Friday, April 18, 2008

such men are dangerous

The thing that has made me feel most at home, every time I have returned to my home city after a spell elsewhere, has been the unlimited access to media bilge. In both Hyderabad and Calcutta newspapers were solely read online, and TV was thin on the ground. So while the first evening home is, for me, about the ineffable pleasure of seeing the city lit up at night and sitting down to a meal of the maternal making, the morning after is when the fact of my being in Bombay really hits home: I brush my teeth, grab my dish of tea, and sit down to lose myself in the gutter press. Ah, Mumbai Mirror, I say to myself, taking up the supplement and peering upon its foetid plumpness. Oh, Bombay Times, I sigh, flipping through the diamond jewellery ads and plugs for chocolate-making classes. Mid-Day, I coo, my good old Mid-Day, as I set out after lunch to the library and take a copy of the world's greatest afternoon tabloid to while away the train journey to Churchgate.

This time the pleasure has been dampened considerably. Part of it may have to do with my sprained ankle, but most of it has to do with a phenomenon so abominable it seems to have sprung fully-formed out of the editorial black hole formed at the heart of the Times of India. It is called the Indian Premier League, and is a Twenty20 cricket tournament that threatens to stretch on for the next forty-five days over the length and breadth of the country. City will fight city like armies on a darkling plain. The teams are named after mosquito repellents and beers. They are owned by business tycoons and Bollywood superstars. I say teams -- I really mean an egregious collection of star cricketers from all over the world who agreed to be auctioned off to the highest bidders for the pleasure of earning themselves a tidy packet.

I have little beef with the Twenty20 format -- there's too much advertising and the uniforms are unseemly [if you go to today's edition of the Daily Telegraph, you will see that England's Twenty20 kit looks like Liverpool's football jersey.] but in this day and age it does feel like an intolerable snobbery to yearn after the traditional form of a game that simply cannot be watched in a sustained fashion by anyone who has to earn their daily bread, and while the short-short may be a difficult format for bowlers, I think, like all reasonable sporting innovation, it may be the chance to bring about some sort of unforeseen but positive development in an aspect of the game itself. Mike Brearley wrote a fine piece for the Observer in which he talks more about the advantages of the Twenty20 game, and the creative demands it may make on spin bowling, among other things.

But I'll tell you what. You live in the same country as this money-spinning exercise, this IPL, and you tell me if it doesn't make you want to vomit. Did you ever imagine the day Rahul Dravid would buckle down with the boot of Vijay Mallya upon his neck? Rahul Dravid leading a team called the Royal Challengers? The cynicism of this whole deal almost makes the English Premier League look like a non-profit organisation to bring culture to the colonies. Who the hell are the Kolkata Knight Riders? Bitch, I say, please.

[A note about the name of the 'team' representing the financial clout of my hometown: I don't know why they're called the Mumbai Indians. It's either an incredibly tasteless attempt to borrow from one of your American sports teams' appropriation of Native American history, or a breathtakingly arrogant play on the city's status as a microcosm of the country. I harbour the forlorn hope that it is the latter, in spite of my determination to pay them no mind. The angriest nuns are often the most partisan.

The reason I know they are called the Mumbai Indians is that today, there was a plug in the papers describing some sort of ceremony to anoint the mercenaries of this particular collective. The rite they held ended in the entire team having a tika applied to their foreheads that contained, among other things, soil from the grounds of Shivaji Park. As anyone with a passing interest in the history of Indian cricket will know, Shivaji Park is the arid, dusty space in the centre of the city that has been a breeding ground for the glorious cricket teams of Bombay, and whence some of the greatest names of the Indian game. The same culture out of which the IPL has sprung has changed, perhaps irreversibly, the role of Shivaji Park, and the Oval, and other amateur academies in big cities all over the country. I'm not sitting in judgment of developments. I just want to remark on the coincidence.]

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

handbags. no, really. handbags.

My flight from Calcutta to Mumbai was interminable, and to stave off crushing boredom I spent my time copying amusing passages from John Foot's comprehensive, if Inter-biased Calcio, a handy tome for everyone with a desire to learn more about Italian football, or for those requiring a reference that will tell you useful things about what Denis Law really got up to in his time in Italy, and so on.

His chapters on the Lazio of the Seventies and the chequered career of Giorgio Chinaglia are unimprovable, although you could never argue that he had to struggle with his raw material. This is what I mean:

--The Lazio team of the 1970s was often involved in violence, on and off the pitch. The most infamous incidents of all involved two English clubs - Arsenal and Ipswich - both of whom played against Lazio in Europe in the Fairs Cup, a forerunner of the UEFA Cup, in the 1970s. Arsenal were holders of the trophy when they drew Lazio in the first round of the 1970 competition. Two John Radford goals at home put the Gunners in control, but Chinaglia struck twice near the end to snatch a draw. The match had been dirty, but everything seemed to have been smoothed over at a luxurious dinner in a central Rome restaurant. The two teams sat at separate tales, apart from Chinaglia, who chatted amiably with his old Swansea teammate, Arsenal's defender, John Roberts. Then, without warning, all hell broke loose.

There are different versions as to what sparked the fight. According to one, the trouble began when the Arsenal players complained about the 'effeminate' little bags they were given as presents by Lazio, and started throwing them about. Years later, Roberts would say, in a kind of sartorial mea culpa, 'looking back those leather purses were those days British men wouldn't have carried them around but now they would.' In any case, a Lazio player threw one of the purses into Bob McNab's face, and then grabbed his ear. Soon, 'the refined restaurant was transformed into a bar full of pirates fighting over their treasure.' The players piled outside and laid into each other, egged on by the two managers, including Lorezo, the Argentinian who had led his national team during the 1966 World Cup, and perhaps had a score or two to settle. Incredibly, Chinaglia stayed out of it.

Would attempting to link the modern use of the term 'handbags' in football to this incident be purposeless? I see it as a sort of chicken-and-egg thing, myself

Friday, April 11, 2008

mohun bagan 2-2 new york cosmos

To celebrate my last forty-eight hours in Calcutta I feel I can do no better than to set down here the story of a football game, as told to us tonight by Abhijit, to whom all credit must be given for the following narrative.

In 1977, former gateway of the British Empire and present cauldron of intellectual ferment and revolution, the great city of Calcutta, played host to an extraordinary game: the last-but-one ever played by the legend, O Rey himself, Pele. Yes, the New York Cosmos flew down to play a match against Mohun Bagan FC, one half of Asia's oldest derby and the pride of [several] Indian football fans everywhere. The city was in an uproar. Everywhere little booklet biographies of Pele were published, sold and bought in droves. [Abhijit still has one of them], Calcutta having always been a literary city, and the merchandising juggernaut as yet a glint in the eye of international football [one assumes]. The game was to be played at Eden Gardens at the end of September. Pele arrived, but with him came a torrential monsoon shower, leaving the pitch clogged with water. The great man was seen looking upon the sight of the slush with sombre countenance, and the city worried: would they see him play at all?

They did, the day after. Abhijit went to watch the game at a neighbour's, where the crowd around the television was about forty- or fifty-strong. Everyone had gathered to take in the sight of Pele. As these things often go, though, he was largely anonymous. Perhaps it was the slush that put him off his game. At any rate, Mohun Bagan scored two brilliant goals, and the Cosmos were one behind. Pele's genius asserted itself in one single moment, a long, curling free-kick that was saved by Shivaji Bandhopadhyay, the MBFC goalkeeper, in what was undoubtedly the moment of the match. The match, the only chance an Indian team ever had to play against Pele, chugged closer and closer to being the only chance an Indian team ever had to play and win against Pele, when, in the seventieth minute, the all-too-thinkable occurred - the referee awarded the Cosmos a dodgy penalty. It was taken and buried by Giorgio Chinaglia, and Pele had himself an undeserved, but by no means begrudged, draw.


Over thirty years later Calcutta has a football stadium in Salt Lake that can hold as many spectators as the Maracana itself. The weather is still unpredictable, as far as I can tell from my limited first-hand experience. It may rain before May 27th, but hopefully it will be a better pitch that greets Oliver Kahn, who will play his last game for Bayern Munich and professional football on that day in this city, against Mohun Bagan. Will the little biography booklets [printed off Wikipedia?] sell alongside the fake jerseys now? Will the crowd chant his name as they did Pele's on that day? Yes, I think, and yes, I'm sure. I am told that Baichung Bhutia, India's captain and Mohun Bagan's foremost talent, has expressed a profound fear of what it might mean to Indian football if this game, played on both sides to the full extent of their capabilities, is taken to its logical ends, which would surely result in the sort of scoreline for which San Marino's national team makes 'Oddly Enough' football headlines now and again. Could he take heart from the thought that Toni and Ribery, to name just two, will almost certainly not be there to terrorise his fragile back line? Could he forget, for a moment, that India believes that it has more to lose from a sporting defeat now than it did in 1977, and remember instead that he belongs to a team that almost put one over Pele himself?

I rooted about and found this colourful account of the Cosmos-MB game, which tells the story without the singular verve of Abhijit's account, to which I have done little justice, but with le belle emozioni, as Giorgio Chinaglia himself might say.


Speaking of [in] Italian, here is a fact: very little on my Reader affords me a pleasure as unalloyed as today's Gazzetta headline: Mutu come Batistuta Viola senza limiti. Rangers next. Who knows what dreams may come?

[And speaking of Bhutia, a reminder of what he has been in the headlines for, other than being nervous about facing a goal with Oliver Kahn in it in the near future: he is one of the world's first athletes to have refused to carry the Olympic torch this year. The quiet dignity of his expression of solidarity with the Tibetan freedom movement has not prevented him from becoming a hero in this country. I am very glad of his existence.]

Saturday, April 5, 2008

the face of fear

It was easy enough to sustain writing about football with no real access to it for two months, but then it kind of palled, and this whole business about the Champions' League being dominated by the English and William Gaillard airily threatening to take the CL final away from Rome if there was trouble in the city during their game with Manchester United really got me down for a while. As I write this India has just lost a test to South Africa by an innings and 90 runs, which is as shameful as anything I remember from the dark years of '96-'97. And I'm trying not to claw my face off in pain from a pair of sinuses inflamed by Bengali weather's moody inclemence. [Either that, or it was the mouldy stuff in the, Mum, no, I'm kidding. We clean it out every week and restock the vegetables every three days, for real.]

I will be back in Bombay next week, though, so once the hopeful self-medication works/the European semis roll around, I should hopefully be back in business on Blogger.

An innings and ninety runs. And the worst of it is, I'm not even surprised.

Oh, PS, though: Pippo Inzaghi scored a brace today. It was like picking Leave It To Psmith off the bookshelves after a middling absence and finding it as hilarious as the last time you read it.