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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 28, July 3, 2010

And Football Produces Gods

Saturday 10 July 2010, by T J S George

Not all the misplaced genius of the Lalit Modis and the Sharad Pawars of our land can generate the drama and passion football inspires. India is a net loser in becoming a cricket-only country. On the one hand, it destroys the spirit of cricket itself by turning it into a crass money machine. On the other, it leads to the neglect of glorious games like hockey and football.

Cricket covers but a few countries; football is universal. Cricket is colonial; football is democratic. Cricket, especially today’s commercialised format, is an artificial creation; football is utterly natural. Cricket needs cheer leaders; football doesn’t. Cricket corrupts; football enlivens. Cricket produces heroes; football makes gods—like Pele, Maradona, Zidane, Kaka, Messi, Drogba.

And so be it. Football is the true people’s game, the anywhere-anyhow game. You don’t need expensive equipment to kick a ball around. In the slums of the world kids play football without shoes and without a proper ball. From one such slum emerged today’s highest paid footballer, Samuel Eto’o, of Camaroon (who earns $ 13 million a year). Football is a great leveller.

Not that football does not have its unpleasant side. A whiff of corruption hit FIFA, the all-powerful governing body of the game, in 2001-02. A case reached the Swiss courts, but was eventually dropped. Ever since, FIFA’s bosses have been extra careful about keeping their hands clean. At the other end of the scale, beer-guzzling “football hooligans” were a phenomenon in Europe until recently, going literally wild in their enthusiasm.

Money is the engine of international football as well. Some clubs, like Chelsea and Barcelona, are immensely rich. The clubs buy and sell players. Barcelona paid Valencia $ 48 million to buy Spanish star David Villa; Real Madrid paid as much as $ 132 million to buy Christiano Ronaldo. As usual TV rights and corporate sponsors are the principal fund providers. In the 2006 World Cup, the TV audience was estimated at 26 billion, that is, 26 times he population of India. No wonder that sponsorships alone added up to $ 875 million; FIFA’s profit that year was an impressive $ 1.8 billion.

Figures like that help us understand why Lalit Modi and the BCCI itself went salivating at the prospect of minting money with “club” cricket. But they reckoned without that powerful institution that sustains the integrity of football —the Coach. The best coaches are dictators, but dictators who are admired for their dictatorship. For they are professional to the core. The bosses may think money, but the players under the command of coaches think football. Meritocracy reigns supreme.

THOSE who play politics with cricket must think about this. All sports in India is an extension of politics. That is why we flop except in individual events (as distinct from team sports)—in tennis, chess, shooting, boxing. In football we are nowhere in the picture. Which is astonishing when we think of Africa’s rise.
The average African footballer trained in the most primitive conditions. We were miles ahead with clubs like Mohan Bagan and East Bengal and playing fields like the Cooperage. But we never produced a magician – like Eusebio of Mozambique who scored four out of five goals for Portugal against North Korea for a 5-3 win in 1966, one of the most thrilling games in football history. Almost all European clubs today are performing well because of the Africans they have recruited. With natural talent, speed and footwork skills that are unique to them, Africans have made football their own.

For a month from now in South Africa, the self-confidence and newfound pride of Africans will enliven the spectators’ stands as well as the field. They have a typical style of enjoying football, not the hooligan style, but singing and dancing with spontaneous rhythm. An African team may not go home with the trophy, but this year’s World Cup will be one of the most exciting ever. And deservedly so.

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