Monday, June 08, 2015
How elite soccer illustrates an ancient paradox and a current problem
by Emrys Westacott
The market is efficient. The market knows best. This belief underlies much contemporary theory and practice, especially in the realm of government policy. It is has been used, for instance, to justify privatizing the railways and the post office in the UK, and it forms a central plank in the arguments of those who oppose a government run national health care system in the US.
The basic idea is simple enough. People express their preferences through their spending habits; they vote with their wallets. If DVDs replace video tapes, or if Amazon puts Borders Books out of business, that is just efficiency in action, with the market performing the function that natural selection performs in the course of evolution. And just as evolutionary biologists do not criticize environmental conditions (although they may sometimes put on another hat and seek to protect threatened species or habitats), so economists, insofar as they are trying to be scientific, will not criticize consumer preferences. About expressed preferences there is no disputing.
But of course, as engaged, concerned, interested, moralizing, and occasionally sanctimonious human beings, most of us do make value judgements about people's preferences. We do this in one of two ways.
1) We normatively judge the preferences themselves. E.g. we criticize people (including ourselves) for drinking too much, eating unhealthy foods, watching stupid TV shows, spending too much time playing video games, or engaging in conspicuous consumption. And we applaud people for learning new skills, cultivating their talents, supporting a local enterprise, or giving to charity.
2) We evaluate how well people's preferences, as expressed through their actions, will help them realize their ultimate goals. E.g. Teachers tell students that if they want to be professionally successful they should study more and party less. Psychologists tell us all that if we want to make ourselves happier we should spend less on ourselves and more on others.
Often, the first sort of evaluation is really a version of the second, but that needn't concern us here. It's the second kind that interests me.
We all often act on specific short-term preferences in a way that produces long-term consequences that are contrary in some ways to what we really desire. The paradox that by pursuing what we think we want we fail to attain what we really want was first explored by Plato in the Gorgias and the Republic. I believe top-flight soccer offers an interesting and instructive illustration of this paradox.
A basic problem with soccer today in the elite leagues is that much of the time it lacks real excitement. Consider these lists of champions over the past ten years:
Year England Spain Germany Italy Portugal
2005 Chelsea Barcelona Bayern Munich ---- Benfica
2006 Chelsea Barcelona Bayern Munich Inter Milan Porto
2007 Man. U. Real Madrid VfB Stuttgart Inter Milan Porto
2008 Man. U. Real Madrid Bayern Munch Inter Milan Porto
2009 Man. U. Barcelona VfL Wolfsburg Inter Milan Porto
2010 Chelsea Barcelona Bayern Munich Inter Milan Benfica
2011 Man. U. Barcelona Borussia Dortmund AC Milan Porto
2012 Man City Real Madrid Borussia Dortmund Juventus Porto
2013 Man. U. Barcelona Bayern Munich Juventus Porto
2014 Man. City Atlético Madrid Bayern Munich Juventus Benfica
2015 Chelsea Barcelona Bayern Munich Juventus Benfica
In each league, there are only two, three, or (at the outside) four teams who seriously compete for the title. The other clubs are essentially there to make up the numbers. In Germany, Italy, and France, the same team has won the league for the past three seasons.
Saying that elite soccer lacks excitement is not the same as saying it is boring. If it were boring, it wouldn't be as popular as it is around the world. But to be exciting a sport must be either risky, like ski jumping, or competitive. Soccer in the top leagues is only competitive in a minimal sense. Next year, either Barcalona or Real Madrid will win the Spanish title; either Porto or Benfica will win the Portuguese title; few will bet on any team other than Bayern or Juventus to win their respective leagues. In the English Premier League, it will probably be Chelsea, with Man. U. and Arsenal as possible contenders.
To be fair, there will be some exciting games between teams that are evenly matched or where there is a traditional rivalry. And the commentators will do their best to make things seem more thrilling than they really are ("Liverpool have just ten minutes to score two goals and keep alive their dream of a Champions League place!!") But commonly, at the end of the season, the most exciting games are those involving the teams struggling to avoid relegation to the lesser leagues.
Now some readers will object that if what I say were true, elite soccer would not command the global audience that it does. But soccer can be popular without being exciting. One reason for this is that many viewers choose teams to support, and since people like to be winners, the most popular teams tend to be those that win a lot. So clubs like Man. U. and Barcelona have fans all over the world. A second reason, which is probably more important, is that people (myself included) will watch top fight soccer, even though they don't support any of the teams simply because they enjoy the spectacle of soccer played brilliantly.
And the top players are undeniably brilliant. Take Barcelona and Lionel Messi, for instance. Here are some of Baracelona's results from last season:
5-0 v Levante (twice)
6-0 v Grenada
5-1 v Seville
5-1 v Espanyol
6-0 v Elche
6-1 v Rayo Vallecano
5-0 v Getafe
Messi scored five hat-tricks in these routs. Not to take anything away from Messi, who is clearly one of the greatest players in the history of the game, but the primary reason for the lop-sided scores is the obvious imbalance of talent on the field. Barca have an attacking "trident" of Messi, Luis Suarez, and Neymar, players who many pundits would rank as three of the four best strikers in the world (the other one being Real Madrid's Christian Ronaldo). Watching them play is mesmerizing; the goals they score are beautiful. But one-sided dominance is not a recipe for excitement.
So why do only a small number of teams have a realistic shot at a title? No mystery here. The most successful teams are simply the richest teams. They can buy the best players at their asking price and pay them what they demand. In other words, the explanation lies in market forces–which brings us back to our initial problem. Top-flight soccer would be more interesting and exciting if the best players were spread more evenly among the competing teams. But we, the people, are willing to pay good money to see the top players perform and to buy the products they endorse: that is how we express our preferences. Our money filters through the system into the pockets of the players and their agents, and the result is the situation we now have in top-flight soccer: superb stadiums and facilities; expensive tickets; remarkable concentrations of talent; some superb football played; very rich players whose lifestyles are radically different from those of their fans; a depressingly large number of uncompetitive fixtures; and a rather tedious predictability about the league tables at the end of the season.
Consider this: in the fifteen seasons from 1949 to 1964, the English first division (forbear of the premier league) had eleven different champions. That sort of openness is inconceivable these days; but who wouldn't prefer it to the restricted probabilities of the present? I don't pretend to be much of a fan of American football, but I'm impressed by the fact that over the last ten seasons, nine different teams have won the Super Bowl. One reason for this is the enlightened drafting system under which the team that finished last the previous year has first pick of the new draftees, while the team that finished first picks last. Professional soccer doesn't have a draft, but it could take other measures such as capping how much money clubs can spend on players, how much they can pay them, and how many foreign or non-local players they can field.
In my mind there are parallels between the situation in elite soccer and other spheres. Take, for instance, the problem afflicting many town centers, especially in the US. Where small towns used to have bustling high streets that served as busy centers of community interaction, many now have depressingly deserted centers with few viable businesses. This situation is also one that has been brought about by people simply expressing their preferences, shopping at malls, superstores, and online, where there is more choice and everything is cheaper. Here, too, some will maintain that there is little to lament: what's not to like about better selection, low cost, and convenience? Well, I suppose this, too, is a matter of preference, but many will say they prefer–even if they don't express this preference consistently through their behavior–vibrant local communities, more human interaction, and life lived less abstractly.
The moral of all this? Just because the market is driven by our expressed preferences does not mean it necessarily delivers what we want. Recognizing this, we should be willing to restrict the operation of market forces when we can see how doing so will produce outcomes closer to the preferences we express not through our actions but in our reflective judgements.
 In Plato's Gorgias, Socrates says that although tyrants do whatever they "see fit" to do, they do nothing that they want to do. This strikes his interlocutors as obviously absurd, but Socrates' meaning isn't hard to fathom. Like everyone else, tyrants want to be happy–that is, to live a life that is enviable and admirable. Since they conceive this to be a life full of pleasure, they pursue power, and once power is obtained they set about gratifying all their desires. They thus do "whatever they see fit to do (gratify their desires)," but doing this doesn't give them what they really want (happiness). In the Republic, Plato supports this claim by painting a memorable and plausible portrait of the tyrant who ends up friendless, fearful, and spiritually bankrupt.
Monday, June 09, 2014
Against needless complexity
by Emrys Westacott
Some things are simpler than the experts would have us believe. Recently I watched the EUFA Champions League final between Atlético Madrid and Real Madrid. In the build up to the match there was, naturally, a great deal of expert analysis focusing on matters such as the history of games between these clubs, the psychological stratagems of the coaches, the defensive systems to be used, and the potential impact of the rival superstar strikers Cristiano Ronaldo and Diego Costa. These were supplemented with all sorts of statistical data made possible by modern technology. Here's an excerpt from a preview of the game in The Guardian:
"[Real Madrid] have won a higher proportion of their games without Alonso in the starting line-up (80%) than with him (65.2%) in the league this season, but they will miss his ability to break up play in front of the back four. The side have conceded 1.13 league goals per game with him compared to 0.91 when he has been in the line-up......"It's no coincidence that since [Arda] joined in 2011, Atlético have scored more goals per game 1.81) with Arda in the starting line-up than without him (1.56)."
Here's what happened. Costa was not fully fit and had to be substituted after nine minutes. Ronaldo had a fairly quiet game, effectively neutralized by excellent defending. Atlético took the lead due to a rare and hence very surprising error of judgement by Real's goalkeeper, the great Ikar Casillas. It looked like they were going to win 1-0, but deep into injury time Real's defender Sergio Ramos equalized with a simple direct header from a corner kick . (The header could have been easily blocked had Atlético placed men by each goalpost, and why any team doesn't do this, especially when defending a corner in the last minute of the game, is a total mystery to me…..but I digress.) After having had the cup dashed from their hands, Atlético were finished, and in extra time Real always looked like they were going to win, which they eventually did 4-1.
My point is this. The sophisticated analyses of the experts seemed to bear little connection to the crucial events that actually decided the outcome of the game: a goalkeeping error and a poorly defended corner. This happens often. For instance, the 2010 World Cup semi final between Spain and Germany pitted against one another teams with interestingly contrasting styles of play. The pundits discussed at length such matters as whether Spain's intricate passing game would or would not create openings behind the German midfield, and so on and so forth. But in the event Spain won when seventeen minutes from the end their muscular centre back Carlos Puyols barged through a crowded penalty area and headed in a corner. That was the decisive event.
I see examples of excessive sophistication in analysis in many areas.
One obvious one is literary criticism. Here is the abstract of an article published in the March 2007 issue of PMLA (Proceedings of the Modern Language Association):
"Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events is adolescent in the sense provided by Julia Kristeva–it offers critical insight into the breakdown of categories that support representational and ethical certainties. The ethical stance of its author, Daniel Handler, is complicated-urgent, resonant, distressing-caught in the devious irony endemic to metafictional play and to the sensibility of Generation X. Such irony casts light too on literary criticism's changing treatment of the critical subspecialty of children's literature as well as on its renewed but uneasy interest in ethics as revision of past humanism. A Series offers an ethics of practice, one that recognizes its dependence on the impulses it critiques. Just as the books' postmodern orphans improvise in the face of menace that doesn't stop, Handler's irony pictures a world where ethics can never be more than a provisional entente negotiating impossible ideals."
Of course, the sort of sophistication on display here is different. Whereas the soccer pundits offer predictions and explanations of events, literary criticism typically provides an interpretation of texts. Instead of irrelevant statistics being cited to give a spurious sheen of scientific objectivity, we have references to iconic theoreticians that serve to suggest philosophical depth, up-to-dateness, and, quite often, political relevance. Julia Kristeva is one of the most popular of these: an article on Beowulf in the May 2006 issue of PMLA claims that Grendel's mother is monstrous "in ways that resonate with Julia Kristeva's comments on abjection and the maternal." But names like Lacan, Irigary, Deleuze, Derrida, and Foucault crop up fairly regularly.
I am not saying that the work of Kristeva and co. isn't worth discussing, any more than I'm denying the accuracy of the soccer statistics cited earlier. I am skeptical, though, about whether such work really illuminates the literary texts to which it is applied. To be fair, sometimes it can. Freud's ideas about unconscious sexual desires have been used by critics to uncover levels of symbolic meaning in texts, and we are now accustomed to this and find such claims quite plausible. But often the introduction of heavy theory into literary criticism seems to be pretty gratuitous, motivated more by the critics' concern to establish their intellectual credentials than by genuine relevance to the literature under discussion.
Politics is another area in which one often finds a similar disconnect between the sophistication of expert analysis and what is really justified or needed. Consider this abstract of a January 2011 PMLA article:
"Recent psychoanalytic theories have the historicizing potential to rearticulate discourses relegated to the shadows of institutional and popular psychosocial knowledge. In particular, they can illuminate a shadow discourse secreted in the history of gender politics: a form of masochism that produces political solidarity by mobilizing narcissistic gratifications. Such solidarity derives from masochism's ability to idealize perceptions about collective power—a process legible in first-wave feminism and in the jingoistic imperialist ideals of masculinity that opposed it. This essay argues that feminism has lost sight of a nonsexual form of masochism vital to its own history that could energize its ongoing political projects. Recent relational psychoanalysis emerges as a fertile source for techniques of reading that produce revisionary historicist interpretation. Moreover, reactivating psychosocial dynamics obscured by the historical conflation of masochism with sexuality can reconnect feminism and other political movements with important strategies they may have prematurely disavowed."
I won't try to translate all of that into ordinary English. But the key claim seems to be that feminist causes (its "ongoing political projects" such as, presumably, the fight for equal pay and opportunities, efforts to reduce the incidence of violence against women, or the struggle to increase the number of women in government and senior management) would have been, and would be, more successful if feminists were aware of and embraced a kind of non-sexual masochism. Whether doing this would involve merely a change in they way feminists think or a change in behavior and lifestyle is unclear. But that is beside the point. The point–or at least my point–is that the successes and failures of feminism have little or nothing to do with feminists forgetting or remembering "a form of masochism that produces political solidarity by mobilizing narcissistic gratifications." There are much more obvious and important factors responsible, such as entrenched old boy networks, persisting stereotypes and prejudices concerning women, inadequate maternity leave, the lack of affordable good quality childcare, impoverished and culturally disadvantaged social environments, and so on.
The reasons for excessive sophistication and complexity vary. Media experts on sport or politics perhaps feel a need to say something "expert" to differentiate themselves from the millions of amateur pundits out there watching or reading what they say. Academics need to publish as part of the tenure and promotion game, so they have to try to find something new to say: in the humanities originality can easily matter more than plausibility since the most plausible ideas are often the most obvious and familiar. And intellectuals generally fear appearing naive or simplistic. The love of paradox and the frequent inversion of conventional opinion that has long been a characteristic of French philosophy seems to be fueled by this anxiety, and something similar affects the work of of those influenced by the leading French theorists.
I am obviously not saying that we should eschew entirely sophistication, subtlety, and complexity. Sometimes truth is complicated, and subtle thinking is needed in order to grasp it. Sometimes challenges to the obvious or the familiar lead to genuinely interesting insights. I am not championing simple-mindedness or philistinism. But we should be aware that there are forces at work driving people to develop analyses that go beyond what is necessary, useful, or plausible. And when we encounter such analyses, we should greet them with a skeptically raised eyebrow and a Gallic shrug.
 I chose something from PMLA because I'm familiar with the journal and with its preference for theoretically charged articles of this sort; and I chose this particular example because it concerns a work that many people will be familiar with; many articles in PMLA discuss literature that is relatively obscure.
Monday, May 26, 2014
FC Bayern Munich: Too Jewish for the Nazis
by Jalees Rehman
Konrad Heitkamp was taken aback by the extraordinary ordinariness present in the lobby of the Zurich hotel. In November of 1943, life in Zurich seemed unperturbed by the fact that the countries surrounding Switzerland were embroiled in one of the most devastating wars in the history of the world. Heitkamp realized that as the coach of the FC Bayern München soccer team, he was one of the privileged few who could bask in this oasis of normalcy for a few days before he would have to head back home to Munich. He surveyed the lobby and began waving his hand at some of his players standing across the vestibule. Hopefully, the Gestapo men watching him thought of this as an innocuous gesture, a soccer team coach acknowledging the arrival of his players and performing a headcount. But he could not bank on it.
The Gestapo must have known that for the past weeks, Heitkamp and his players were forward to the friendly match against the Swiss national soccer team because it would give them a chance to finally see their friend Kurt Landauer again. Before the team embarked on their trip to Zurich, the Gestapo had ordered all Bayern München players to attend a special "education" session in Gestapo headquarters of Munich. The team was informed that the Gestapo would accompany the team on their brief trip to Switzerland. The Gestapo explicitly forbade the team members to have any contact with German emigrants in Switzerland.
The Nazis were always weary of any potential contacts between Germans and German emigrants who were seen as traitors and collaborators of the Allied forces. But FC Bayern München was a special thorn in the flesh of the Nazi machinery. Nazis routinely referred to FC Bayern München as a "Judenclub" ("Jew Club"), because German Jews had held some of the key leadership positions. The club won its first German national soccer championship in 1932 under the leadership of the Jewish club president Kurt Landauer and the coach Richard Dombi, an Austrian Jew. Only a few months later in January 1933, Hitler came to power and soon all leaders of Jewish origin were forced to give up their leadership positions.
Kurt Landauer was one of the first to resign from the club presidency. He even lost his job as the manager of a Munich newspaper's advertising department, and was only able to find work in a textile shop owned by a Jewish family. In the wake of the anti-semitic pogroms in the night of the 9th November 1938 (Kristallnacht oder Reichspogromnacht), this shop was attacked and devastated. Landauer was arrested and sent to the Dachau concentration camp. After a brief period of internment, he was released and he used this opportunity to emigrate to Switzerland and survived the Holocaust. Most of his siblings were less fortunate and were murdered by the Nazis.
Konrad Heitkamp and his wife Magdalena are about to walk towards their hotel room, when a bellhop appears in front of them and hands Heitkamp a note. It is a message from Kurt Landauer. Heitkamp tries to suppress his excitement , but it is already too late. Before he can even read the note, a man taps him on the shoulder and says "Gestapo. Give me the note. We know who it is from and we absolutely forbid you to have any contact with that man. We are watching you!"
For the remainder of the trip, the Gestapo closely walls off Heitkamp and his players, making it impossible for them to have any contact with Landauer. But the players still manage to embarrass the Nazis and the Gestapo. Immediately after the whistle is blown to start the game, the FC Bayern München players run up to the area of the soccer field in front of Kurt Landauer and greet their former president from afar.
The book "Der FC Bayern und seine Juden: Aufstieg und Zerschlagung einer liberalen Fußballkultur" (FC Bayern and its Jews: The Rise and Destruction of a Liberal Soccer Culture) by the German soccer historian Dietrich Schulze-Marmeling describes the prevalent culture of tolerance at FC Bayern München in the years prior to the Nazi takeover of Germany. Many members, players and leaders of the club were Jewish, but the question of ethnicity or religion was not even a real issue for the club. All that really mattered was whether or not you were a member of the club. Once the Nazis came to power in 1933, they tried to install their henchmen at leadership positions of all institutions, including sport clubs. TSV 1860, the other big Munich soccer club, immediately acquiesced to the new Nazi masters, allowing SA men to take control of the club from 1934 onwards. Players and members of FC Bayern München, on the other hand, staving off Nazi leadership up until 1943. The Nazis were often frustrated by the recalcitrant "Judenclub" which resisted and delayed the implementation of Nazi ordinances.
I have been an FC Bayern München fan all my life. My childhood home in Munich was just a ten minute walk away from the club's headquarters at the Säbener Strasse. It is not difficult to be proud of its achievements. In 2013, the club won every major trophy that it was eligible for - Bundesliga champions, the German soccer federation cup (DFB-Pokal), the European Champions League and the 2013 FIFA Club World Cup – thus underscoring its dominance as the world's best soccer club. But none of these victories made me as proud of my club as finding out about how my club defied anti-semitism and the Nazis.
Image: The headquarters of FC Bayern München in the Säbener Strasse (photo by J. Rehman)
Reference: Schulze-Marmeling, D. (2011). "Der FC Bayern und seine Juden: Aufstieg und Zerschlagung einer liberalen Fußballkultur". Werkstatt GmbH
Monday, April 04, 2011
Get a grip, India!
by Vivek Menezes
There are a billion and a half subcontinentals who’ve been fed cricket, cricket and more cricket for decades – the very definition of a captive audience – so there’s steady interest here. But look beyond, and we’re talking a very steep, genuinely precipitous, drop-off to England, Australia, South Africa and the West Indies, where “our” sport runs a distant third or fourth to the popularity of football, rugby, basketball, athletics, swimming, etc. And after England and its overseas spawn, you may as well stop counting, because you’re done with all the legitimate cricketing sides in the world. Pretty pathetic, isn’t it?
Indians don’t like to consider this truth, but it’s become quite apparent that most other countries only continue with cricket because India is obsessed with it – they play to keep us company, to humiliate us when the chance presents itself, and, especially, to pick up generous paychecks which would be entirely unforthcoming if India grew up, and concentrated its efforts on real sports, played by a majority of nations, the kind of sports that show up at the Olympics.
But you see, that precise sticking point is the crux of why Indians are obsessed with cricket – it’s another plain fact that we’re really, really horrible at sports where the rest of the world competes, and we hate the Olympics, beacause we get ritually creamed each year (at Beijing, India’s best Olympics ever, little tiny countries like Mongolia out-ranked us. Yes, Mongolia.)
So that’s why you saw – first and above all else - genuine relief flooding Mukesh Ambani and Rajnikanth and Aamir Khan’s faces at the exact same moment in the TV coverage of Saturday’s match.
These guys, three sides of the same spurious coin, sitting in the same front row, had come to roar in glorious triumph, but tiny Sri Lanka gave them heartburn all the way up to the 35th over of the Indian innings. Only then, only when crushing victory became inevitable and all sport had gone out of the occasion – that’s when our heroes in the stands awoke. That's when Aamir Khan started to wave the flag with calculated abandon. It was a moment that comes with ultimate rarity in Indian sports - our guys on top, racing towards a famous victory.
Because, you see, up to and excepting the cup victory, the annals of modern Indian sport are nothing but migraine-inducing, an endless litany of disappointments, failue and humiliations.
We are a billion people grown accustomed to being thrashed on the playing-fields. We Indians celebrate quarter-finals defeats, and fourth-place finishes, the way other countries get excited about actual victories.
In the old days, we took the lickings with a certain resigned acceptance – poor country, no facilities, etc. But now we have that much-advertised, resurgent middle class and all that other stuff that drives Tom Friedman into frothing ecstasies. And suddenly, increasingly, we have bourgeois angst about our national image – look at China, look at South Korea, and what about Mongolia, dammit – and so we have developed a kind of real national performance anxiety about sports.
When that happen, again and again and again, we reach for the only antidote that’s worked - that little blue pill called cricket.
But even when cricket delivers the happy ending, it doesn’t quite satisfy. And this goes beyond the fact that we dominate the sport so ludicrously that it’s probably actually unfair when we take on Sri Lanka. Actually, it's because every knowledgeable cricket fan knows the game’s integrity is in tatters. Over the past few years, it has become increasingly clear that we’re talking about an unusually manipulated and fake sport, with corruption now part of its very DNA.
Why are we so eager to forget the last Cup – perhaps the biggest lurching failure in the history of organized international sports – paid for by an embezzler, studded with obviously thrown matches, and spot-fixing, and garnished with a sizzling murder case? Talk to old-timers, and you'll understand the silence - to a man, they believe the rot is still embedded. And could anyone be blamed for thinking the way they do, when just last week we watched Pakistan spill catch after catch off Tendulkar, any of which would have turned the match the other way instantly? Is this cricket?
Let’s also remember the sport was riven apart again just this past year, when the Pakistani tour of England was interrupted by proven match-fixing that included the captain of the team, and the superb Mohammed Aamer.
Does anyone imagine that it is only the Pakistanis who are prone to the inducement of hundreds of thousands of dollars for bowling a few no-balls, or perhaps quietly running out your team-mate?
After all, where is the money coming from? Isn't it obvious that the trail of corruption leads directly across the border into our own society?
Now, don’t get me wrong, I have all the necessary cricketing bona fides in place, this is an insider’s plea. Born in Bombay, gifted my first bat when just about capable of walking, I worshipped the ground traversed by Sunil Gavaskar’s short, stubby legs, like every other Indian boy my age.
Staying close to the sport through sheer dint of emotion, I bowled spin to inebriated Americans in my college's residential corridors, and then even made cricket my career for the few years that WorldTel tried to dominate the sport from a small suite of offices in New York. There, I put in my time for cricket: tried (unsuccessfully) to nurture the USA to a World Cup berth, and (unsuccessfully) to make streaming cricket video a lucrative Internet business, and (successfully, for a time) to build Sachin Tendulkar a better official website than Michael Jordan’s, etc.
But somewhere around the time that the IPL took off, the shine came off the ball for me.
It was, and remains apparent, that the make-up of this league, and composition of the teams, is utterly fixed from top to bottom. It's racketeering, plain and simple. The administrators of the game are the owners of the teams, and the main beneficiaries of side-contracts to boot. The sport now reeks incestuousness, and the pipeline of pure cash thrown up in this Ponzi-style scheme has completely warped the game we once loved, probably irrevocably.
But it was always the case, only now glaringly apparent – look at a Yuvraj for example – that our cricket players are barely athletic by any objective standard. Even today, I’d bet the American women’s soccer team would whup the Indian team’s ass in collective fitness, flexibility, stamina, and probably co-ordination as well. But add to this the fact that the Indian team occupies a staggeringly disproportionate bubble of comforts. Where the Indian hockey team (hockey is the national sport!) travels by train, and literally has to fight to get decently nutritive food at its training camps, the cricket lifestyle is now five-star all the way, with even the subs garnering crores in commercial deals.
And then, as pointed to above, the Indian cricket team gets to flex its muscles in a non-sport. We beat up on New Zealand’s seventh best set of athletes, and the country goes into hysterics as though it says something wonderful about us. Within hours of beating Sri Lanka, that global athletic power, in a sport almost no one gives a shit about outside the subcontinent, the state and central governments were falling over themselves to hand out incredibly large cash awards to each player, and the coaches as well. Crores each, plots of land, luxury vehicles, the sky's the limit for our cricketers.
But put it into perspective - Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, literally at the same time, won another doubles tournament to earn back the #1 ranking in the world.
You know, tennis, a sport that’s actually played in more than a handful of countries, and where a world championship implies beating genuinely world-class athletes.
I mean, if Sreesanth can get half-a-million dollars cold cash for bowling quite badly, and taking zero wickets, against a team of semi-professional twentysomethings from tiny, war-ravaged Sri Lanka, then my man Lee's prolly taken home at least a billion for his multiple-Grand Slam championships, and Olympic medal, earned against the world's best. Half a billion, at the least. Yes? Yes? Is that crickets I hear?
And so the ultimate truth: cricket has become a pox, a monstrous and pervasive cloud of pure ballyhoo that has destroyed Indian sport across the board.
It sucks up all the money and all the attention, and all of our collective athletic energies disappear into this black hole of a colonialist non-sport, leaving only ashes in its wake.
Imagine if you are Viswanathan Anand (or even Ivana Furtado) – winning chess world championships one after another, against the best minds on the planet, with very little attention paid, and certainly nothing like the obscene bonanza that is currently being poured on the heads of our cricket players. Or Climax Lawrence, stalwart of Indian football, which has exactly one world-class pitch available to it in the entire country (not usable in the monsoons), and remember that Indian football was forced to take a grnt(from the BCCI!) to find adequate training facilities.
Now here's something to root for - treated like dirt for decades, Indian football has developed a core of gritty young players who can hang with the better Asian teams for long stretches, even though they have to beg and fight for facilities that fall short of even high-school set-ups in Germany or Japan.
Indian football has a hope, and a plan, to break into the top 100 in the world within 5 years, a worthy and realistic goal. There are no billionaire cheerleaders, and no Bollywood insiders packing the stands. But it's football, truly global. Now that we've been there and done that with regard to this silly Cup, can we please move on to real sports?
Friday, July 01, 2005
Life begins at 90
At 94, he's run seven marathons (five in London), countless half-marathons and was recently part of the world's oldest marathon team in Edinburgh. Fauja Singh's jogging skills were developed on an Indian farm in Punjab, and then at the magical age of 81, when he moved to the UK, his love for the sport became more "serious". Next up? He's set his sights on being a record breaker.
So any secrets to fitness? Fauja's training regime includes a daily eight-mile walk and run, no smoking or drinking, plenty of smiling and lashings of ginger curry.