Sunday, October 31, 2010

field of dreams

1. Alive! Sorry to give no prior indication! How are you!
2. At my newspaper this week, we published a Diwali-special issue about giving, with a focus on organisations who work with the urban poor. One of our stories highlighted the work of people who use football as a developmental tool to work with underprivileged children in Kolkata, Delhi and Mumbai. You can read that story here and read the whole giving issue here. Below, I reproduce an extended version of the story I wrote, about the Mumbai-based football aid organisation, Magic Bus. You can read more about Magic Bus and find ways to contribute to their work - no matter where in the world you may be - here

The slum neighbourhoods and informal settlements of India’s cities are often hubs of economic activity. Their productivity usually extracts high prices from their residents in terms of health, nutritional resources and opportunities for sustainable progress. In these high-risk, stressful environments, the idea of sports and recreation for a vulnerable population of children from marginalized areas can seem a little whimsical. Why would anyone get them to play in the time they could be taking more classes, or learning a vocational skill?

The most direct answer is that sport, of course, is essential to developing life skills. All the desires attendant to introducing children to a culture of sport – from wanting them to make friends with others, to wanting a future sports star in the family – are universal, but they are an afterthought to a more fundamental idea. Children have the right to play.

Perhaps no other structured sport admits how universal this idea is, than football. It has thrived throughout the world even without, and sometimes in defiance of, sporting infrastructures. It encourages female participation even in rigidly gendered societies, across class and sometimes across age. Unlike cricket and many racquet sports, it does not require a plethora of equipment. As footballers of all shapes and sizes have proven, it doesn’t even have definite physical requirements, like height or build. It is a simple game: a ball, a bit of open space, and a general consensus on where the goal should be.

This is why it is also a billion-dollar industry of professionals and pro tournaments, one in which Indians do not yet play a major part. But even as more and more children wearing replica jerseys of English clubs and expensive boots trickle on to city maidans and school grounds, the sport’s parallel character can engage children who perhaps do not dream of playing for FC Barcelona or Manchester United; who may not even know when they start out that they could one day be eligible to play on India’s national teams. For them, as for children across the world, it can be a chance to experience a level playing field, and learn crucial values: teamwork, foresight, tactical thinking, respect and fair play. Football is no substitute for formal education, as all sports-for-development organizations emphasise. But neither is it an activity that compels children to accept its gifts. They look forward to going to out to play.

In a country where less than 10% of young people have access to sporting infrastructure, perhaps no game is more crucial to a promising future. It may not be a future with a glamorous, money-powered league or a World Cup victory, but those are not football’s only metrics of success.

On Magic Bus

Ten years ago, Parvati Pujari, then aged nine, found herself on a three-day games trip to Dahanu. “I’d never taken a trip before,” she says. “And it was total fun – we played games and went trekking, did lots of creative activity.” Two months after that, Magic Bus, the organization who took her on that trip, turned up again, this time to play football with her and the other kids.

“At first, I didn’t think very much about what I was doing,” she remembers. “The things I know now – to strike the ball with the inside of the foot, to dribble, the skills, the laws – they came later.” She loved the game, and learned well. Now a 19-year-old with a Diploma in Physical Education and a commerce student at Siddhartha College, Mumbai, Pujari is still with Magic Bus, as a mentor and trainer for children in what is among the city’s oldest and most famous sports-for-development programme.

Several of her fellow trainers at Magic Bus are young men and women like her, giving children from Mumbai’s most disadvantaged areas the chance to learn crucial lessons about their lives and abilities – but most of all, just a chance to play. “There are a lot of NGO’s addressing health, education, nutrition for children from marginalized areas,” explains Sohan Shah, head of sustainability at Magic Bus. “And that kind of symptomatic work is necessary. But we do something lateral.”

Magic Bus, founded in 1999, first became famous for their unique developmental ideals, which integrated some of the philosophies of Patanjali yoga, based on self-questioning and assessing the individual’s relationship with the world, with an idea so fundamental it is often overlooked: children have the right to play, and to have fun. From its early beginnings with day trips and training in rugby and football, Magic Bus has evolved a formidable curriculum that can span a decade. “Our beginners come to us between the ages of seven to nine, usually, and stay until they are 17 or 18,” Shah says. Perhaps because of their deliberate approach, rates of attrition are miraculously low.

Sustainability is important to Magic Bus. Their programme touches 3000 children a year in Mumbai, at over fifty locations across the city, but they aim to reach a million children within the next three years, through a nationwide expansion of the Magic Bus programme in other cities and through rural India. Their ‘Train the Trainers’ system for rural areas trains coaches from within the community to work with children across hundreds of villages.

Magic Bus has been aggressive about setting up effective partnerships to aid their goals. Their work has attracted attention from UNICEF and training initiatives from English Premier League clubs like Manchester United and Aston Villa, and received support from civic authorities and sports organizations throughout Mumbai and India. But their local networks are just as crucial. “Once parents are sure that you aren’t there to take advantage of their kids, they’re happy to support Magic Bus,” Shah says. “For many of them, it’s an opportunity to give the children what they never had. Some communities have helped us by cleaning up disused and neglected public spaces for the children to play.”

Magic Bus curricula are wide-ranging and incessantly reviewed to stay relevant to children, but football remains crucial to the balance of life and sports skills they set out to teach. All of Magic Bus’ developmental goals – purposeful living, responsible behaviour, social cohesion, self-esteem and self-efficacy – seem to progress through football. Their mixed-gender teams encourage gender equality. And over the decades, they envision Magic Bus’ operations dovetailing with the growing sporting infrastructure and culture of the country. Already, a Magic Bus men’s team plays in the First Division league of the Mumbai District Football Association. “They started out in the sixth division,” Shah says. “And they’ve had one of the quickest rises upwards. They’re younger than most of their opponents, but their toughness and mentality has carried them through.”

Later this year, Magic Bus’ women’s team will start to compete, too. One of their defenders will be Parvati Pujari. It has not always been an easy journey. “My parents understand now, but it took a while to convince them,” she says. “Sports may not seem so important when you first think about it, but then how do you know how important something is going to be to a person unless it actually becomes a part of their life? Not everyone is willing to give girls a chance to play, to set them goals, to make them display their talents. In this world, even stepping out of the house means inviting a thousand questions about what you do, where you go, why you do this, what you're getting from it - and then having people tell you, don't do it. But we need to play. And to other girls I would say, you need sports like you need to eat.”

1. Sustainable and strategic partnerships for financial support
2. Communications partners in media and advertising
3. Volunteers committed to at least 2 monthly attendances on field or office work once a week

Saturday, July 3, 2010

when i get older

Brian at the Run of Play did a very good job crushing the idea floated in The Atlantic that countries with an authoritarian history play more winning football. The idea memed, nonetheless. (Shocked that highbrow soccer dorks -- my favourite phrase this World Cup, used by TNR Goalpost to describe their ideal reader base) appear not to check RoP before coffee.) Laughable, snobbish solipsism -- it's not just for FIFA anymore, kids. The football blogosphere is full of writers doing sterling work dissecting the politics of the World Cup and men's football in thoughtful, scholarly, moving ways. But who needs all of that when the USA's finest journalists are sitting around a table writing the intellectual equivalent of those Hitchens-Amis word games where they mad-lib book titles with 'sex' and 'prick'?

Today Roger Cohen in the New York Times has written a piece called 'Özil the German', ostensibly exploring the multiculturalism of Germany, and the shattering of its teams power structure with the absence of 'Big Man' Michael Ballack.

Perhaps it’s not a bad thing that the first African World Cup has seen stars fail where they were not backed by teamwork. Cameroon, with its Big Man Samuel Eto’o of Inter Milan, and Ivory Coast, with Big Man Dider Drogba of Chelsea, are both out. Ghana, meanwhile, has endured through discipline and coordination.

Africa needs more of that kind of spirit.

Ignoring the warning bells that usually ring in my head when the word 'Africa' appears in a newspaper that takes ads from the Government of Sudan and has in the past reported extensively on the Congo civil war without once mentioning its international backers, I read on.

Since decolonization began in the second half of the 20th century, it has too often been the continent of “The Big Man.” That was the sobriquet V.S. Naipaul gave in “A Bend in the River” to the African dictator plundering the city of Kisangani in Congo through mercenaires granted license to run amok.

The colonizer’s plundering merely gave way to the Big Man’s impunity in stripping Africa’s assets bare.

Many things about African football became clearer at once to me. Unlike the rest of the world, African football runs on the transitive properties of morality. Losing because of bad tactics and positioning, like Cameroon, conceals the deeper flaw of playing their best player -- an inspirational, talented, eloquent man with almost all the qualities of a great leader -- at all. How dare manager Paul Le Guen attempt to shoulder the blame for setting Eto'o adrift in a formation where his co-ordination with Webo failed repeatedly and his ability to track back was severely limited by his having to run between left and centre? The blame is Africa's for producing a player who is celebrated back home as much as he is in white cities like Barcelona and Milan. Memories of the Barnes Theory Of Socialist Righteousness pierce the heart.

As for Cote d'Ivoire, it's all very well for white people to give a man credit for stopping a civil war in his country. But ask him to play with a broken arm in order to bolster a team in a challenging group and reap the whirlwind, CIV. Given the paucity of Big Men in the rest of the group -- no seriously, Kaka? Ronaldo? No civil wars! No Big Manhood!* -- this was just as indicative of 'African tragedy' as any history of dictators in the Congo. Mobutu Sese Seko, your football Nazgul have failed you. Africa won and you lost.

Roger Cohen pats his column into shape at this point. The blissfully oblivious New York Times enjoys supporting the idea that the post-colonial world is self-sufficient and self-determining to such an extent that the origins of the 'Big Man' phenomenon in the support of African extremists by their former colonisers doesn't seem to merit the status of rumour, much less truth, in their pages. It's okay, kids; coltan wars, oil genocides and repeatedly invalidated democratic elections happen because Africans are just reverting to type. On the other hand, Roger Cohen points out,

[South Africa] has resisted the devastating “Big Man” syndrome. Over the past 16 years, South Africa has had four free elections and four presidents ... [a] robust judiciary and free press ... [t]he interaction, under the law, of various interest groups ... This is its great lesson for a continent where, by 2025, one in four of every person under 24 will live.

From which statement we infer:

1. All African countries have the same history.
2. All African countries have the same set of problems.
3. Big Men are okay with us if they are Big Men by Committee, which is to say that they are Big Men who can be safely invited to speak at G20 gatherings.
4. It's fine that he brokered the most incredible nation-building negotiation in the last fifty years and possibly ever, but what would really symbolise a betrayal of big man Mandela's anti-Big Man policies, more than Zuma and the ANC's drift away from his vision, would be if Siphiwe Tshabalala were a thirty-a-season goalscorer for Manchester United.

At this point Roger Cohen is satisfied with the lesson he has just taught his African readers, and returns to the subject of multicultural Germany and the meaning of Mesut Özil.

A Social Democrat once told me that the country’s ultimate victory over Hitler would lie in the reconstitution of the Jewish community, then being pursued by luring Jews of the former Soviet Union. I always thought that was a vain, slightly kitschy idea.

I don't exactly understand what the phrase 'being pursued by luring Jews of the former Soviet Union' means, but since vanity and kitschiness are things Hannah Arendt would have resisted in her political philosophy, this sounds good to me. Reconciliation and reparation, as Arendt knew, are overwhelmingly difficult, and sometimes even tragic ideas. They can be begun by legislation but they can only ever go on to tell a new story -- they cannot erase or change the one that has already been made. That is indeed the cause and effect of kitsch and vanity.

But the Germany of Özil and Aogo is such a victory over the Big Man who destroyed Europe.

Which is to say, thank you Turkey and Nigeria for bearing the brunt of the history of European imperialism in your own distinct ways. Directly or indirectly, we dismantled your countries in our world wars, plundered your resources, broke up your nations, sold off the pieces, put your worst enemies in power over you, treated your people like shit when they came to Europe looking for work, and continue to do so. But our football teams are now full of brown kids and black kids. So Hitler lost and you lost, but we all won. So we're cool, right? We're cool.

Roger Cohen says:

Africa, take note.

Thank you for taking note, New York Times and other clever American magazines. We know now that you see the currents of history where the rest of us are trying -- for reasons of our own -- to see football games. But maybe if other people wore the same smug-coloured glasses as you, the theories would undergo a fundamental shift. Where you see models of correlation between dictators and football victories, others would see the run of play as the rest of the world knows it: of a history of possession dominated by those who wrote the rules, of enforced migrations and unwilling recruitments; of contests that we must always resist seeing as wars, because they are only fought - and won - on the field.

* -- although Roger Cohen would have had plenty of theories to make about Jong Tae-Se, had he known his name.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

socialism, bloody hell

I was going to dissect John Barnes' comment on the failure of the English team coming down to their mental incompatibility with some forms of political practice, but Thomas Mueller took the wind out of my sails by offering a similar diagnosis of the breakdown of alien v/s predator man versus machine in the English team:

"It is difficult to have so many 'alpha males' and have them row in the same direction," said the 20-year-old.

The 20-year-old then went on to make a sociological observation about hierarchies in Native American society with which I am completely unfamiliar, and Germany extended this opponent-baiting mood to include trash talk about Argentina, their next opponents. This will be exquisite to laugh at at the end of their campaign, whenever that may be. Anyway. Co-opting social sciences into the analysis of football is sweet and proper. It is not the aim of this blog to break down the utter and total Internet wrongness of making simple distinctions between the intellectual practises of socialism and capitalism; the G20 is proving it somewhere in the US at the moment. I merely offer up a consideration of the many things, going by John Barnes' prescription, that may have adversely affected England's performance at the World Cup. It may be true that players on the teams that have made it into the quarterfinals are fifty percent more likely to read The Guardian than members of the English team. It may be true that the Brazilians at the World Cup, rather than shrink in horror from Lula's "nuclear mission" to Iran, probably watch footage of his conference with Ahmedinejad in their hotel rooms before they go to sleep, thus ranging themselves firmly against the Anglo-American ideal of classical liberalism. It may be that when the revolution comes Frank Lampard is simply not going to give up an inch of his farmland to the collectivist mission.

The simple expedient of playing with a holding midfielder like Michael Carrick would in no way have entered them into the octet of superior community-building exemplified by the men who have stayed behind. (After all, Maradona hates Bush and loves Che. There is no way anyone could accuse him of being a selfish individualist).

The simple fact that the last 24 are full of teams who played more or less in harmony with each other, whether they lacked enthusiasm (laughably politically-sterotypable France), creative resources (Japan), stamina (North Korea -- excused from all discussions of socialism as it is far too conservative a political ideology under their present government) or good link-up players (Italy), can in no way impede the basic recognition of the fact that English footballers do not know their place.

So much for that. As for Thomas Mueller and his psychosexual assessment of who is, erm, rowing the boat (have Oxford and Cambridge started to hand out the Blue for soccer yet?), I have nothing to offer, except that like many psychosexual assessments, it has a ring of accuracy to it. I think this may be how Freudian psychoanalysis has assumed the position it has in the modern world.

Monday, June 21, 2010


Dunga's Brazil is a fricking beautiful side. So effortless was their ability to press, build and rebuild play from the back, so relentlessly high their back line, so clever their crossing from the wings, that when Cote d'Ivoire scored their lone goal late in the game, it was honestly unexpected to see both Drogba and the ball run free out of Brazil's looming shadows -- if shadows can be canary-coloured -- and bomb past an uncharacteristically flat-footed Julio Cesar. Accusations of Europeanisation may stand, but boring? Stodgy? Lacking in creativity? Please. Creativity and productivity are not wildly oppositional things.

Maybe this Richard Florida notion is why some people get the sinking feeling that the football of the future will be played in tree-lined avenues peopled by clever sweatpants-wearing software professionals when they watch Dunga's Brazil. And Kaká is hardly the sort of man to encourage you to use the fountain in the square as a goal [but more on Kaká later]. But I see nothing wrong with the fact that Brazil are capable of building an attack from their very last line instead of their third or second. Indeed, their slippery first quarter of an hour last night suggested that their defenders were their best-balanced players. Flair didn't die at the feet of Lucio and Maicon. It was assassinated -- oh yes -- by that ridiculous stepover of Robinho's early on in the match that ended in bupkis for Brazil. Imagine if things had continued like that all night long.

Yet, being the tournament favourite is bound to expose you to the charge of tournament favouritism. I am not suggesting that the administration of the game has somehow developed a pro-Brazilian stance. The outrage following last night's actions would have been the same had the player in question been Steven Gerrard, who is not Brazilian and not -- well, he's just not Kaká. But having acknowledged their might in full, I would like to reiterate my thought that if Brazil get to the end of this tournament, there will be a large number of neutrals who will be happy to see them lose; not because of the tourbillon style of play, but in reaction to the partisan attitude that marked last night's match and continues to explode in the punditry of the morning. Sample this reaction to the incident that resulted in Kaká being awarded a second yellow:

The forward, Abdul Kader Keïta, was not hit with the ball or slapped across the face or punched, just bumped by the Brazilian star Kaká, who did little more than shrug, sticking his right elbow into Keïta’s chest.

That was all it took for Keïta to fall to the turf as if he had been doused with pepper spray.

The Guardian is characteristically better:

[Kaká] put out his elbow as the substitute Kader Keïta ran towards him and, while that could primarily have been intended as self-protection, the action was risky.

There you go. It was risky. Not stick-your-hand-out-during-the-final-volley risky, but you-have-a-booking-already! risky. Keïta presumably did not insult Kaká's sister, and Kaká was well-mannered enough not to shove his head into Keïta's chest, but the situation is not essentially without precedent: as also the ensuing reaction that the referee was somehow unjust to correctly interpret the rules. The Guardian quotes Dunga as saying:

"The player who commits the foul escapes the yellow card ... I have to congratulate him for that. It was totally unjustified. Kaká was fouled and yet he was punished."

That the rules were not fully applied -- ie. Keita not booked for hilarious simulation -- is certainly a cause for complaint, if complaining about your referee after a 3-1 victory that included the luck of counting a blatant handball among your goals, at a crucial moment during the game, is your thing.

A version of this post appears on IBNLive's football site, here.

Friday, June 18, 2010

the special ones

Papa Capz will be the subject of much derision (and quite a few jokes a la my favourite man in blue, Nicolas Anelka), and in light What Just Happened, this is probably warranted. Capello's past record needs no defending, but England's awful start at the World Cup raises the question of whether he is in fact the colossus of the coaching world that he is otherwise supposed to be.

Plenty of people have called England a mediocre team. Yet, as my England-supporting friends are never tired of pointing out, the team contains some of the brightest stars of the World's Best League (TM). How can you put Rooney and Gerrard and Lampard and so and so and so in a squad and not win? Yet others will point out that there is a difference between great players and a great team. It is worth remembering that there was a palpable sense that Capello had been hired for his success with that particular alchemical experiment.

If you watched any of Real Madrid's matches towards the end of the 2006-2007 season, you may have detected the push-pull of irresistible forces meeting the immovable object on the touchline. At no time did their organisation achieve the creative solidarity of, say, the Manchester United of that year, but their Liga victory at the end of the year somehow did indicate the miraculous development of something like a collective will. Its shape was the shape of Capello's will. In all their teamwork, it was evident that their field sense or spontaneity could only work in tandem with the chalkboard, if it were to succeed.

Perhaps Capello's experience had then proved that it is the teams with great individual talent that require the most thinking behind-the-scenes, the most intense examination of probability and the least subjection to chance. The more ideas a team has, the more those ideas require prior extrapolation. For about a quarter of an hour during their first game against the USA, the English team seemed to illustrate this. Without ever really running riot over the USians, they were playing to a plan; they demonstrated a certain patience in the squabble for space around the ball, an earnestness in building up play forwards, and some confident defending. Yet, in the minutes after Gerrard's goal, this sense - this collective will - showed signs of decomposure, and its disintegration after the USA goal was evident in the sudden panic, the loss of shape, and a hilarious return to relying on the long ball. In short, to follow the chalkboard analogy, they were schoolboys who forgot the teacher's instructions.

Capello is the most schoolmasterish of the schoolmaster variety of coach. Someone like Jose Mourinho is often accused of stealing the limelight from his players, which Capello does not do. But one gets the sense that their agency on the pitch - unlimited as it may potentially be - is subject to his his plans. Since he has had few bad plans in his coaching life, it would be reasonable to assume that he knew what he was doing when he left the the already-retired, the lacklustre, the unfit and the misfits out of his squad. Invariably, the Carrick Question, the Cole Question, the Heskey Question (one of these is not like the other) and the Hargreaves Question (which, believe me, I did not know was a question until I woke up this morning and discovered corners of the Internet fairly ringing with it) will help those of us extrapolators who are not in Capello's position to answer many horrifically unanswered questions.

What I want to know, without letting questions of victory and defeat enmurk the issue, is whether a surfeit of trust in Fabio Capello that has not been repaid exhaustively? Was the promised uber-Lippi really a combination of Domenech (bad-tempered, somewhat evil) and Maradona (so malevolent about putting players out of position that the woman on the street would probably pick an eleven better than him)?

Or is it that the team England have now -- Heskey and all -- are incapable of playing to pattern? If not, why? Are they not only less talented than other teams (ridiculous) but also less capable of committing a lesson to memory? Do they sabotage themselves by allowing personal detestations to affect their on-field relationships? Have they simply not had the advantage of spending a year locked into a training ground with Fabio Capello, like the Real of that year, acceding slowly but surely to the Capello hive mind?

Perhaps the funniest thing about the absolute mental disintegration -- both team-wise and fan-wise -- of last night's outcome against Algeria, is that there's time to see, after all. The other thing the Capello effect has wholeheartedly benefitted from, of course, is luck. Unbelievably for this team, it may still give Capello a chance to chalk out their future.

Monday, June 14, 2010

winding the clock back up

"I do not want a single Italian soldier to be hurt," said General Mustafa Tlass to his Lebanese guerillas in 1980s Beirut, "because I do not want a single tear to fall from the eyes of Gina Lollobrigida."

Whatever my differences with General Tlass, I must similarly warn Italy's football team with regards to the eyes of Andrea Pirlo. He may not start today. Injury may have prevented him from making it out to Soweto to accomplish the small matter of the symbolic handover of the World Cup to FIFA [irony forever, as all the gods are witness!]. He may be dormant in the memories of football fans everywhere -- in fact, pictures of Andrea Pirlo on field may offer strong evidence that he is dormant -- as in, asleep -- period.

But for one glorious tournament, everyone recognised that Andrea Pirlo was worthy of godlike praise. In Germany, the hand may have been the hand of Juventus -- never more evident than during the farcical final against David Trezeguet -- but the voice was the voice of Milan. Pirlo's performance in 2006 came towards the end of a remarkable run of success for the Milan midfield, culminating in their Champions' League victory in Athens, and unsustained since. The inconsistency of Italy's organisation in the years since then, too, have mirrored this atrophy -- particularly since Roberto Donadoni, coach for those two underwhelming years between victory in Berlin and failure in Vienna, refused to think himself out of the Milan pattern of an overreliance on the pyramid shape, creative paralysis on the wings, and the sine qua non of dugout politics, a sharply-creased pair of D&G trousers. Che delusione.

He may seem now like a reciprocating engine in an age of internal combustion, but remember what it felt like to watch him think? In 2007, Brian Phillips at the Run of Play wrote:

To capture him, really to capture the way he plays, the camera would have to follow him without the ball, with the ball not even in the frame. It would have to show the way he drifts and watches, judges and glides, the way he moves as if movement were thinking. [...] And then, perhaps, as he backed into a defender and slipped free, the ball could roll into the picture, and he could pause over it, hover for a beat, and make the astonishing pass while all eyes in the stadium were turned toward the run of the striker.

If you don't remember it clear as the light of day, see what that means during this moment, this distillation of everything that was brilliant about Italy's World Cup campaign in 2006. The ball zings very briefly around the box; falls to Pirlo's feet; he stops time; flicks to Grosso; Grosso scores. Grosso runs around in a trance. Replay. Replay. Replay.

How did he do it? Not just that; everything. He had help, both in Italy and at Milan, of course. The Pirlo vision was challenged before he ever assumed it, in the last days -- I have heard -- of Pep Guardiola's playing career. But he had exceptional defenders behind him all along. In midfield at Milan, he had for a while the uncanny propulsive vision of Kaka [something we should look forward to in a Brazil team at least ten times saner than Real Madrid, say what you like]. He had the balance of Clarence Seedorf. On both teams, he had the distracting protective fury of Gennaro Gattuso. Both men will be among tomorrow's celebrity managers -- that's if Seedorf doesn't go on to become president of his own republic of truth, justice and a permanent state of war against all Oranje coaches -- but they are all too aware of their increasing limitations on field. And so should Pirlo be. In the Marchisio-Montolivo-de Rossi midfield Italy have, not a replacement or a makeshift, but an alternative. They need that.

Time has to start again.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

freedom's just another word

I took a moment to curse Eduardo Galeano during Uruguay's disappointing non-starter of an attack on France during their game's second half, and said that there can be no beautiful football without shape -- by which I suppose I meant I come down on the side of organisation, cold mechanical brains, well-rehearsed moves, collective acumen over individual spontaneity, science over nature, and other Enlightenment guff. Uruguay never threatened a surfeit of beauty, much less shape, but Argentina's opening moments in this first game against Nigeria did give me pause to re-examine this obviously Euro-indoctrinated prejudice. Unpredictable passing, seemingly fearless creativity, the lazy, easy attainment of Nigeria's box that was way more exhilarating than the blitzkrieg approach you usually see when very good club teams [such as the one our Leo plays for] meet less proficient ones: there were early intimations of magic.

The end of the game certainly contradicted that early optimism. I don't say this because Argentina ought to have won 7-0. Their attack was promising, even if the shots on goal started coming at longer and longer intervals, and if the entire forward line repeatedly failed to finish moves. This is Argentina -- how long is that state of affairs likely to last? [WAIT DON'T ANSWER THAT.] The harsh thing was seeing their creative purpose dissipate to an extent that the end of the match made it questionable if such purpose ever existed. It was like watching a whole team be Zlatan Ibrahimovic. But Zlatan's problem is disaffection -- Argentina's problem is not that. There was nothing running counter to their bounty of obvious intelligence, talent and cheek. There was simply nothing. Arrigo Sacchi would have been shocked. At least a well-trained team should manage itself, Sacchi would have grumbled. Even if there isn't a plan, there ought to be a backup plan, which should NOT be to replace Higuain with Milito in the 80th minute and expect a sudden infusion of dynamism into the attack. Was it ever more evident that sometimes the best gift you can give a brilliant team with brilliant players is to make them sleep early, eat pasta without sauce for lunch, and drill formations into their head so that they can execute them even when they're asleep? Isn't that how human beings do learn to dance, anyway?

Without an enforcing factor to their play on field, it seemed that Nigeria were left with the football textbook in their hands. Dutifully their plans were executed: the lines of play were cleanly drawn, the marking was more or less blameless after the unfortunate incident with Gabriel Heinze, and the passing, when thinkable, was efficient, hampered only by a forward line as awkward as Argentina's own goalkeeper. In the meanwhile, ideas meandered around Argentina's right flank and returned to the midfield to unravel hopefully until someone caught hold of an end and pulled over the final third. As Argentina began to look less superior and more supercilious, it's no wonder that the hero of the hour was Vincent Enyeama, whose chief expression as he kept their forward line at bay was that of someone utterly not amused. Early intimations of magic were nothing to Vincent Enyeama; Vincent Enyeama was here to keep the balrog at bay while his fellowship fled Moria. Enyeama did what every side Argentina meet from here on out, even the gormless Greece, are likely to do, which is to refuse to take Argentina at face value. In this case, the backup will be a plan. Leave aside the problematic defence for a moment. To unlock Argentina you can of course wait on them, resist them, second-guess them, or starve them out. All of this is possible. But the best way surely is to challenge them. South Korea may well be up to that. I have a smidgen of hope that it's what Argentina may even be secretly looking forward to.

Friday, June 11, 2010

nothing you can sing that can't be sung - II

Sing Sing Sing

Item. The best guide to national anthems at the World Cup anyone can read is Ian King's series, The World Cup of National Anthems at Two Hundred Percent. End item.

It's two years since the last Eurocentric international tournament. It continues to be pointless for me to sing Fratelli d'Italia, since I'm not an Italian and nobody's fratello. Given this, it has been repeatedly convenient that the BBC delivered Nessun dorma into footie fandom during Italia '90. It is easily co-optable, and quite appropriate in moments of ridiculous optimism, which is what the song is all about. Yes! I will marry this cruel inscrutable Chinese princess on the morrow even though she wishes to kill me stone dead! I am secretly epic win even though I don't know how I am going to play this game with any semblance of dynamism down the wings!

But inevitably in the bumpy slide downwards since Berlin, it's been more of a 'Va, pensiero' affair for me. Since I'm not an opera nerd I have problems with this whole culturally appropriative philosemitism thing that the 19th century had going on in Western Europe. Since I also read the papers from time to time, I find it even creepier that this has been appropriated as the national anthem of Padania. But I love this song so surprisingly much that the only thing I can think of when it plays is the workmen at La Scala putting their tools down and listening in amazement when Verdi rehearsed it for the first time. I would do that too. It's my Azzurri song for 2010 - wistful, yearning, frankly kind of out of place in a World Cup final.

Let me tell you, Internet, Europe would have been a much better place if every nation had a Verdi anthem to sing.

The bloodthirstiness of many current non-Verdi anthems can't be helped, but they are still boring for objective audiences like me, to whom they are now mostly useful as ruthless indicators of which footballers were paying attention during school assembly [lucky Spain - all that and a wordless anthem, eh?]. The best I can say of many of them is that I don't have to stand up and sing them myself, as I am enjoined to do in a Mumbai movie theatre. Certainly the best thing about England's is that the rest of us don't have to any more. [#burn!] The best thing about France's is that you can immediately segue into 'LOVE, LOVE, LOVE!' after the opening chords. [We will talk about its revolutionary properties next tournament.] I know I said that during Euro 2008 too, but I am honestly still waiting for the man with the heart to do that to Nicolas Anelka's face. Hey, Domenico Criscito -- you are clearly on to this whole anthem-subversion business. Can you get on it in the event of another Italy-France match, please? Thank you.

Snark aside, there is one anthem I will be singing along with in temporary abeyance of skepticism. I'm sorry to say I know it mainly because I'm a Paul Simon fan. But in spite of the fact that he, incredibly, introduces it on CD as the African national anthem - it's actually the anthem of the African National Congress, and now of South Africa, and also, what is wrong with your geography, Paul Simon? - I'm glad he was able to give the world such a stunning version.

Bring it.

As to the rest of them, I can only give them advice via Mozart. I keep Non più andrai in store for Milan - a little unfairly, perhaps, but I'm not the one who lost a derby to Inter 4-0 - and I will bequeath it now to every team manager who wishes to impress upon their charges the idea of lots of honour and little pay.

Cherubini, alla vittoria.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

the tea cosies are coming off

Still thinking through this sports diplomacy stuff. I'm unsure of what to think about it, but if you want to avoid reading everything I've said below, then here's what I have so far: in a heavily imbalanced - and I dare say, vitiated - atmosphere, the act of protest itself can be toxic rather than beneficial. The answer is not silence or compliance - I am wondering if it can, however, be individual creativity and principle. Of course, you may disagree and you may be right.

Once you start down this sports diplomacy route, it can only end in Earl Grey and almond biscotti. Famous sports journalist Dave Zirin, in a piece that Must Read Soccer labelled 'the worst writing of the week'] is inexorably logical in his approach to the question.

"...if it is business as usual between nations on the field of play, then surely everything must be A-OK when our heroes shower off the sweat and the cheering throngs wander home. But things are, as Marcellus Wallace said, "pretty f--king far from ok." If a team wants to stand up and say "hell no" to business-as-usual in international sport, we shouldn't ask why they are doing it. We should ask why more teams don't. "


I can’t mock this. This is an optimistic view of the systems that dominate sport, and Zirin, as is his habit, asks an absolutely appropriate question. Why shouldn't sport - football - be used as protest? Why shouldn't a country which disapproves of an opponent choose to make a stand against them? That would be nice: a free market of expression in which countries chose to make their feelings known by refusing to play opponents they condemned on principle. The Scandinavian countries, for example, could boycott Israel. Israel could boycott Iran. Iran could boycott the US. The US could boycott North Korea. North Korea would boycott South Korea. Thus ensuring that we depart radically from the state of world affairs as they exist today, right.

Okay, yes, this domino theory of protest is more cynical than pragmatic. As Amitav Ghosh said in his response to the outcry against his acceptance of the Dan David prize in Israel this year: "Can’t you see that in this world sanity depends upon being able to perceive and make certain distinctions?" Of course, Ghosh said that in an argument against an appeal for a cultural boycott. And whether or not sanity seems like small beans weighed in the balance against principle, it behooves all of us to work with the assumption that certain distinctions are ours to perceive and to make in the name of morality.

In a better-administered sport, perhaps that would matter. That sport is not football. And that tournament, to reiterate what I said in my last post, is not the World Cup as it is. Zirin's view of sporting protest, if applied to football, assumes the governance of FIFA itself to be independent and fair-minded enough to work as a judicious mediator in a possible world where tournaments may become a war of attrition between governments. We know this is not the case. An association that cannot keep its own rules straight enough to apply, for example, even a single stricture about religious clothing fairly, is a poor one to co-opt into the cause of global justice.

I am trying very hard not to disagree with Dave Zirin. Dave Zirin is a hero. I admire and respect his journalism. I simply think he is not wholly right to connect protest to policy. FIFA's venalities implicate it in the same tired, corrupt forms of nationalism that dictate governments' policies, which is why a war of attrition, even should it come to pass, will fail if it stands alone. If this is the only arena in which countries feel justified in telling us how they really feel, by shutting out someone's football team they are also shutting out their opponents' own voices of protest -- imagine if South Korea had refused to play this match. You are not just pathologising your political relationship -- you are rendering the other side invisible. International mandates have made a success out of this tactic in the past -- as our host nation this year knows.

But on this field at this time; knowing what we know, lacking what we lack, this is unfair, too. It is hollower than its predecessors in the last century. The right to protest injustice belongs unequivocally to everyone and everybody. I hope we realise, though, that the mandate is most sincere -- and most memorable -- when it is expressed by people, rather than institutions. If we want histories to accumulate in the balance of power against injustice, then we must look for their heroes in fans and in players who make a stand, rather than in press releases and polemic.

It sounds ridiculous if you start to imagine Steven Gerrard in an anti-war undervest, but it's some way ahead of a tournament hijacked by the political spinmeisters who otherwise confine themselves to the background. That's the distinction I'd perceive and make. I would make it for principle as well as for sanity.

This post first appeared on IBNLive's World Cup site, here.

item: I've started modding comments on this blog thanks to ceaseless and offensive spam - sorry for the inconvenience, everyone.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

north korea among the nightingales

The total stupidity of confusing football with justice.

Over the years, the World Cup has quietly dropped out of the mainstream of history, making it less painful and less fraught to associate nationalism with it - unless of course you are reading a British tabloid - and I'm almost confident that we can now argue against Orwell's aphorism about football being war minus the shooting. It's actually more like diplomacy without the tea service: seemingly connecting the world and building relationships, but really just swinging itself further and further out of orbit, somewhere where it can be only tangentially relevant to our waking lives, if not to our dreaming ones.

I'm trying to explain why I am bemused that Paul B Stares at the Los Angeles Times appears to think that the whole world can be stadium-ganged into 'shaming and further isolating' North Korea for its sinking of a South Korean warship late last month. Because that's not presumptuous at all! It will be totally effective, to boot! Never mind that neither FIFA nor a single member nation has questioned North Korea's right to play in international competition, which is what a halfway-rational consensus would demand in the case of a state accused of an international crime. Never mind that while condemnation of an act of war might be universal - because it always is, of course - not every nation in the World Cup, let alone the world, may believe that it's their job to 'shame and further isolate' someone else's football team. Never mind that the World Cup really isn't capable of changing anybody's foreign policy. It isn't even capable of changing lives.

Maybe football is, though. Our dreaming lives and waking ones sometimes collude. We have gone from listening to Pele's World Cup on All India Radio to watching Maradona's World Cup on black-and-white state television, to supporting England because we watch the English Premier League in simultaneous broadcasts on Star Sports and ESPN every weekend. Football doesn't allow us to forget the real world - but it allows us to experience it through a different set of rules. Andrew Guest on Pitch Invasion has been posting his fantastic World Cup previews appended with which teams he would pick to qualify 'if there were any justice in the world.' Guest is as good at understanding football as Stares is bad, which is why he is always slightly tongue-in-cheek about his picks. We are wrong to look for justice in football. There is none, except within its own rules.

A version of this first appeared on IBNLive's World Cup blog, here.