Thursday, February 25, 2010

look away please, i am being sentimental.

Context. Context for people who don't follow cricket.

I was over-Googling Sachin Tendulkar today, and I came across a piece in the archives of Outlook magazine, a cover story by the historian Ram Guha on the fraught and loaded question of How History Will Judge Tendulkar.

...That he is so marvellously cool about this is perhaps the most remarkable thing about him. His gifts of character, if anything, exceed his cricketing gifts. Look into yourself, dear reader, and examine afresh how you react to a child who wails at night, to a hard disk that crashes when you are finishing a book, to an examination paper that is to be answered at eight the next morning. We routinely respond with anger or dis-belief to the most trivial tests of character. Yet this man meets with complete equanimity the intensely magnified and completely unfair expectations of a billion of his countrymen.

It was written eleven years ago.

A word for MS Dhoni. It takes a spine of steel to be batting the last balls of an innings with Sachin at the other end of the crease on 199. His concentration never wavered, neither did his determination. He stood there and racked up boundaries and sixes in spite of the fact that the entire stadium, the entire country, was yelling at him to give Tendulkar the strike. He had his eye on the team's score and he pulled it past 400. It was great batting, great, professional teamwork, and great captaincy. I've said it before: Dhoni is an emblem of this point in India's cricketing history, and he is everything we have hoped for in a successful batsman and a captain. We are lucky to have him.

It's now complicated to feel this way about Sachin. Can someone like that belong to you, to your team, to your time? Beyond a point, isn't all of that just chauvinism? Isn't it only that you are letting some part of you be defined by the fact that you are of their time? Sport cannot define a nation and its character. It's just love that nourishes those fantasies. Last night, Tendulkar said, "I do not know how to react to this but I would like to dedicate this double hundred to all the people of India who stood with me for the last 20 years and supported me no matter what. There have been ups and downs, but they stood behind me."

But you stood behind us, too. That's what we meant to say when we yelled at Dhoni to give you the strike.

Monday, February 1, 2010

book review: four years too late

I'm book logging through 2010 as an informal, self-disciplinary project [neither as louche nor as painful as it sounds, I promise you] over here, my old haunt o' generalities. I've also just returned from the Jaipur Literature Festival, where puzzlingly enough, no sports were played. Someday I hope Pitch Invasion can host a panel there. Here, I cross-post my thoughts on a book I ought to have read have read four years ago but only got down to tackling at the start of this year. Suggestions for the august festival to include cricket and football in its annual schedule to follow shortly.

The Italian Job, Gianluca Vialli and Gabriele Marcotti

I was annoyed within the first twenty pages of this book by the writing, which seemed to me to be bent on underselling its solid ideas to some ideal reader who is suspicious of reading anything that doesn't come wrapped around a fried snack. ['To map a footballer's ability, let's plot his characteristics by drawing an x and y axis (For those of you who weren't paying attention in geometry, this is a cross).'] It is a book that consciously positions itself in relation to the sort of football coverage we see in English tabloids, both in terms of what it tries to be (simple! breezy! smart!) and what it won't be (gossipy, prejudiced, sensationalist). Would Vialli and Marcotti have written the same book today that they did four years ago, post the blogular explosion, the broadsheets stealing a march over the tabloids in online brand-building, and the intensified debate over English football's gentrification?

I don't think so. More importantly because I can't see how they would now deal with the other side of its subject? Like the other major overviews on Italian football (John Foot, Calcio and Paddy Agnew, Forza Italia), it was written before Calciopoli, before the World Cup, before Filippo Raciti and Gabriele Sandri. I sincerely believe that had any of these books come out even six months after the trials we would be asking different questions about Italian football - and that's why, in spite of its many successes, the book already feels like its shaping an irrelevant argument. It's constructing an opposition that doesn't really matter. [I know that's not a bad thing, I'm just pointing it out.] But I appreciate Vialli's resistance to simply writing a charming out-of-the-ordinary travelogue about his career in Italian and English football. He and Marcotti are clearly geeks of the first order when it comes to soaking up opinions and facts, about the technicalities of training and attendances and television habits and stuff, and they lay it out really well in the book. The style gets less cutesy as the book goes on, and while they make the same points that Foot and Agnew do, they are far more interested in laying them out as journalistic arguments than in the style of the factual compendium [Foot] or the credible but subjective memoir [Agnew]. I don't think they are critical enough of either football culture: then again, it may be the gap of four years talking.

Stuff I liked:
+ The whole section on referees, which intersperses observations on the culture of refereeing in England and Italy with interviews with Graham Poll and Pierluigi Collina, as well as the section on managing time in football - apparently there is a FIFA reco that states that matches must aim to keep the ball in play for sixty minutes: most matches today manage an average of fifty-two out of ninety.
+ One of Vialli's rare dips into his personal history as a pro: playing the 1990 semi-final against Argentina in Napoli. Amazing and creepy, 'like playing under water,' he says, because no one actually didn't cheer for Italy because of Maradona, they were just - muffled.
+ Jose Mourinho. No one gives interview as good as this man. Vialli and Marcotti gad about talking to a number of smart people: they get Capello, who is crusty and smart and Lippi, who is suave and smart, and Wenger, who is smart in his dogmatic way and Ferguson, who is smart in his totally calculating way. Mourinho is still the best.
+ The section on managers explaining tactics, which includes the gem of the fact that Luis Felipe Scolari apparently gave all the 2002 Brazil team copies of The Art of War. Cafu said it helped him win the World Cup. CAFU. DON'T YOU JUST LOVE FOOTBALL?
+ The sub-section on ultras.

I think the journalistic approach works weakest when they're talking about the fans [and why fandom is different in both countries, why fans are this here and so there]: this is where all their careful planning and their continuous battle against ethnocentrism breaks down in spite of their best efforts. There's a lot of guff from Wenger about the Anglo-Saxon temperament and the Latin temperament, and I hate that people actually think this sort of talk works outside of novels to prove anything. There's also a lovely little idea from one of the interviewees about the Italian fan worshipping the club in the abstract, as an article of faith, while the English fan supports the club as a part of his identity. While I don't think the binary stands culturally, I do think it's an interesting way to maybe categorise fans as a whole. The guy who says this says it's why the fan of 'the abstract' is much less inclined to defend their club, and much more willing to criticise, though, abd I don't know about that. I think faith in an abstract can also lead to a tolerance for its physical manifestation, no matter how un-ideal, that is quite durable. There's no reason why it wouldn't help you assume respect in the first place. I know a lot of people who, like me, weren't particularly interested in having Ronaldinho or Beckham play for their club, but who, once they came, imposed the same expectations on them as they would on other Milan players, and gave them the same presumptive goodwill.

Would I recommend this book? Yes. Would I rec it if you knew nothing about Italian football? Yes. Would I rec it if you knew nothing about English football? Questionable. It's written for English fans looking across to Italy. Would I recommend it if you are interested in history? Yes. Not in the way I would recommend Foot, who wrote an actual history, but to see how football changes, how its narratives change, and to wonder about how long it will last.