Wednesday, January 30, 2008

belonging, or not

+ Steven Wells writes a piece about presidential candidates and football that excites me greatly in its disparaging, contemptuous and altogether callous dismissal of the football writing of Franklin Foer. The continuing attempts at satirising Foer descend into waffliness [after all, at some point of time you would like to get over the Foer joke and go into why Hillary Clinton couldn't be anything but a Man United fan] but the article, on the whole, demonstrates why those who did not read Foer's book, "How Soccer Football Explains The World," are missing out on rich opportunities for mockery. I will not go into overlong detail here, except to say in Franklin's favour that he is at least slightly more readable than Jonathan.

+ Yesterday, I wrote about my distaste for the gratuitous flag-waving that accompanied India's cricket victory at Perth. I failed to clarify that I have no feelings whatsoever for the Indian flag, within or 'out a sporting context. This was partly due to the fact that I was sleepy, and partly because, functional democracy or no, India still is a place where you can get into serious trouble -- with the police and the court and everything. I am not kidding, guys. -- for 'disrespecting' the flag in any way, shape or form, and I got a little paranoid. That's right. The flag. Disrespecting the freaking flag. Tonight I feel ashamed enough of my miniscule act of cravenness to come right out and admit that the Indian flag could die tomorrow and take no part of my selfhood with it.

+ I'm not even particularly community-oriented, not in any way that's not meritocratic and possibly somewhat elitist. I would protest very much if someone tried to get me to commit to an institution for the sole purpose of demonstrating a sense of belonging to it. But I do realise the importance of acknowledging a need to belong. Like Gandhianism, and happy endings, the truly positive and truly liberal group identity is a Platonic ideal that improves our worldview for cherishing it. Whether identifying as one Barcelona* fan among many is a step forward in this direction or not [and if you're Joan Laporta reading this, please be advised that I am not optimistic about the chances] is, for the moment, an ineffable question. But it is a question whose parameters are constantly evolving, and nowhere have I seen this expressed better than Brian's subtly-wrought, richly poetic musing on identity and alienation here. Highly, highly recommended reading.

* - I say Barcelona because Franklin Foer, a self-confessed Barca man, devotes an entire chapter in his book to describing how the club is demonstrative of the excellence of nationalism, which, in spite of anything Martha Nussbaum wants you to believe, is actually the way forward for humanity. It is not the most annoying thing I have ever read -- he does one on Iran and football liberating women towards the end -- but it's a bit like having a pig's head thrown at you when you're trying to take a corner.

+ I forgot to mention earlier. I contributed a piece on tolerance and marketing in football, partly re-worked from this post, to Pitch Invasion, the seminal football website of our time. If you don't already read PI [...probably just you then, Mom], you must anon.

+ Finally, a link that has nothing to do with football, but everything to do with life, love and literature: Dario Fo's Nobel acceptance speech, which the roommate discovered I hadn't read yet, and amended speedily.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

cricket: truthiness will out

After a couple of truly beautiful weeks of cricket which allowed us to forget how disgusted we are with the institutions and (some of) the people who run, play and watch the game, it is only proper that we report the whimper that rounds of the series of bangs rocketing about the test at Sydney and the now infamous race row: A court of law has overturned the ban on Harbhajan Singh for his alleged racist remarks. In the face of a dearth of admissible evidence this will appear, to the armchair legal eagles among us, a sensible sort of conclusion to reach. The Guardian's Andy Bull believes otherwise.

While there is no clear explanation of what has happened in this case, the sport will continue to consume itself with accusations and suspicions that something far more Machiavellian in scope has transpired behind the closed doors and among the murky corridors of the ICC. The ongoing, irritating stone-throwing between the baser elements of fans, officials, players and journalists on either side of the sub-continent power bloc v the Anglo-Australian power bloc divide will run on unabated. This is not going to help the sport to be comfortable with its own evolution.

Someone was always going to be shafted by the outcome of this appeal. Had Justice Hansen decided to let the original decision to ban Harbjahan Singh stand, Singh would have been the victim of a trial that would seem unfair in any democratic court of law. If the appeal overturned Mike Procter's verdict, it would put Procter's credentials, already shaky after his famously inept handling of the Darrell Hair affair, in some jeopardy.

I'll admit to being disappointed at the Guardian's knee-jerk reaction to this development, but given the self-righteous frenzy of imagined vindication that is likely to be breaking out around India's news channels right now [and how glad I am that I don't have a telly around at the moment] I suppose it strikes a reasonable balance.

It's been a bad month to be an old-fashioned, repressed codger of a cricket fan. If the appalling lack of civility on display in the Syndey test was not enough, the sight of Harbhajan Singh, banned for the match in Perth, jumping on to the field waving the Indian flag in celebration (after a victory that left most of us witless with joy, admittedly) was detestable in its own special way.

Cricket is a sport played, at the highest level, by roughly fifteen nations, all of whom, at some point of time or other, have been in unhealthy imperial relationships with each other. Nationalism becomes more unpleasant than usual in this atmosphere. And while there's an amount of jingoistic grandstanding permissible in an all-or-nothing knockout tournament like a World Cup, it's a bit ludicrous to come out and unfurl your national colours after a game whose result is the exception to a long and unflattering rule. India has lost a lot more matches in Australia than it has won, and there is absolutely no reason to suppose that the national flag was sullied by those defeats, any more than it acquired some kind of miraculous sheen by a win like this. I can't think of a single Indian in whom the mawkish, manipulative sight of that flag inspired a pride or joy more intense than what it felt like to see this.

Did a 19-year-old from Delhi, slim as a girl and strong as a boy, end an era? You had to have been watching to appreciate the full extent of Ishant Sharma's murderous Saturday-morning spell to Ricky Ponting. This was Ponting as not seen before, a Ponting without reply. If the Australian captain is not his country's second-best batsman of all time, at the very least he is among the top five. For more than an hour Sharma picked him apart until he cut him open.

[Alright, maybe the English got a bit more excited about someone, anyone, being able to stand up to Oz than they should have -- here's hoping poor Ishant Sharma's teenage friends don't read the Telegraph, or he'll never hear the end of 'slim as a girl, strong as a boy' jokes -- but the cricket at Perth was its own reward.]

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

race, guilt and silence


Martha asked, on the Italy Offside blog, about why racism in calcio is not met with more stringent measures.

There are some very good responses to her post, and if you have a thought, I hope you'll contribute to the discussion. I have removed to the fastness of the Angry Nunnery thinking,as you sometimes will, about the why of her why-not question. To me the problem of racism in Italian football is agonising because it seems, from this distance, to be so possible to deal with. Lilian Thuram once spoke, in an interview, of his experience playing for Parma around the turn of the century.

'It was at a Parma-Milan match,' he says, 'when our Parma fans were chanting racist slogans against Ibrahim Ba and George Weah [both Milan players] that I thought how sick this was. The press officer tried to stop me, but I went to see the fans at our training ground and told them what I thought. The next week there was an apologetic banner at the match saying, "Thuram, respect us please!"

Of course, times have changed since then, and ignorance and naivete have never been poorer excuses for bad behaviour than they are ten years on, but I don't feel like the example of Thuram goes amiss. As urbane lefties and football fans, we all know that racism can come from anywhere, and yet the average racial abuser in the imagination of an average liberal footie enthusiast has a particular profile; he is white, male, often young, usually unemployed, or disenfranchised in some way [and usually, especially if you're from outside Italy, in a Lazio jersey. Poor Lazio]. The sort of guy who feels safe in a mob. Who will duck and cower if you confront him. Accurate? Maybe, maybe not. Has anyone ever tried a confrontation, though? Not from behind a desk or a truncheon, but face-to-face, like Lilian Thuram with his home crowd?

I feel that an initiative for change needs to be sustained with emotion and spontaneity, rather than as an institutionalised campaign. We know now that stadium violence in Italy is linked to a deep frustration with the failure of social institutions, and to me, a socety in which offenders are traditionally suspicious of their government, their media, and their footballing establishment is not one in which the stadium ban, the fine, the police clampdown, and the multicoloured wristband, can achieve much more than isolated success. Perhaps this is equally true of England, home of the anti-racism advertising industry, as it is anywhere else. But over the last decade, what the campaigning in England has achieved is the provision of a space in the media where issues of racism and discrimination can and will be foregrounded repeatedly. In November, Juventus fans smuggled a banner into their game against Inter which called Zlatan Ibrahimovic a foul gypsy. The offenders were dealt with near instantly, and the incident reported faithfully and in measured tones by papers like La Gazzetta.

All this can be countenanced; but can you imagine an incident of similar proportions, involving a player of similar stature, meeting with anything like silence in the Premiership? An equivalent in terms of high-profility would be to imagine Arsenal fans racially abusing Cristiano Ronaldo at the Emirates. Young Cristiano is not given to dignified silence on most days, but even were he so, do you imagine a day would have passed before the media, the FA and the club insisted on his lodging a vocal protest? And yet, apart from a short statement by Javier Zanetti in the post-match conference, the Juve case received no personal attention from anyone. To the best of my knowledge, Zlatan's own response to this demeaning abuse is yet to be recorded.

Which is fine; the man has the right to stay quiet, or simply decide that he doesn't give a damn, if that's what it is. The FIGC seems to be doing a better job than in previous years of making sure such incidents do not go unpunished. But the ossification of the chain of incidents into the Isolated Racist Behaviour and the They Are Not Real Football Fans [and therefore not our responsibility?] matched set of administrative platitudes, served up with a We Have It Under Control assurance, is not what Italian football needs. It needs leadership and conviction. It needs its footballers to march up to the sidelines and demand what the fuck fans think they're doing. It requires, instead of corporate social responsibility-fulfilling TV spots, the sight of a football team -- or perhaps both football teams -- refusing to continue a match until an abusive chant is silenced. In a world where the institution is the enemy, something like popular revolution is still possible. One Marco Zoro may have been a lone voice in a storm. But four or five, acting with intent, will do much better.


I would also like to talk about guilt and how its absence plays a large part in attitudes to racism in sport. I am thinking of this, not just in relation to England [and Italy], but to India and our knee-jerk defensiveness at having Harbhajan Singh accused of racist abuse during the last Test at Sydney. We live in an incredibly divided society, and almost all of us suffer from a lack of privilege to various extents. But you would be hard-pressed to find too many of us to sympathise with Andrew Symonds for being allegedly trodden, however briefly, under the jackboot of racial oppression. Part of this may have to do with the sheer ludicrousness of said jackboot belonging to a man several shades darker than he. But I also think that our discourse about race and colour, in this country, has absolutely no place in it for guilt. Indian society is casually referred to as among the most racist in the world, but there is almost no way to put the matter in perspective against the backdrop of our recent history, one in which even the most privileged Indians, until sixty years ago, were enslaved by Empire. I think liberal attitudes in England about racial discrimination have been informed incredibly heavily by the weight of their part in this history, which accounts for both the backlash against immigrants [and the immigration phenomenon itself, in the first place] and the development of racial sensitivity. Perhaps a similar path can be traced down the history of the United States.

It's really frustrating to some people that this sort of thing puts them in a Catch-22 situation. As I said in my last post, not only do they have to deal with racism -- a problem with which their own relationship is unique -- but also with racial sensitivity, in a framework that is dictated to them by people on practically the opposite end of the spectrum. I resent this. If anyone asked me whether I detected a smack of real racism in the backlash against Harbhajan and the BCCI's bumbling attempts to bully the international cricket fraternity into placing him above suspicion, I would say, having first clarified that I think the BCCI are criminally stupid and that Bhajji, if he did call Symonds a monkey, deserves no softening of blows, that I did.

I will go out on a limb and say that perhaps football in Italy grapples with some of the same problems in its own mediation with race issues. I mulled in an earlier post over how hooliganism in Italy is in not comparable to the English situation of old, and how pointless it is for the English-led international media to tar Roman ultras and the protagonists of Hillsborough and Heysel with the same brush. It's the same with the issue of racism. Italy is not a post-Colonial nation, but it is a country with enough experience on being at the receiving end of racism and discrimination against its emigrant populations to retain, perhaps, some of the confusion and victim-mentality of the mindset in India. It is an absolute truth to say that there are no excuses for racism. But it's much, much easier for some people to say it than others, and it's counter-productive to ignore that.

That dormancy of the guilt of privilege is why I think force of personality will succeed, in the sporting arena, even if change takes time to percolate through society itself. Part of the reason the Bhajji-Symonds fracas put so many backs up among us is that we were, of course, convinced that in the final reckoning, it came down to the word of two brown men against the representatives of a white team, and the white guys won out. One of those brown men was Sachin Tendulkar, who categorically stated that Harbhajan was not guilty of racial abuse. We were all enraged by the cricketing system's implication that Tendulkar would tell anything but the truth. But imagine if, in a different situation, Sachin Tendulkar had made it a matter of principle to say the opposite. There would be a few people who would be outraged at the thought of India's icon going against his own people to snitch on his teammate. But most of us, perhaps, would have found it easier to accept the lack of excuses afforded to us.

If Alessandro del Piero had made it a matter of principle to take a moment out of the Derby dell' Italia to protest a racist banner, perhaps it would have been easier to set the ball rolling.


I hope this wasn't too upsetting to read, if you have come to the end of it; I do not usually go to footie blogs expecting to find wrung-out spins on postcolonialism in my reading matter,especially when they're written mostly in qualifying clauses instead of actual sentences. But it was either this or something on Milan finally winning a game at home, and sorry, but no. I can't find anything to say about Pato. The loss is no doubt all mine, but nothing in the world has yet induced me to find seventeen year old boys remotely interesting. So I will just say RONIE IS BACK, BITCHES! in presumptuous glee, and leave the rest to the imagination.


Thursday, January 10, 2008

bollyline link central

AMAZING. A sport in which left-arm unorthodox deliveries are still blithely called 'Chinamen,' a sport with such unfocused, disparate locuses of power and privilege [the brown people have the money, the white people have the aspirational value], and not only the debate on racism, but also the mechanisms of dealing with that racism, are all the same, same, same.

I wish I could imagine how this whole thing would have turned out if Harbhajan, on being bullied about sexual preferences, or aspersions on the virtue of his female family members, had held back his attempt at ironic racism, and just gone ahead and headbutted Symonds. No excuses about evidence, no wriggle room, no justifications. He’d have really earned his three-match ban for that. I would have been shocked and disapproving, and Gandhian India would lie exposed in its hypocrisy and unable to excuse itself. And everyone, everyone who has gathered these last few days across the world to use this incident to make point and counterpoint about sportsman spirit and bad captaincy, would have had a moment of absolutely cathartic satisfaction. Because on his good days, Ricky Ponting makes Marco Materazzi look like the angel he likes to proclaim he is.


On to links:

Peter Roebuck's stirring call for Ricky Ponting to be removed from captaincy, the day after the test, in a morning column for the Sydney Morning Herald that will no doubt occupy central position in the body of journalism that has collected around the issue.

Greg Baum took a more measured view in the same edition, asking both sides to just grow the hell up and move on.

Australia now cares as much about how they win as winning itself. Well, after three consecutive World Cups, it's about time.

The Harbhajan ban: a cross cultural view. [Someone on Google Groups dissects it with a deft sociological scalpel. NB: I haven't read the whole thing yet.]

Harbhajan is the victim here. It's nice how all these Aussies [and Poms] are standing up for the kid, but let's not forget that he is an annoying man who, while certainly innocent to my mind until more evidence of his racist remarks is provided, is more than capable of being quite an unpleasant fuck.

Just ban sledging altogether says Tim de Lisle in Cricinfo. Sledging always walks a fine line, Simon Barnes in The Times reminds us. Point taken. Banning something to make life simpler, though, is a little silly.

Dileep Premachandran on the uniformity of the Indian reaction. Nice. Some righteous self-hating anger. I feel it too. We are the equivalent of the average Daily-Mailer England fans when it comes to cricket in this country. Dileep also wrote an earlier blog on the Aussies' behaviour losing them friends.

[to be added to...]

Monday, January 7, 2008

reporting for duty

Apologies for the protracted silence over the holiday season - I have been in the process of packing and moving cities, which, as anyone who has had the pleasure of doing so will tell you, is no mean task. The bally things are most resistant to budging.

[The mini-hiatus may also be interpreted in footballing terms as the obligatory period of mourning after a derby loss, but having covered this particular ground let us move quickly along, as though the subject were never spoken of.]

I write to you now from the fair city of Calcutta, having traversed the breadth of my country, all the way across from my hometown of Bombay. It is said that, had the Indian National Congress not centered its political activities [in main, resisting the yoke of Empire] increasingly in Bombay around the turn of the nineteenth century, the country’s sporting culture might have had football occupying the centre and the imagination of the masses, instead of cricket. It would be specious to call Calcutta a footballing city; it would be doing a disservice to Eden Gardens, and the enthusiastically occupied nets on the sporting fields of my campus, and the many and varied products advertised by that lion among men, Sourav Ganguly, on billboards by the sides of the road all the way from the airport to the heart of the city, and others besides. But it has more football to it than Bombay does, certainly. It has a footballing culture. It is home to clubs that are named after associations and regions, rather than their sponsor companies, and to Asia’s oldest derby, among other things. But more on that as the angry nun comes to grips with her new surroundings, and tries, once again, to learn to do laundry successfully without the help of a washing machine. A belated but heartfelt happy 2008 to all. May your footballing lives all be roundly miserable unless we support the same clubs, but filled with items of interest otherwise.

Two things: For a city with footballing culture the parts of Calcutta I have been inhabiting lack greatly in the one thing ubiquitous in Bombay, viz. replica football jerseys, of the cheap, suffocating polyester that keeps one agreeably warm in the middle of the cold wave that is hitting us here. So far I have only seen one person wear such a thing. [It was, funnily enough, a vintage Milan one. Jaundiced eye?]

The other: in the corner of a foreign field there remains a piece of Bombay; it was four days and a defeat ago, but I am glad that the last great cricketing act I was able to follow before leaving home was this magnificent Sachin Tendulkar century. It felt like the return of an old, beloved friend. One almost turned one’s head to look for Shane Warne grinning ruefully at the bowler’s end.