The end of the world (cup) as we know it

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The World Cup is proving to be a lame affair with little fervour and few goals. As the world sits riveted to the television, Bodhisattwa Maity strikes a contrarian note

From you, as from burning chips of resin

Fiery fragments circle far and near:

Ablaze, you don’t know if you are to be free,

Or if all that is yours will disappear

Will only ashes and confusion remain,

Leading into the abyss? Or will there be

In the depths of the ash a star-like diamond,

The dawning of eternal victory!

— From ‘Prolog’, Tragedia Fantastyczna, Cyprian Norwid

 

Friendly foe Didier Drogba hugs Cristiano Ronaldo in an unusual show of bonhomie
Photo: Reuters

Midway through the first round of the FIFA World Cup, two piquant moments will be etched forever in the minds of football fans. One was Brazilian right wing-back Maicon’s celebration of his ‘wonder’ goal against DPR Korea. After hitting his low, rasping drive from near the right touchline that fooled the ­Korean goalkeeper at the near post, he spent a moment watching the ball swing to its destination, then turned around to run to the touchline, knelt down, looked skywards and kissed his wedding ring, even as his teammates converged to celebrate the moment.

Rewind, however, and watch carefully — it becomes apparent that there is something amiss in this spectacle — somehow, it seems tailored for the camera. The sincerity is missing. Maicon is doing what he has to do, what is expected of him at this moment: no more, no less. It’s all scripted — the emotion, the celebration — done for the sake of the all-pervasive camera(s). That squint is deliberate, the kiss on the ring is routine, and the heaven-wards look is de rigueur.

The other moment is from the match between Ivory Coast and Portugal. Deadlocked after 60 minutes, Sven-Göran Eriksson, the manager of Ivory Coast, decides to bring on his most potent weapon — captain Didier Drogba. Minutes later, Drogba is in the thick of action, hustling through the Portuguese defence, when he is tackled and felled. Getting up, he shrugs and then, quite surprisingly, goes on to hug his counterpart and competitor in the iconic stakes, Cristiano Ronaldo. As two of the biggest marquee names in the modern game, they have faced off in key matches in the English Premier League (EPL) between Manchester United and Chelsea over the greater part of the last decade, and are presumably quite friendly with each other. But try to recall if two such players have ever faced each other in a tournament like the World Cup (WC), and come away hugging each other after a scuffle — and you will, at best, be reminded of the infamous Zidane-Materazzi head-butt!

In the epl, this show of bonhomie would be considered sacrilegious — a treacherous act even, by home fans. In a World Cup setting, the closest example would be from the 1994 edition — Hristo Stoichkov of Bulgaria extending a hand to Martin Dahlin of Sweden, having brought him down — sensing the glare of the referee behind his shoulders, his baleful stare telling the real story.

Elsewhere in the pages of history, it’s all about German goalkeeper Harald Schumacher sending French defender Patrick Battiston into orbit with a right uppercut in the 1982 semis as he raced ­towards the German goal, calmly picking up the ball from the feet of the prostrate Frenchman and walking away to kick it back into the opponent’s half. Or Italian defender Claudio Gentile, also known as ‘The Butcher of Bilbao’, stamping his studs into Brazilian Zico or Argentine Maradona’s thighs in the quarter-final league encounters of 1982 and then running away with the ball, leaving the writhing opponent on the ground; or German defender Klaus Augenthaler nonchalantly grabbing English striker Peter Beardsley’s genitals, even as the pint-sized striker tried to clamber over the behemoth’s shoulder during a corner kick in the 1990 semis. It’s the World Cup, after all.

This essay is not a critique of the globalisation of football by a hard-boiled cynic. Neither is this is a preamble to a celebration of global peoples’ solidarity, by the archetypal woolly-haired internationalist. What this essay on football and the World Cup hopes to achieve is to show how a certain form of globalisation, and a certain form of internationalism, is breeding a certain form of global sport.

The game’s frenetic pace is a result of television’s demand for riveted eyeballs. In some ways, it’s back to the early days of hit-and-run football

Be it football, hockey or cricket, privatisation, in the form of clubs, has always played a big role in the economics and organisation of team sports. And Europe has always been the economic hub of football. Thus, from the days of Luis Monti, Attilo de Maria and Raimundo Orsi — all of whom shifted ­allegiance from their countries of birth (Argentina and Uruguay) to their country of ethnic origin (Italy) between the WCs of 1930 and 1934 — through Omar Sivori (Argentina to Italy), Alfredo de Stefano ­(Argentina through Colombia to Spain) and to the likes of Zico and Maradona — the best Latin American players have been drawn to Europe throughout the 20th century by the lure of lucre, exposure and prestige. As colonialism gave way to liberation, and racism was superseded by immigration, integration and multiculturalism in Europe, the net was spread wider, and even football’s ingénue nations started providing fodder to the ever-hungry belly of the beast that European league football was shaping up to be.

Surinam is a case in point. The tiny former Dutch colony on the north-eastern coast of South America has never come close to qualifying for the World Cup; nevertheless, it has provided the team of its former colonisers with the likes of Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Patrick Kluivert and a host of other stellar performers. Thirteen of the 22 squad members and 8 of the 11 regulars in the starting lineup of the Netherlands team that reached the semis in 1998, were of Surinamese descent. While in the case of Surinam, the drain in football talent has been one way (so far), in the cases of many other ‘young’ football-playing nations, be it Mali, Ivory Coast or Senegal, there has been a reverse flow over time. That’s when the likes of Fredric Kanoute and Salomon Kalou realised the futility of trying to play in the colours of their country of birth (France), and opted to play for their country of ethnic origin (Mali and Ivory Coast respectively). Brazil’s football academies and Nigeria’s slums have churned out many a journeyman who has been adopted by countries in unlikely corners of the world to bring a bit of the samba flair and Yoruba robustness to their own ­national squads. It might be said, then, that we are ­living in interesting times, with the gradual breakdown of barriers that separate us into nations and races.

 

Rings false Robinho hugs Brazil teammate Maicon as he kisses his wedding ring to celebrate his goal against DPR Korea
Photo: Reuters

But once again, take a closer look at the modern game. What started as a 16-team invitational knockout European Cup involving 15 games, promoted by the French magazine L’Equipe, is now a bloated 32-team league-cum-knockout tournament that is the European Champions League — stretched over the extent of the football season in Europe and involving 125 matches in its main draw. Television revenues dictate its format, span and — as some have pointed out — style of play. In other words, the frenetic pace is a direct result of television’s demand for riveted eyeballs, the assumption being that if the pace slows, viewers might switch channels. In some ways, it’s back to the early days of football, when hit-and-run was the only game in town — only with greater discipline and tactical nous. Is it then surprising that the reaction to Dunga’s Brazilian team for this World Cup, anointed as a ‘rugby team’ by many, has generally been muted? As the former WC winning captain and current manager has repeatedly pointed out, the ‘old style’ of play that Brazil is identified with, had deprived it of the Cup for 24 years. This old style had foregrounded languid ball possession — to dictate and slow down the pace of the game — interspersed with lightning fast attacks using short square-passes involving a majority of the outfield players, and a final through pass to release the striker. When they finally won, it was on the back of world-class goalkeepers (Taffarel in 1994, and Dida and Marcos in 2002), solid defensive work, and at least two holding midfielders who would sit back to protect the defence instead of throwing caution to the winds in the intoxication of attack. The fact that today Brazil is at least as renowned for producing world-class goalkeepers and defenders as they are for attackers, who ply their trade with the very best of Europe, tells its own story. The ghosts of Moacyr Barbossa, ostracised for life in Brazil for letting Alcides Ghiggia’s shot trickle under his armpits and into the net against Uruguay in the ‘virtual-final’ round robin match of the 1950 WC; and Carlos, whose comical ’keeping ended Brazil’s chances against France in the heart stopping quarter-final sudden-death of 1986, can, at last, rest in peace.

As the big European clubs have grown in power, they are now often seen threatening the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), the main European governing body, about starting their own exclusive league (G-8), which would give them more control over television revenues. It is no wonder, then, that they dictate clauses in their contracts — with foreign players in particular — which put severe restrictions on their ability to attend to national duties. The African Nations’ Cup has, for ages, been hobbled by non-participation of top players from the continent. Nowadays, even the Copa America and the Euro are threatened with withdrawal of top names — often, as correctly speculated in the media, due to pressure from clubs that don’t want to risk fatigue or injury to their ‘investments’.

English clubs have openly pressed for a policy to be adopted by the UK’s Football Association (FA), whereby insurance, wages and medical bills of players injured during national duty will have to be shelled out by the FA. If this becomes a reality in England — the rest of the world will soon follow suit. Effectively, competitions in modern team sports, which evolved during the heyday of colonialism and bred nationalism and a sense of territoriality, would enter a completely new phase. Today, national boundaries already mean little to the football agent who’s often scout­ing pre-teen ‘talent’ in far corners of the globe, while European clubs are setting up academies in the Third World to keep the supply of what Marx has called ‘the reserve army of labour’ flowing. The poor showing of African teams in the ongoing WC, hoped to be ‘Africa’s Cup’, is being put down to the lack of creative game-makers in their squads — European clubs having repeatedly disciplined the Sub-Saharan Africans’ skills, and punished their robust physicality, by deploying them exclusively as destructive game-breakers.

Private clubs don’t want to risk fatigue or injury to their ‘investments’ and dictate contract clauses to restrict their players from attending to national duties

Gone, too, are the days when, in the epic semi-final battle between Italy and West Germany in 1970, German captain Franz Beckenbauer played on for over 23 minutes of regulation time and 30 minutes of extra time, with his right arm — broken during a collision with Italian defender Pierluigi Cera — strapped around his body with ropes and bandage. Today, no sooner than there is a little hamstring pull here or a calf strain there, top players remove themselves voluntarily from the national team roster. They can’t risk their bodies playing for their countries. Sportsmen have short careers, often cut shorter by injuries and lack of form. Which is why the current World Cup, supposedly the ultimate showcase for talent and national pride, has many top draws missing. The ones who are there are often found going through the paces with none of the pride, fervour and commitment you would expect them to put in when wearing national colours.

In fact, the players who have some interest in giving their all are from lesser-known countries — they know the WC gives them the best chance of their lives to be picked up by European clubs for a future beyond their dreams. Agents of European clubs, too, notoriously use the WC venues as scouting grounds. When Senegal misfired in the 2002 quarters against Turkey, after having regaled the world with their brave, skillful displays in the earlier matches, the whisper doing the rounds was about their having lost the motivation after picking up contracts with major clubs.

The European football season is such that the domestic leagues end a month before the WC, and the European club competitions end less than three weeks before the WC. Is it then fair to expect jaded players, at the fag end of a season, without any extended and meaningful practice as a team, to be sure-footed, synchronised and raring to go?

Effectively, Europe’s super-rich clubs are the new ‘massas’, and the world-wide football playing and following communities the domain of their ‘primitive accumulation’.

Which brings us to this year’s WC. Already, OPTA, the company that maintains meticulous records on all sports, says that both the number of goals scored per game­­­ and the number of conversions per attempts at goal are way below the same figures from the previous three WCs. Spectacular long-range efforts at goal are also few and far between, and once again, far below the average.

Meanwhile, it just might turn out to be only the second WC to be decisively marked by equipment controversy. In 1954, on a wet pitch in Berne, Switzerland, West Germany took on favourites Hungary in the final, wearing Adidas boots with interchangeable spikes, unheard of till then. The Hungarian Magical Magyars had already taken an early 2-0 lead when it started to drizzle. This made the ground conditions difficult for the Hungarians, who were wearing short spikes and playing a ground-passing game. The Germans changed their spikes into longer ones that offered greater grip, started hoofing the ball over the opponents’ defence and scratched a 3-2 victory. This year, the Jabulani ball, supposed to be faster in the air because of its space-age material and lighter weight, has wobbled in the air without offering the players the control they desire, and has generally flown harmlessly over their targets, making life difficult for goalkeepers, free-kick takers, crossers and long-range shooters in equal measure. The one team that has been found to be relatively more in control than others is, expectedly, Germany, the home of Adidas, and the only country which had adopted the Jabulani in its national league since early February this year.

 

THE CYNICAL ONE Jose Mourinho lifts the 2010 European Champions League trophy for Inter Milan
Photo: Reuters

Which then brings us to the question — what’s the future of this competition? If the annual European Champions League brings in more television revenue, it is because the football is qualitatively better there. The Brazil of the past is the Barcelona of the present. For the players, there is more mobility between countries, bigger pay cheques from the clubs — but also more surveillance of playing styles, better knowledge of opponents, better organisation, more structure and predictability — both in the style of playing and in the calendar.

And yet the romantic in the neutral observer pines. It pines for the time when one could expect each new WC to spit out a few unknown talents — from a Lakhdar Beloumi (Algeria, 1982) to a Saeed Al Owairan (Saudi Arabia, 1994) and a Roger Milla (Cameroon, 1990). A René Higuita of Colombia would tempt fate (and a 38-year-old Milla) as he charged forward leaving his citadel unguarded; a Dragan Stojkovic of Yugoslavia would marshal the midfield with imperious glory; a Cuauhtémoc Blanco of Mexico would hop-skip-and-jump over tackles with impish candour — lighting up our imagination with a brilliant glow before being put out by the very discipline their impetuosity mocked. But they would keep burning brightly in our imagination for years to come. Like the Aranycsapat — the Hungarian golden team of 1954, the Czech midfield wizards Masopust, Pluskal and Popluhár who dazzled in 1962, Eusebio’s Portugal of 1966, Cryuff’s Total Football dreamers of 1974; Tele Santana’s Samba Boys of 1982 and the Danish Dyamites of 1986, led by the chain-smoking, beer-guzzling Preben Elkjær and the irrepressible Michael Laudrup. They did not win anything, but in their defeat they scorched our memory.

Today, from Japan to New Zealand, from the US to Switzerland, we have come to expect well-drilled sides, each fully aware of the opponents’ strengths and weaknesses, working the margins, for the one slip that will give them a narrow win. The systems are the same — variations on the ultra-cautious 4-5-1, the cynical play-acting is the same, and the celebration after scoring a goal is also more or less the same (refer Maicon). The joy is going out of the beautiful game. And after 20 years of innovations, since the 1990 WC was universally panned for its pedestrian fare, FIFA is staring at a new reality — can they bring in any more radical reforms in the laws of the game to make future competitions more interesting? Their motto, ‘Go for goals’, worked only so long as managers took time to find ways to work around the various changes in the law that encouraged positive play.

Or are they, the federation of football playing nations, staring away from their own ultimate demise, as clubs take over the 21st century?

When Senegal lost in the 2002 quarters after their brave displays, the whispers were that they’d lost motivation after picking up contracts with major clubs

Maybe this will be the Cup when the meek shall inherit the earth. There is a certain vicarious pleasure to be had with underdogs trumping the favourites. But beyond the David-vs-Goliath subtext, in the past, such a tournament has rarely provided succour to the eyes. And at the end of it all, football is entertainment. Do we, neutral observers, want another Euro 2004, when Greece won with a numbing nine-man-defence? Or would we rather have a WC 1982, where Brazil’s magicians got ambushed by Italy, but went out in a blaze of glory. The questions are vexing, and the answers are not very satisfactory, neither for the romantic aesthete nor the ideological internationalist. Perhaps football should not be the site for negotiating ideological positions. It’s tempting, though — considering the passion and involvement it generates amongst its myriad followers.

In any case, this WC, despite a few lopsided results, is most likely going to be a watershed. The rumblings about the impotence of international vis-à-vis club soccer will surely rise to a din. Jose Mourinho, ex-manager and Wesley Schneider, player at Inter Milan have claimed that European Champions League football is more exciting than the WC — this will now become a chorus amongst all. To be fair to the national team managers, within the constraints of the busy schedule, they couldn’t be expected to do more — Mourinho’s cynical template is probably easier to emulate than Josep Guardiola or Tele Santana’s expansive philosophy of ‘beautiful’ football. And just as in every sport, earlier arrangements, thought to be unsurpassable in their pomp, have been superseded by newer ones — witness the EPL in England relegating the prestigious FA Cup to the margins — the FIFA WC, too, might come to ­pass. ICC and international cricket better look out — the IPL clubs have arrived!

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