Sunday, June 15, 2008

nothing you can sing that can't be sung

There was a throwaway line in the flurry of articles about Milan in March-April 2007 after their qualification for the Champions' League finals, about Rino Gattuso, interviewed about the Istanbul final in 2005, saying that for a long time it was unbearable for him to think of anything associated with that night. Istanbul just some Turkish city, penalties what penalties, that sort of thing. Liverpool just the home city of the Beatles.

The reason I think of this on the brink of a crunch game against fake rivals France that is not likely to throw up great football or shining examples of sporting spirit is that I take comfort in the fantasy that Rino, or perhaps his good friend Marco Materazzi, will line-up opposite the French with their heads held high, and on cue after the opening bars of La Marseillaise, will boom "LOVE, LOVE, LOVE!" at their opponents.

It might insult the national sentiments of the French, but then it might also get Nicolas Anelka to smile.

I am interested in human behaviour during the blaring of the anthems. One of pop culture's frequent tests of the measure stupidity among the public is to stop people on the street and demand them to repeat the words of the national anthem [at least, this happens frequently on youth channels on Indian TV]. I suppose the footballing population contains the same pecentage of people who cannot tell you the words of their anthem as the wider populace. Choosing to keep mum and let the others get on with it rather than expose your powers of intellectual retention as weak is a courteous way of doing things.

Surely there are those who choose this method to register a social protest, and I generally applaud the gesture. It would be silly to take a chance to represent your country and not give your very best while playing, but if you wanted to express disgust with your government's policies, or at the way they treat your community, or simply because you don't like patriotic fervour, this seems like a highly visible yet perfectly honourable way to do it. The trouble is, I'm not sure if anyone among the throng of mute footballers at Euro 2008 is doing this. I'm a little disappointed.

On the flip side, of course there is something appealing about a grand gesture of solidarity. Before their opening game against Austria, every starter on the Croatian team raised hand to heart before they started to sing. Perhaps in a different political situation, or against different opponents, it may have seemed less benign. What may seem like swaggering arrogance in one country - or one sport, or one tournament - is a simple mark of committment in another. If the Indian football team ever qualified for a World Cup, I wouldn't be displeased to hear a familiar ditty before the start of a match. Of course, it would mean nothing if they didn't bother to play their best after the singing, which is what will ultimately matter to those who like such a thing as 'national pride' to be quantifiable and result-based. We'd never heckle them at the airport for anything less.


I've been boring everyone I meet with news of my morbid fascination with Marco van Basten. The graven image in those videos and YouTube pages has suddenly drawn breath -- in rather a scary, Darth Vaderish fashion, appropriate to the buzzcut and the blank, focused stare -- and become a very alarming but intriguing human character. For someone who went into the tournament with roughly the same number of question marks over his head as Roberto Donadoni, he's certainly pulled ahead. [Donadoni has helped with that, no lie.] I think I could live with his winning streak continuing, just to see those goal celebrations.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

guest blog: we all need someone we can bleed on

M. Satchi is an artist and football fan from Toronto, Canada.

A petition in .PNG to Roberto Donadoni:

Monday, June 9, 2008

now that it's here

* pulls on ITALIANS DO IT ON THE COUNTER tee-shirt over habit, sits down, waits to be disappointed by Toto di Natale *

Half time. Poor Toto. It is not his fault. Nothing is his fault. He runs and runs and runs. As Yves Saint-Laurent once said of Tom Ford, "he does what he can."

I am having visions of Marco van Basten hoisting the championship trophy. He will be forced to crack a smile once again. How will he deal?

Oh, and: Dirk Kuyt. Really?

Full-time: * pulls tee-shirt off, crosses ITALIANS off, writes in DUTCH in orange felt-tip *

Friday, June 6, 2008

singing the blues

I have probably already made it embarrassingly clear that I am a gigantic n00b to football fandom. I like football history, but I have very little first-hand experience of it. In fact, for me football started in 1998, and not entirely with Paolo Maldini and his Oedipus complex, either, which is my habitual reluctant confession about my beginnings. [Don't make me say more about it - know that the words 'Ricky Martin' are involved and leave me to suffer in silence, I beg you.]

But I love Italy, in spite of their continued associations with bad pop. Yes, Il Divo, I mean you. Back in '98, when I noticed them, I remembered them as a team shadowed by tragedy. In later years I have traced this melancholic instinct back to this photograph, which is my only other memory of USA '94 not related to Romario, or drug busts. Subsequent events in France did nothing to erase this impression. I have only a vague memory of Baggio in France, slipping in and out of the side like a shadow himself.

I have often asked myself if it is dishonest for a team like Italy, with no dearth of middling-to-exquisite talent up front, to rely on their defensive training to do so much of their work for them. In relative terms - do they merely do what any team would have done if they had the talents of Maldini, Nesta, Cannavaro and Zambrotta, as the latest and least of a long tradition, at their disposal? In absolute terms - should such a team not have made more varied demands on their surfeit of good qualities? We'll never know; but if it is ethically suspect to coast and coattail it, then they've paid for it repeatedly, in the most ridiculous, bitter ways possible. Penalties. Bad referee decisions. Petulance. Statistics. Over and over and over again. Never, since '98, have I seriously backed an Italy team to win a tournament. As far along as the quarter-finals in 2006 I was fully prepared to acknowledge the heartbreaking Argentina as just and proper world champions. [Of course, they have a long history in the bitterness and hilarity department themselves. I am putting the finishing touches on a very serious academic study of the correlation of the high incidence of alcoholism in Kerala and the tendency of its people to back Argentina in international tournaments as I speak.]

Italy are anything but heartbreaking. In fact, they're almost chronically impossible to feel sorry for. The players are always experienced superstars, the drama always fulsome and generally unpleasant, and the attitude, on the whole, smug and entitled. Could you ever cry for such a team?

Sometimes I look back at the miracle of pain and Roberto Baggio that was 1994, aka the World Cup I missed, and wonder if it's just the way history works, that he seems to have been the last Italian truly capable of breaking hearts, with his fragility and unworldly genius. I'm willing to put it down to the sentimentality of the new for the old - after all, Homer in the Odyssey makes that quip about no sons ever overreaching their fathers; some are just as bad, 'but most are worse' - but I think that, in the wake of such unexpected good luck and massive disappointment, it would have taken an enduring pair of tear ducts to find anything left to cry for. Perhaps future generations of French supporters will feel the same about their space cowboy team of 2006. [I hope they keep their close-to-hand victories in '98 and '00 in mind, to comfort them.] I don't know if that team were more or less likeable than their successors in Germany. But I don't think the memory of Fabio Grosso gambolling in the fields of Berlin will ever erase the image of that final missed penalty.

But perhaps it's just the way tragedy and its self-aggrandising elements work. The rhythms of club football tend to make everyone, even the pathologically ambitious, make do; but in the rarefied atmosphere of the big international tournament these Aristotelian notions of tragedy and comedy seem to make sense.

the general tendency of saviours to be victims.


General opinion has it that that final in Pasadena stands unrivalled for tedium and frustration in World Cup history. Maybe so, maybe so. I found this amusing New York Times piece, dated just before the final, that deconstructs the magic of that Italy and that Brazil in its profiling of the heroes of either side.

I'm also pleased to see this great Rob Bagchi blog in the Guardian about the art and history of Italian defending. It is framed by his reminiscences of the brothers Baresi, and their likeness to - that's right, folks! - a comic.

[Thanks to the wonderful Neko for the picture.]

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

do you have a euro 2008 team?

Why? Isn't it just another excuse for Europeans to hate each other?

Oh, alright, kidding. I love international tournaments. For a long time I had no idea that teams existed outside internationals. Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund, Lazio -- these were just words that echoed off Star Sports' Football Mundial advertisements. My father and grandfather would dutifully exchange cricket for football once every four summers or so, and a lot of my ideas about football - Maradona unquestionably world's greatest, Romario not more talented than Baggio [in fact Baggio simply unlucky poor bugger], Malayalis always support Argentina and Bengalis always go for Brazil, etc - were formed in this crucible.

I suppose I was a neutral, in those days. I should still be. I think I may safely tell you that I am, to an extent. I mean, here is a tourney and a sport in which I have no rational national biases whatsoever. It would be stupid to support anything but exciting football, even if it's a Raymond Domenech team that plays it. This is obviously not the entire truth, however. The truth is that I would like it if Italy won it. In fact, I even have second-favourites: Croatia.

Having confessed as much, what I now put to you is: what about you, reader? Are you supporting a team? A player? An ideology? A kit [thank you, Puma, thank you for bringing back the blue and white]? Why?

and the one in designerwear isn't even the one from milan!

I keep hearing about something on your so-British television channels called I'm On Setanta Sport that makes use of a Portuguese puppet to poke fun at football and footballers. That's all very well. Who's going to make the seminal Baresi Brothers webcomic to keep up with the amusements of football in Milan week in and week out?

holding out like a hero

Of my near-endless litany of complaints with the IPL, one has been the purely personal displeasure at seeing cricketers indulge in the sort of drama usually reserved for the football field. Seeing my favourite RP Singh take a wicket and then raise his finger to his lips to shush the crowd really did stick in my craw. You could argue that the stiff-upper-lip traditions of cricket have been eroding for a long time and were never all that impeccable in the first place; you could argue that the days of upper-class Englishmen setting the norms for sportsmanlike behavior are dead and rightly so; you could argue that it was context-dependent; you could argue that it's unfair to expect young men not to give in to expectations at a tense moment, when said expectations clearly demand visible drama the way the IPL has from start to finish.

I don't buy it. There is an argument that the idea of the stoic sportsman is classist and culturally irrelevant, sure; but it's not like chest-thumping, shirt-waving histrionics are really blazing new trails in masculine behaviour. I'm part of the "new India," and I don't think the depressingly badly-behaved Sreesanth or the clearly troubled Harbhajan, with their aggro melodrama, represent me and my place in the world any better than the old order of cricketer ever did [Although the quiet, dignified Tendulkars and Kumbles of the world are rather better representation than I deserve, perhaps.]

All this grumping is to say: I loved Mahendra Singh Dhoni at the end of the IPL final this Sunday night, which his team lost by a hair's breadth to the Rajasthan Royals. The man was brilliant. It becomes more and more difficult to describe him without being reductive: somehow he can typify all the commonly-held beliefs about him - that he's the small-town kid who's made it big, the tough guy with a big heart, the stoic hero, the inspirational captain, and so on - without conforming to any one of them. Given the general emotional tenor of the IPL it's not difficult to imagine someone in his position acting less than graciously. [Two words: Saurav Ganguly.] From Dhoni there was no petulance, no recrimination, not even a show of anger or disappointment. While the Royals were exploding with joy in the middle, Dhoni stood by for a while, then gathered his team around him and went into a huddle, to emerge from it with exactly the same expression he'd worn for most of the game, one of calm self-confidence. It was the face of a man who isn't satisfied with his lot, but refuses to be ashamed anyway. He was neither maganimous nor offhand about his loss, but he treated it with the superb level-headedness of a man who really believes that cricket is a game. You can't do your sport more credit than to really acknowledge and respect that, can you?

I don't know if chance or destiny will allow Dhoni to become India's Mike Brearley, but I feel more and more secure about the future of the expensively-assembled Team India rollercoaster, knowing it's in this man's safe hands.

[Full disclosure: I know Dhoni. Which is to say, I've spent three nights in the same hotel as he did. My friend & I spent a significant amount of our waking hours sneaking around keeping a watch out for his then cack-coloured hair and perpetual you-cannot-be-serious look. (He'd just come back from the disastrous World Cup campaign in the Caribbean.) Future generations of angry nuns will hear affecting tales of the unique and touching moment in the lives of the angry abbess and the legendary wicket-keeper and India captain.]

[YES, I watched the final. And the semi-finals. I did it for Shane Warne, okay? I did it for Shane Warne.]