilization coming together in this quiet, somewhat timid little boy.
My second thought: Now here is a real football fan. Forget about society and expectation; ignore whether the boy would be burdened by the image of the wonderful man who bore his name; dismiss—psychologists say some human actions can be explained by a secret death wish—any fleeting concern about what your wife might think.
The man had a hero, Zinedine Zidane, and what’s the point, really, of even having a son if you can’t pay homage to someone you will never meet, who will never know your boy, who has done nothing except allow you to witness scattered moments of unrefracted genius, so rare, amid the general tumbling and sprinting and sliding and butting, that they live on in the mind like starbursts, twinkling against memory’s grey murk.
Quite quickly, the mother disabused me of my assumption, explaining that she too was a fan of the French attacker. The name was a bilateral accord.
Immediately, I was envious of this couple who shared football. In the years I have been with my wife, I have tried to get her to watch the sport, since chunks of Saturday and Sunday sometimes pass fixed to the television, watching the tortured travels of my team, Arsenal, and their competitors.
Two moments stand out. In the early years, still in the first flush of love, and Arsenal doing rather better, she would sometimes sit with me. One day she asked, “Who’s that Egyptian player? He’s pretty cute."
This was well before Arsenal signed Mohamed Elneny (a reliable midfielder, but one whose own mother might struggle to call cute), so naturally I was curious. I told her there was no Egyptian. She insisted she had seen one playing.
One by one I went down the list of starters until I landed on the goal-scorer. “Told you, Ramses!" she said, in response to my naming the Welsh midfielder Aaron Ramsey. The Arsenal midfield has been called static before, but this was perhaps the first time one of our more energetic souls was confused with an entombed pharaoh from 27th century BC.
That day, my wife and I came to our own bilateral accord. While I’m watching football, she reads a book.
The second moment occurred rather more recently. In the last weeks of this year’s Premier League, Arsenal’s long-serving manager Arsene Wenger announced he would be leaving the club. She saw me watching the next game, and, when the camera flashed upon Wenger’s worry-beaten, lined face as a small cheer rolled around the stadium, she squeezed my shoulder and said, “I read that the old man is leaving."
My wife has a deep aversion to the sports pages of any newspaper, and this was the first piece of sporting news she has accurately rendered in my presence. I felt then that she knew how much that old man had meant to me over the years, and her concern filled me with a warm glow.
Perhaps fitting, given her deep distaste for the sport, that my wife is scheduled—if all goes well, please keep your fingers crossed—to give birth to our first child in the first week of this year’s World Cup.
She’s happy because she believes this means I will not be able to watch any of the games. I’m happy because I believe this means I’ll be able to watch them all.
My reasoning is simple: Everyone has told us we won’t be sleeping very much in the first months, that the baby will keep us up to every odd hour and we will hardly leave the house. What better time for a World Cup?
This means we will watch even the late-night games. We can move the baby into the living room. I will grudgingly mute the TV. As a family, we three can doze and feed and the baby can witness for the first time the quadrennial ritual, much enjoyed by the rest of the world, of England crashing out at the first knockout stage.
It seems quite perfect. My wife listened to me paint this scene of living-room family time and politely asked if I would bring this same delusionary spirit to all my fathering.
The astounding thing about that evening with the football-loving duo in Bengaluru was what the husband told me later: There was another boy in his son’s playschool who had also been named Zidane. Both would now be approaching the second decade of their lives; one wonders how many times the poor chaps have been asked by cheek-tweaking uncles and aunts if they’re going to play football for India.
This brings us to the complicated question of names. The Bengaluru couple had it easy. Zidane was a boss at two World Cups and much in between, unquestionably the standout player of his time.
At this World Cup, which is being held in Russia, people have been talking up playmaker Eden Hazard, Spanish goalkeeper David de Gea, the evergreen Argentine Lionel Messi.
But there will be only one true boss, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to name my child Vladimir Putin.
The first in a new monthly series on the pleasures and pitfalls of becoming a first-time father. Prayaag Akbar is the author of the novel Leila.