By Ajit Chaudhuri – 21st May 2017
It’s a sentimental time for ageing sports lovers! I watched the last Test of the West Indies-Pakistan series (10-14 May 2017, Pakistan winning the Test by 101 runs and the series 2-1, its first ever series win in the Windies) that saw the retirement of Misbah-ul-Haq (43) and Younis Khan (39) from cricket. Last night, I watched the Bayern Munich vs. Freiburg game (4-1 to Bayern, who had already won the Bundesliga title) that saw Xabi Alonso (35) and Philipp Lahm (33) bow out from football. And finally, we have Francesco Totti (41) hanging up his boots after next week’s Roma vs. Genoa game, with Roma needing a win to be sure of second position in Serie A and automatic Champion’s League qualification for 2017-18.
Five greats going out over a 20-day period, all quiet, self-deprecating men who brought dignity to sports, has to be worth a few words. And, given the reams of information available on the Internet, I will stick to my own relationship with these five men, why I think they are special, and why they will leave huge gaps behind.
I will begin with a joke about Helmut Kohl, the leader of Germany at the time of German reunification and European integration, who was known for his love for good food. It was said that ‘there was something comforting about an all-powerful German Chancellor who wakes up in the middle of the night thinking about raiding the refrigerator rather than re-drawing the borders of Europe’. There was something similarly comforting about Philipp Lahm, a World Cup (2014) winning German captain who was 5’7’’ and spoke only when he had something to say[i].
I first saw him as a young kid in the 2002-03 season and must confess that, good as he appeared to be, I felt for his future – here was a wingback trying to break in to a Bayern team that had the Frenchmen Lizarazu and Sagnol (the former a star of the 1998 WC-winning side who I humbly confess to having met at a match between Chelsea and Marseilles in London in 2010 – he had long retired – and the latter a fixture for France at the 2002 and 2006 WCs). The Bayern coach obviously felt similarly, because he was farmed out to Stuttgart on a two-year loan spell, returning in 2005 as first choice in his position for both club and country. He went on to win almost everything there was to win (a European title eluded him) in a career that spanned three WCs. He will be remembered for his versatility, playing at both right and left wingback through his career and also moving to central midfield as per the demands of the then-Bayern coach Pep Guardiola. He will also be remembered for his sense of calm, and his subdued and low-key leadership style.
The 2002-03 football season was memorable (to me) for another reason – Real Madrid’s expensively assembled Galacticos (the best players in the world; Zidane, Figo, Raul, Roberto Carlos, et al) were chased to the title by …. not Barca, not Valencia, not Sevilla, but a team called Real Sociedad from Spain’s Basque region. It was a fascinating chase for neutrals like me – the little club simply did not relent, and ended up only two points behind Real in a race that was decided only on the last playing day. The stars for RS were its big-man-little-man strike force of Kovacevic and Nihat, who were played in by the youngest ever captain of a La Liga side – Xabi Alonso. Alonso went on to play for Liverpool, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, and won everything there was to win at both club and country. Such was his influence at each club that, had his final game been played at any of the four, the home supporters’ respect and sense of loss would have been the same.
This was because of his game; he combined the ability to sit in front of a defence and protect it (the defensive midfielder or the ‘Makalele’) with being able to set up moves from far back in the field (the deep-lying playmaker – one of only two exponents of this art that I have seen). This was also because of his demeanour; fans would remember De Jong’s kung-fu kick on his chest in the 2010 WC final that was not punished by the referee, and the way Alonso smiled it off and played the remaining 60 minutes of the match in pain to earn his WC winner’s medal.
Let me now move to cricket, and to the Pakistanis! It is something of a surprise to me that Indian cricket fans (the genuine ones, not the tools who infest stadiums these days for social reasons and/or as an outlet to their patriotic fervour) haven’t made a bigger deal about this. The Guardian in England said that ‘for all their records, their achievements are not of the kind best expressed in numbers or on lists. Between them, they carried Pakistan through the hardest, darkest years and, in doing so, they did not just serve their country but also the sport and all of us who love it.’[ii]
Misbah-ul-Haq was a late bloomer – my first memory of him was that paddle scoop that he played in the T20 WC final in 2007 that handed India the title. He took on Test captaincy in the aftermath of the 2010 spot fixing scandal, and dealt with the public opprobrium, the difficulty of not playing Tests at home, the inability of the Pakistani cricketing authorities to extend vision beyond their noses, and the considerable abuse from past players, to take Pakistan to a no. 1 rank in 2016 (albeit for a short while) while restoring dignity, integrity and respect within and for the team. He has the honour of even being criticised by the Taliban in a rare intrusion by those luminaries into sports punditry – they called him a ‘pathetic player’ in 2013[iii].
I first came across Younis Khan in 2005 – he had scored 147 in Kolkata and 267 in Bangalore – and I knew that there was something here. And there was! Of the 30 men who scored 4,000 plus test runs in the 2000s, he was the only one continuing to ply his trade in 2017 (Gayle continues in franchisee cricket, and Jayawardene and Sangakkara still play counties). He went on to break every Pakistani batting record – the first to score 10,000 test runs and 30 test centuries, has a 50 plus test batting average and a world record five centuries in the 4th innings of a test match. He too had issues with the authorities, including being ‘banned for life’ in 2010, and yet the only time I ever saw him react was when he refused the Pakistani captaincy in 2007, saying that ‘when our families get threatening calls, our effigies are burnt, and our pictures are put on donkeys, I can’t lead the team in such circumstances.’
But it was what they did together that is irreplaceable. On the field, they had the third highest ever runs scored in partnership together (after Hobbes-Sutcliffe and Langer-Ponting). They also brought Pakistani cricket back in from the cold.
I now return to football, and to Francesco Totti. I first saw him as Serie A’s youngest ever club captain in a madly attack-minded Roma side in 1998-99, and then combining the roles of a ‘media punta’ and a ‘false 9’ (more than 10 years before either position had become fashionable) in the Italian team that did surprisingly well in the Euro 2000 (Totti was the man of the match in a pulsating loss to France in the final). He went on to a winner’s medal in the 2006 WC, starring again as a between-the-lines playmaker who would turn up as centre forward at critical moments, signifying most of what was worthy about the team (along with Cannavaro’s defending and Buffon’s goalkeeping) and none that was bad (like the abuse that resulted in the infamous head-butt in the final that won the WC for Italy).
He is irreplaceable for two reasons. The first is that he is the last one-club man in the upper echelons of football – he never left his boyhood club, where he retires next week. The second is for his handling of that fatal combination of Roman God looks, inert shyness, and a reputation for stupidity (from some minor gaffes on television and a strong Roman accent), and the jokes that resulted from it. He went about collecting the jokes himself, with two stipulations; they could reflect badly on him but not his family, and they had to be readable by children. The book “All the Totti Jokes” was published in 2003 with a third stipulation – the proceedings from its sales had to go to a charitable project to help the elderly in Rome and to a UNICEF project for homeless children in DR Congo. It was a smash hit!
My favourites –
‘The three hardest years for Totti? Class 1 in elementary school.’
‘A tragic story in the newspaper: Totti’s library had burnt down. Totti is inconsolable. ‘No! I hadn’t finished colouring the second one yet.’
‘Totti and Del Piero came out of an exam at the CEPU (a remedial school for high school drop-outs and losers).
Totti: Alex, how did it go?
Del Piero: Not so well, Francesco! I handed in a blank sheet.
Totti: You too? Now they are going to say that I copied.’
You just have to love a guy who can do this!
To conclude – thank you, all five of you, for the wonderful memories and for reinforcing in us why we love sports so much! I for one will never forget you.
[i] And when he spoke, it was powerful stuff! He received a record Bayern Munich fine for criticizing the club’s transfer policy and its lack of a footballing philosophy and strategic plan in 2009. And when regular captain Ballack wanted his armband back after the 2010 World Cup (Ballack was injured, and Lahm was chosen instead to captain Germany at the tournament), Lahm said he saw no reason as to why he (Lahm) should relinquish the captaincy. Coach Jochi Lowe agreed, and Ballack never played for Germany again.
[ii] “Misbah and Younis did more than serve Pakistan, they served cricket”, The Guardian, 16th May 2017.
[iii] “Taliban urge Pakistanis to ‘stop praising Sachin Tendulkar’, BBC News, 28th November 2013.