Friday, July 11, 2008

Football and Life

A 2-Pager by Ajit Chaudhuri
‘Football is not a matter of life and death – it’s a lot more important than that’[1]

Introduction: I have been at the receiving end of lectures on the evils of football for a long time (some of my dear readers – do you recognise yourselves?). There is a pattern to this. The crescendo is highest during a World Cup or a Euro and during my (increasingly frequent) injury breaks. The troughs occur when I am listless, pale and crabby, when it is pretty obvious that I am ‘not getting enough’. I have learnt to accept them with equanimity – along with the comments about the need to focus on the important things in life and the observations that it is just ‘22 morons in perms chasing a ball’. I was also recently witness to a friend’s 15 year old son getting one of these from his father – something along the lines of ‘what do you learn from sitting up every night to watch Euro 2008?’[2]. Having also been awake every night for three weeks in June, I am reasonably qualified to address this question for my friend and similar sceptics. But first –

Why football? Many people consider two things important to growing up – playing a team game, and having a dog. The former teaches you about group dynamics, supporting each other, winning, losing, and rejection. The latter provides you with love that is pure and non-judgemental while teaching you about authority and responsibility. I don’t have any specific recommendation for football – most team games (basketball, hockey, etc.) are just as good, cricket possibly minutely less so being an individual game that is played in a team, rugby possibly more so except for the higher chances of your body parts being severed. A deeper analysis of the specific benefits of football is available in my blog in a paper entitled ‘Alive and Kicking’.

Lessons in life from Euro 2008: Much has been written about the successes of Euro 2008. As a neutral football lover, the quality of football on display was, for the most part, brilliant. The best team actually won. And, with no British teams playing, we could watch with the volume on and not have to cringe at the moaning, griping, whining English commentary[3]. But were these lessons in life? Nope – these follow!

TTMO: There is an old joke that goes – what is the similarity between dying and taking a crap? The answer – when you gotta go, you gotta go! Unfortunately, some teams had players who should have taken their walk into the sunset earlier, and these teams did badly. Particularly at fault were the French and Italians, where many were playing a tournament (or two) too many – particularly criminal for the French because they had the young talent available. The Swedes were the oldest team of the tournament and they were huffing and puffing in the second half of their games. The Greeks brought in the same personnel and tactics that won them the tournament in 2004 only to find that the same legs were four years older and the world had moved on. The tournament was better for these teams packing their bags at the earliest possible stage[4]. In contrast, the youngest team (Russia) had a run into the semi-finals, demolishing the tournament favourites on the way, and losing only to the second youngest team – who went on to become champions. It was different with managers – the oldest won the tournament, and two other oldies reached the semi-finals with teams that set the tournament alight.

What can be discerned from this? First, glorious comebacks do not happen – you have to be Zidane to do this gracefully, and none of us are. If you should go – go! And when you go, don’t turn around! And second, there is a time when you should be moving on to new challenges, and when you get that TTMO[5] (time to move on) feeling, you will not be doing yourself and your career favours by choosing comfort and stagnation over hunger and achievement. Past achievements are nice, but life has to be lived in the future.

Hype vs. Substance: The two most hyped players on the planet (or at least the English Premier League) were there – chocolate looks, silken skills and all. How did they fare? Cristiano Ronaldo had all the lesser lights flabbergasted by his stepovers but went missing at the first sign of real opposition (when Portugal played Germany). Fernando Torres was substituted in every game that Spain played, but he also decided the tournament with his only significant contribution to the team – a goal that was marvellous for its intent, aggression and power – no chocolate here. Football lovers were blindsided by Russia and Turkey, who reached the last four from nowhere. With the advantage of hindsight, Russia was a pretty obvious candidate for success, with one of football’s most brilliant tacticians managing them, and a Russian team just winning the UEFA Cup. But, no pushy PR agent behind them! So – real success is defined by performance on the ground – not by who your godfather is, not by how you look, not by what you (and others) say, and not by the weight of your wallet. And there are no short cuts for this!

Screw-ups happen: The lights went out in Vienna (an electrical storm, we were informed), disrupting the coverage of the semi-final between Germany and Turkey in Basle for viewers across the world. Yes, apparently this happens outside India. Bihar State Electricity Board – it looks like you have competition.

The lightness of nationalism: The Swiss team had three Turks. The Portuguese were, as usual, overloaded with Brazilians. The Turks had a Brazilian and an Englishman, the Germans had Poles, the Poles had a South American and even Spain had a Brazilian. The team lists were pragmatic reflections of ability and availability rather than national pride and honour. Even Spain lacked the usual sub-nationalist tensions within the team, and seemed better off for it. It was left to the Swiss authorities to indulge in jingoism, playing a pre-world war II national anthem for a Germany game – supposedly a mistake, but one that pissed German fans off big time.

The myth of the free market: The English Premier League is the best football league in the world. It is also the richest. It is also the one most guided by free market principles. You may dispute the first statement (though you would be on thin ice with four English clubs making it into the last eight of the Champions League in 2008, three into the last four and two into the final), but there is no disputing the second and third. The players are the best paid, the clubs have the money to buy the best players, and ticket prices are the highest. Anybody with money can own an English club – Russian oligarchs, Thai politicians, sheikhs from Dubai, Indian steel tycoons, US business magnates – anybody! In fact, the English Premier League was the league with the second-highest number of players at Euro 2008 (after the Bundesliga) – without any British team having qualified.

What was that again – England did not qualify? Yes, the national team was not good enough to be among the sixteen best teams in Europe. A cursory analysis suggests that this was an aberration caused by a bozo of a manager. A deeper one points to the fact that players are not coming through the lower divisions into the Premier League any more – better players are available cheaper from South America and eastern Europe. Great for the clubs, which sometimes play eleven foreigners, great for the quality of the league, but is it good for the national team and for the larger interests of English football?

Substitute companies for clubs, economic growth for the premier league and broader national interest for the national team and you revisit the debate about whether an unfettered free market is in the best interests of a nation.

It isn’t over till the fat lady sings: Watching Turkey play must have had Turkish heart patients dropping like flies. In the league, they lost to Portugal, were one down against Switzerland and scored twice (including once in the last minute) to win, and were two down in the must-win against Czech Republic before scoring three times in the last 15 minutes to go through to the quarters. Croatia scored in the last minute of extra time (the 119th minute of the game), only to see the Turks equalise in the 122nd minute, take the game to penalties and win it comprehensively there. Turkey had only 11 eligible players against mighty Germany (the rest were injured or carded), but came out and played as if they were the favourites for the game – ultimately losing the semi-final 2-3. What a team! And what a lesson on not giving up until the absolute end!

In conclusion: A relationship with football is akin to love – it gives pleasure, it gives pain, and it gives a lot more. If your child loves football, get used to it. Get used to the smell of sweat in his/her room, to the TV being on at odd hours once in two years, and to weekend football being more important than parties. Don’t fight it! If it dies, it will do so on its own. If it doesn’t, s/he will probably one day be just short of 45, confined to the home with a foot injury, writing about love. Like I am right now! Life could be worse!
[1] The statement is attributed to Bill Shankly, a legendary football manager.
[2] Coincidentally, I had also been witness to the same friend getting a similar lecture from his father back in the early 1980s.
[3] No offence meant – they are good commentators when they are neutral, and they are not neutral when a British team is playing. For the experienced viewer, it brought back memories of the last tournament with good English commentary – the 1994 World Cup.
[4] Yes, yes, before the Pundits among you bombard me with email beginning with ‘Are you aware’, the exception was Italy, which lost in the quarterfinals.
[5] I thank Shampa Kamath, my colleague at India Today, for introducing me to this term some years ago.

1 comment:

Mist said...

Ajit, you should write more often. This is brilliant stuff, really