This is My Generation. The End, almost.

Leander Paes, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly are all a few months to 1 year older than me. Bhaichung Bhutia is 2 years younger. These five people have been my contemporaries literally. And their life over the last 25 odd years has, in many ways, mirrored my own. The contexts are different but the questions are the same. The similar conflicts of choice, responsibilities, ambition and aspirations. The shared pain of graduating from random teenage dabbling to becoming a contender and then becoming class, the pressure of maintaining that class and trying to evolve oneself and maintain relevance and motivation as the environment changes and age and cynicism kicks in. I have followed the careers of these five people not just because they play a sport that one has an interest in but also because they faced and struggled with and overcame the same life questions as I did, at the same time as me.

The retirement of Sachin Tendulkar from active sport (he still has to play a couple of tests) makes it 80% down for my generation. That Leander is still around winning Grand Slams is something that, in a way, does not surprise one at all, given how one has seen him over the years. Of course, he does not wince when Patrick McEnroe calls him a senior citizen. He wears that tag quite openly and is still a medal contender at the Olympics, even with a rookie who did not even have a pair of shoes.

Given these almost parallel lives that one has lived with, it would be too shallow and meaningless to call myself a fan of any of these players. To me, each one represents a model of, a way of life in a way, of what an Indian can do. We all have our talents and abilities and our respective areas of interests, aspirations and passions. These five people demonstrate a very human and ergo realistic way of bringing all of those things to life in spectacular fashion, not just for a short burst of 15 minutes but for an entire lifetime of a generation, a quarter of a century. And more. These five people are not supermen who come from a different planet and have different non-human qualities. They come from the same social milieu (barring Bhaichung Bhutia whose background is far different from the urban middle class environs of the other four) as me (heck, Sachin flunked HSc, something that I was in danger off till I managed to get some tuitions classes) and I can see and empathise with their failings as many of those failings are issues that me and most people of our times face and have faced.

Bhaichung has moved off the football field for India but continues to score goals through his wards from his football schools and the United Sikkim club he founded to give opportunities to fellow Sikkimese people like him. He is the biggest voice India have in football and given his age, his role as a coach and manager is going to be huge.

Sourav and Rahul have moved on, immediately, to some commentary duties but there would be, no doubt, some more productive activities that they are likely to turn towards in due course.

Which brings us to Sachin. What is he going to do? This is a question that he has been asking himself for the last 5 years. It is a genuine fear. Sachin took to top level competitive cricket since his age crossed double figures. Since then, he has done nothing else. Like a software programmer who spends 30 years in the trade and knows only coding (and over the years has become brilliant at it). Take away the coding job of the software programmer, what is he to do? He has not bothered to engage with anything else. He has no other skills or affinities or preferences. Without the coding problems, he has no meaning in his life. Like actors who find it difficult to adjust to life when they retire, a Norma Desmondesque schizophrenia grips such people.

Sachin knows everything there is know about playing cricket. But that’s it. From the repeated use of the phrase (and variations of it) “It’s hard to imagine a life without playing cricket because it’s all I’ve ever done since I was 11,” it is very clear, this is a very big fear in his life. (A fear all of us have).

I, for one, never understand this whole farce of asking people to retire. It is the selectors’ job to pick and drop players. A player has the full right and freedom to play till whatever age he or she wants. This is true for all professions. A journalist can continue to write even if he or she has turned senile and is in advanced stage of dementia. It is for the editor to decide whether the copy is legible and publishable. Sachin was perfectly right in continuing to play and believe that he was helping Team India.

In the last test series against Australia, while most people, the regular hecklers who measure human achievement in quantitative terms QSQT (quarter se quarter taka company is as good as the earnings announced last quarter), claim he did not score a single century, I believe he played an innings that made the series a one sided one for India. In fact, one does not have to take the full innings. Just 3 shots. 1st test match, 12/2 in the first innings, replying to the Australian score of 380, given the performance against England in the previous series, it could very well have become 20/5. James Pattinson was easily the best bowler for the Australians in the entire series. In his 2 overs and 2 deliveries, he produced a burst of speed (150kph yorker to knock out Murali Vijay, 147kph shortish ball that Sehwag couldn’t control, it rolled on to the stumps) that saw the two openers walk back. In came Tendulkar in the middle of the 3rd over from Pattinson and he smashed 3 fours in 4 deliveries, all of which were above 144kph. This had shades of the Dale Steyn – Tendulkar tussle in the South African series in the previous season. The best bowler of the team being played out by Tendulkar. Leaving the rest of the batsmen to play the lesser bowlers. Almost the same happened here. Pattinson was out of the attack and the rest of the Indian team were happy to play a docile Australian bowling attack.  The phrase “India won the test quite easily in the end” is a bit misleading. Without that show of intent in the 6th over of the innings, things could have been vastly different.

The idea of Tendulkar, for me, stays in those moments. There are countless of them and this patch of 4 deliveries was one of them. I don’t really care about his not scoring centuries. (In fact, centuries are a bit like the photographs that people take once they reach the top of Mount Everest. Only the last step, probably the easiest, is seen. Not the climb itself.) He doesn’t have to. There are 10 other people in the team who are equally obliged to play for Team India. They can score those centuries.

The model of Tendulkar has always been to enter the worst challenges possible and try to win over it. And to do so, one has to be simply world class. Nothing less will do. Sometimes you succeed, sometime you don’t. Sometimes it is brave, sometimes it is foolish. But it is an idea worth appreciating. It’s an idea worth adopting.


Messi v Rest of the World

Richard Williams in the Guardian writes:

It is the measure of Messi’s greatness that no one ever talks about how much he is paid, or about the women he goes out with. Any conversation on the 24-year-old maestro will be so occupied with his feats on the pitch that there is no room for gossip. For the past half-dozen seasons the entire world of football has been beguiled by the way this little man skips, dances, wriggles and scuttles between defenders, scoring beautiful goals from all angles and any range. And when he celebrates, it is with the same modesty that he appears to conduct his life off the pitch.

And watch the greatest goal of all time (~ 1.00 minute mark)


Football in Wimbledon

I don’t follow English football too much and the only interesting thing about Wimbledon’s football team that I can offhand recollect is Vinnie Jones’ famous grab of Paul Gascoigne’s privates.

But this story of Wimbledon building a new club from scratch makes for a very good piece of sports writing.

It amounted to the only case of identity theft of a club in the nearly 150 years of English tradition. Four Wimbledon fans rebelled. They called for open tryouts for players willing to start up a new club, A.F.C. Wimbledon. The tryouts, held on Wimbledon Common in June 2002, attracted 250 volunteers. Players came from near and far, including one from Finland and another who was a member of Chile’s under-21 national team.

I wonder now that the EPL is full of Arab sheikhs and Russian dons and Indian chicken barons, what if Manchester United decided to relocate to, let’s say, Doha?

Not exactly Annus Mirabilis For Football

When Spain and Netherlands stepped on to the Calabash for the final of World Cup in July early this year, there was an expectation that we would see something new. Not the dance of the Brazilians, not the mechanics of the Germans (though to be fair their team in 2010 WC was as un-German as it could get), not the catenaccio of the Italians. Possibly we were expecting the flair of the Spanish clashing with the total football of the Dutch. Instead, what we got was, in the words of this column in NYT:

The game, which ended in a deserved 1-0 win for Spain over a cynical Netherlands side thanks to Andres Iniesta’s winner four minutes before the end of extra time, was a spiteful affair of 13 yellow cards and a sending-off for Dutchman Johnny Heitinga.

I switched off the telly after the first half.

The exit of the French, the Italians and the English were, if anything, expected. A largely over rated squad of over paid football soloists who have been patched up to play could hardly have been expected to do much. The real surprise of the world cup were the Germans – Loew’s young squad made up of a motley crew of Turks, Ghanaians, Poles, Tunisians, Slavs and Germans displayed a brand of football more associated with Latin America. Schweinsteiger, Khedira and Oezil’s runs setting up Klose, Podolski and Gomes were truly worth watching and some of the few gems we would remember.

The player of the tournament of course was Diego Forlan.

Samuel E’too has been named African footballer of the year. His rivals were Didier Drogba and Asamoah Gyan. However, for me, the real star from Africa in this year’s World Cup was the Nigerian goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama who kept Messi out of the score sheet.

We also have two new hosts – Russia and Qatar.

And India, who qualified for the 2011 Asian Nations Cup to be held in Doha sometime in Jan-Feb, have been losing all their friendlies recently putting to question 4 years of training regimen prescribed by Bob Houghton. And Bhaichung is not fully fit.

And finally a tribute to a coach who for a brief period made Italy an attractive team to watch – Enzo Bearzot.

“The miracle in Spain in 1982 took place, despite fierce criticism by journalists (who led him to introduce the novelty of the press blackout),” according to the Italian magazine, Oggi, which added in a blog post: “he managed to lead the national team to the top of the world thanks to moral preparation, based on the strength of group, as well as technical.”

What so angered the Italian press at the time was Bearzot’s insistence that the Italy team play an entirely different style from the defensive, conservative version of soccer practiced by most of the country’s professional teams.

“Enzo Bearzot transformed Italian football from a deadly labyrinth of ultra-defensive tedium into a modern compendium of lightning skills and progressive strategy which restored World Cup-winning glory to his country,” writes Jeff Powell, sports columnist for the Daily Mail in London, who covered Bearzot during the ‘82 World Cup.

“For me, football should be played with two wingers, a centerforward and a playmaker. That’s the way I see the game. I select my players and then I let them play the game, without trying to impose tactical plans on them. You can’t tell Maradona, ‘Play the way I tell you.’ You have to leave him free to express himself. The rest will take care of itself,” Bearzot had said.

Football Profiles: Vela

On 2nd October 2005, this young lad of 16 scored a goal in the 31st minute to put Mexico 1-0 against Brazil. It was the final of the FIFA u-17 World Cup. It was also the lad’s 5th goal of the tournament. Mexico won 3-0 and the lad won the Golden Boot.

22 days later, his home in Cancun was washed away by Hurricane Wilma. Chivas de Guadalajara came to sign him up, the lad asked for help in finding a new home for his family.

But before Guadalajara could sign him up, Arsenal grabbed him in November 2005 for five years. Carlos Vela was off to London. Arsene Wenger saw in him the future of Arsenal, the young man who would take over with the exit of Henry.

I don’t really care much for the English Premier League, not the least because of the heightened self-righteousness that Englishmen have regarding the “high standards” of the league (Jimmy Greaves puts Pele as no. 2 best footballer ever – not no.1 because Pele never played in England)

But football is a beautiful game and it is characters like Vela that make it worthwhile to switch on the TV. And so it was that I saw the last 10 minutes of the Arsenal – Blackpool game today and there were two fantastic pieces of magic by Vela which made me want to put up this post.

And what’s Wenger’s philosophy about picking up 16 year old prodigies from around the world? This:

“Why do I do it?” Wenger asked. “That’s the privilege of being a long time inside the club. You can win or lose but you can also give a culture and a way to play the game that lives beyond you.”

But what’s a football blog post without a video clip of goals. Here’s from Vela’s first match, Arsenal v Sheffield in 2008.

From the football pitch to the stable

An excellent piece of sports writing introduces me to the world of Mick Channon, a former England and Southampton footballer and now the trainer of over 200 thoroughbreds with over 100 winners every season.

The writer hooked me in with these opening lines:

Every athlete knows the feeling, the fear of the void that comes as early as midlife. You are 30-something, you have put your body on the line since childhood, but the responses no longer meet the demands, and any amount of money you might have stored up will not replace the buzz of competing with the best

“If you don’t have anything to get up for in the mornings, you might as well be dead,” was how Mick Channon summed up the end of a soccer career that stretched from 1965 to 1987. “The tears, the highs, the lows, you miss it all.”

Through this article did a search on Mick Channon and came across this great goal from back in 1982

A great buildup by Southampton led by Keegan on the left. Incidentally, Keegan was one of Mick Channon’s first owners.

The truly World Cup

In 2006, we had

  1. Germany
  2. Spain
  3. Italy
  4. England
  5. France
  6. Netherlands
  7. Portugal
  8. Sweden
  9. Ukraine
  10. Switzerland
  11. Ecuador
  12. Mexico
  13. Ghana
  14. Argentina
  15. Brazil
  16. Australia

A bit of analysis: World Cup champions – 6; Europe – 10

Let’s look at 2010:

  1. Uruguay
  2. Paraguay
  3. Argentina
  4. Brazil
  5. Chile

All five countries from South America including the three previous World Cup winners

  1. Japan
  2. Korea

The two best teams from Asia

  1. USA
  2. Mexico

The two best teams from North America

  1. Slovakia
  2. Netherlands
  3. Portugal
  4. England
  5. Germany
  6. Spain

Just six teams from Europe. No Italy, no France, no Switzerland, no Denmark, no one from the Balkans. There is the continental curse – Europe always has a poor performance in tournaments outside the continent. For comparision, let’s check with 2002 held in Korea-Japan.

From Europe we had

  1. Germany (who reached the finals)
  2. Spain
  3. Rep of Ireland
  4. Italy
  5. Denmark
  6. Nigeria
  7. Belgium
  8. Sweden
  9. Turkey

Almost as good as 2006, four years later. So the causality with the continent does not hold. The problem may well be one of strategy. Italy had its aging stars doing their age old defensive play; France were more interested in getting Domenech out of the team; Denmark were outplayed; Slovenia, Switzerland, etc were just not good enough.

BTW, the 16th team is Ghana. Just one out of the six African teams in the World Cup. One must wonder whether it makes sense to give them so many slots. The talking heads yesterday on TV did make an important point about African football – the sense of playing in a team is missing. Each of the players is a star, earning millions of Euros in various leagues across Europe and other parts of the world. But when it comes to playing together in the team, their individual brilliance seems to drag the team in different directions. Players seem to be doing incoherent guerrilla warfare instead of planned synchronised attacks. It is not a surprise that inspite of such star forwards like Drogba, E’Too, Kalou, Martins, Yakubu, etc., the six African teams managed to score just 14 goals in 18 matches. Algeria did not even score. There were totally 3 wins only – South Africa over France (which was monumental for other reasons); Ghana over Serbia and Cote D’Ivoire over North Korea.

Anyway, the world cup now looks truly world cup with teams from all parts of the world progressing into the next round. It makes the tournament open and the chances that we will find an eighth country to win is high. (So far the world cup has been won by 7 countries only).

Vuvuzelas, goalkeepers, Africa and social assimilation

The first cycle of matches in the first stage of the 2010 World Cup have been at best average barring couple of games like Argentina v Nigeria and Cote d’Ivoire v Portugal. There have been high class individual performances like Ozil for Germany, Park Ji Sung for the Korean Republic, Enyeama for Nigeria. Germany so far has had the best team performance closely followed by the Korean Republic. Of course, their performances were accentuated by the mediocre performances of their opponents. Nonetheless, they were the most impressive so far.

In the crowd, the vuvuzela seems to be the buzzword, literally. There are bans all round for banning it but Sepp Blatter asks, “will you ban your local music traditions if someone from another country came visiting?” Here’s an interesting video where Samson Ntsebeza of the Vuvuzela Orchestra demonstrates how to play the horn. One has to purse one’s lips and breathe out (sometimes spit out like spitting out watermelon pips).

In a post in the Kagalog, Heinrich Bohmke says about the people who play the horn:

Juveniles. We have a lot of inherently juvenile people in this country

People inadequately brought up

But FIFA continue to let the horns play. And rightly they should.

Goalkeepers have been in the news – couple of them for their brilliant performances, at least two for their gaffes. Victor Enyeama was the number one reason why Messi does not have a goal yet in the World Cup. And also why the scoreline of the match was 1-0 only and not 5-0 as it could have been.

Robert Green however is on a different boat. Simon Hattestone, a former goalkeeper empathises with Green:

Poor Robert Green, RIP. One mistake and he’s buried. Forwards get to miss any number of open goals and they always get another chance. Goalies? Forget it. Even if Fabio Capello forgives PRG, will the British public after the farce of Saturday night? I doubt it. How much praise have you heard for the magnificent save that kept us in the game at 1-1? Exactly. Or the way he held his hands up after the game? (If only he’d done as much in it.) Or the way he almost managed to look the camera in the eye and said these things happen.

Poor Robert Green. And poor Faouzi Chaouchi of Algeria for that matter – his cockup this weekend handed Slovenia a 1-0 win. Who’d be a goalkeeper?

Goalkeeping is indeed one of those thankless jobs where people remember you when there is a goal scored against you. I must admit that I preferred to be a goalie myself. It saved me from all the running around one had to do when on the field.

Regarding Africa in this world cup, all six teams have had their games and we have one win (Ghana), two draws and three losses (all of the 0-1). Nothing much can be read into the specific performances though Ivory Coast seemed to be the most fluent on the field. The next cycle of matches will require some of these teams to open up. South Africa play Uruguay which should be an opportunity to do well.

Finally Germany. The German team looks completely different from earlier stereotyped images of the dour mechanical physically strong men punting the football around the park with geometrical precision. There is more flair, more creativity and more colour. This could be explained with the composition of the team – 3 Poles, 2 Turks, 1 Bosnian Serb, 1 Spaniard, 1 Ghanaian, 1 Brazilian, 1 Tunisian. This social assimilation in the German team is unique. Most of them are graduates of the U-21 team which won the European championship last year. Klinsmann, the previous coach started by picking youngsters in his team in 2006 itself with Schweinsteiger and the 2 Poles. Now Loew continues bringing in Messut Ozil, easily the star of the show so far, even better than Messi because Ozil’s overall efforts culminated in goals.

Right time for me to wind up and head for the Brazil match against the enigmatic North Koreans.

The Essential World Cup 2010 Checklist

Saat Din. 7 days. Friday, 11th June, 7.30 pm the Bafana Bafana will take on the Mexican eagles at the Soccer City in Soweto. This stadium was the historic venue where Nelson Mandela took the oath of office when he became President of South Africa in 1994.

With 7 days to go, let’s do a check list for those who are going to be there for the whole month in spirit if not in body.

About the World Cup

1. Do you know the schedule? Here. Indian standard time, matches are at 5.00 pm, 7.30 pm and midnight.

2. Do you know the groups?

Group A: South Africa, Mexico, Uruguay, France

Group B: Argentina, Nigeria, South Korea, Greece

Group C: England, United States, Algeria, Slovenia

Group D: Germany, Australia, Serbia, Ghana

Group E: Netherlands, Denmark, Japan, Cameroon

Group F: Italy (defending champion), Paraguay, New Zealand, Slovakia

Group G: Brazil, North Korea, Ivory Coast, Portugal

Group H: Spain, Switzerland, Honduras, Chile

3. Do you know who’s playing and who’s not playing? Here.

For watching the World Cup

1. For the 5.00 pm match, for office goers, do you know where you can watch online? Do a search now Update: @atulmathew tells us and do live streaming.

2. For the 7.30 pm match, do you know the nearest pub which will be screening the match? Get onto Google Maps, Yahoo Local, burrp or any other resource. Call friends and coordinate schedules. Cancel all leave. Cancel all business trips, sales calls after 5 pm, keep all meetings in the mornings, etc

3. For the midnight match, do you have sufficient beer stocked in the fridge? Chips? Pizza delivery phone numbers?

4. Which matches in the group stage cannot be missed under any circumstances?

Group A: South Africa v Mexico, Jun 11th 7.30 pm, the opening match there’s always some excitement, an upset or something. And it’s the host nation.

Group B: Argentina v Nigeria, June 12th 7.30 pm, old rivalry which cuts across Youth World Cup, the Olympic Games and the World Cup (1994 world cup).

Group C: England v USA, June 12th midnight – the last time they played in 1950, USA shocked the world beating England 1-0. It is the same this time, England with the world’s richest football league, USA where soccer comes way down the pecking order. Expect an upset here.

Group D: Germany v Ghana, June 23rd midnight – the last game of the group, could well be a needle match and one Ghanaian Patrick-French Boateng is going to face a lot of vengeful Germans besides his own brother Jimmy Boateng who is a German citizen.

Group E: Japan v Cameroon, June 14th 7.30 pm – the Asian superstars take on the Indomitable Lions led by Samuel E’to. My sense is one of them will advance to the next round.

Netherlands v Cameroon June 24th midnight – the last game. Netherlands are usually called the South Africa (the cricket team) of football because of the regular choking habit

Group F: The most boring group. Try to catch up on your sleep. Of course Azzurri fans all your matches are important.

Group G: The group of Death. Every match is critical. It could mean any of Brazil, Portugal and Cote D’Ivoire getting knocked out. And we don’t want that.

Cote D’Ivoire v Portugal, June 15th 7.30 pm – Didier Drogba and Christiano Ronaldo. It’s their stage.

Group H: Spain is stuck with three boring teams. Forget the matches, just track how many goals Villa or Torres are scoring.

For morning after, when you hit office next day bleary eyed, remember a few things

1. Check the status of your bets.

2. Check whether what you saw last night was a dream or reality (for example, should Lampard score from a penalty kick, England fans need to definitely do a reality check)

Please note I take no responsibility if you get sacked or your partner leaves you or England loses (in fact, why are they even playing).

My picks for semifinals: Spain, Argentina, Italy, Cote D’Ivoire (mandatory Dark Horse quota)