My grandfather, born in 1919, grew up playing football in a wooded corner of the British empire.
The eldest son of a family of bright-eyed troublemakers from the southern Indian district of Palakkad, Kerala, he wore knee socks and a chip on his shoulder to the local missionary high school, where beatings from teachers quivering with rage were the chief method of keeping boys in line.
Tempers ran high on the playground.
Thanks to what must have been a combination of extreme arrogance and extreme vulnerability, my grandfather’s boyhood was marked by a determination to start or escalate fights.
Playing “soccer,” as he called it from beginning to end of his life—Edwardian slang has a certain tenacity, as North Americans will know—he was an aggressive and inconsistent forward, not notably destined for success on the field.
Although some of his brothers and friends would play the game for a great part of their lives, my grandfather gave it up relatively quickly. In the middle of the Second World War, he boarded a train for Bombay: a metropolis then, as now, suffocating in its love of cricket.
On the churning streets of the vast city, he found himself stepping aside sometimes for trucks full of European soldiers, who were either passing through on their way to other theatres of war or enforcing imperial law in a restless city.
The Dream-Time of the World Cup | Roads & Kingdoms