FAN FRICTION

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Being a football fan is tough. I repeat, being a ‘football’ fan is tough. You have rabid club fandoms. And then you have people like me who like the game with a strong bent for one club (In my case, it is Liverpool), the loyalty towards which was forged by a combination of circumstance and happenstance.

A majority of rabid fandoms of any club live and die, week in and week out, as their team’s form ebbs and flows, at lightning speed on the pitch for 90 minutes, and then at the speed of light on media, social or otherwise, as the performance is spliced into infinite bits and analysed ad infinitum, a term which here means ’till the next game comes along’. I am not a huge fan of that. But it does serve an important purpose. In its cacophony it brings to the noisy table issues that may need looking at, strategies that may have to be tweaked and philosophies that need to be reconsidered.

For me, and I am sure a lot of you feel it too, it’s always a constant tension between whether I should look at things from a microscopic viewpoint of the here and now (much like cable news analyses news or Wall St analyses company earnings) or take a more ‘broad sweep of history’ view limited to analysing seasons or at least significant stretches of those seasons in one chunk.

The trouble is, look too closely and you miss the big picture – you read too much into that one substitution or the last two results – and take too wide a view and you may miss vital turning points – dismissing a poor run of form as just bad luck which turns out to be a season destroying fundamental slump. Jamie Carragher raised a similar point about Liverpool this week saying that their current run of form (or the utter lack of it) was not just down to bad luck and injuries but something else was missing from the team – leadership on the pitch, mental fortitude.

I am not writing this to analyse Liverpool’s problems. There are people way more invested and qualified to do so. This post is to propose a ‘smell test’ for how to figure out whether the team you care about is going through just a bad patch or something bigger is at play. You as a fan may not be the one effecting changes even if you identify what the underlying theme and cause is, but at least you can probably sleep better at night. So let me help you out with a Cosmopolitan style quiz. Here are three points I usually consider (please remember, these are just personal rules of thumb):

1. Fight, club?
A string of bad performances can statistically happen to anyone really. The probabilities aren’t as low as you might imagine.

But when it does happen do you find yourself saying after almost every game -
A. I wish they showed more fight?
B. It’s not the defeat but the manner of it?
C. Bah. We had rotten luck again this game.

2. Manager Speak
Does the man in charge of the team –

A. Seem dodgy and/or irritated at pressers after the game?
B. fill it with anodynes and platitudes like ‘C’ above?
C. Speak straight and sharp criticising without sugar coating or dilution?

3. Proof Of History
Does your team’s performance deviate significantly from qualities that made you a fan of theirs in the first place?

A. Can’t see a single of those qualities
B. About half of them are missing
C. Nope. The team looks and plays exactly like the one I adore.

Analysis
Give yourself 1 point for every ‘A’, 0.5 for every ‘B’ and a 0 for every ‘C’.

Score
2 and above: The here and now needs attention. The team is going through a semi fundamental crisis. Somebody bring out the drawing board.

1-1.5: 50/50 case, but more likely than not it is a slump. If the symptoms persist, take the quiz again next week.

0.5 and less: Keep the broad sweep, wider view in mind. Seasons are not won or lost over a couple of games and bad performances happen. No need to foam at the mouth and blow it out of proportion.

So, how is your team doing by this barometer?

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FINDING FEDERER

Odes to Roger Federer are aplenty. And while his elegance, grace, aesthetic and athletic ability have all been analysed by the greatest of the great sports writers and experts, I still feel compelled to add an insignificant speck to that glitzing galaxy. That is because for all the domination he’s had over the last decade, and justly lays a claim to being the greatest of all time, I think Roger Federer’s greatest years are 2013 and 2014. Yes, you read that right – the current year and the previous one. Two years in which he has a handful of titles and exactly zero Grand Slams.

Federer’s elegance and efficiency on a tennis court and not to mention his grace (winner of the Stefan Edberg sportsmanship award every single year between 2003 and 2013 excepting 2011) are a throwback to an entirely different era. And somebody needed to keep that side of tennis alive. For someone whose retirement decisions are taken on a week in week out basis by everyone else but him Federer has proven to be remarkably and in my opinion very romantically resilient.

He doesn’t have the peak of the game but works within his limitations and goes toe to toe with the best of the best. Sure there are the Nadals and the Djokovics who are younger and more successful recently, but neither of them can dream of the longevity Federer has displayed. I love watching them both and respect them both immensely but that just makes me respect and revere Federer more. Because for someone who dominated the sport at an unprecedented level, a comedown of playing in smaller tournaments, lower rankings and seedings must rankle. But you don’t see that rattle Federer. He plays on enthusiastically as ever. This man loved the game the first time he stepped on a tennis court and he still does. And the game loves him back.

His professionalism is impeccable and unwavering, his genial nature now illuminates the aura that his extraordinary talent once lit. He and Djokovic both lost US Open semifinals. A week later Djokovic decided not to come to India for Serbia’s World Group playoff tie (which almost cost Serbia the tie; they sneaked past 3-2). Meanwhile Federer won his matches in the semi against Italy to power Switzerland to a Davis Cup final after a gap of 22 years. His passion for Switzerland was evident whether it was him cheering the football team on at the World Cup in the midst of a rather remarkable Wimbledon for himself (defeated in the final by Djokovic in an epic clash) or on the court in Swiss colours at Geneva last week.

When a perfect Federer winner goes whizzing past and the man affords a tiny smile, all seems right with world, no matter who stands on the other side of the net. After his loss in the US Open he just tweeted ‘See you next year’. It is a standard tweet that most players probably post but somehow his love for the game shines through it. Federer keeps tennis romantic in this age of robotic invasion. And the Lord knows, we could do with some love and romance in this world.

Sometimes all you want to do is play a Federer montage on silent and play that Beatles song in the background – All You Need Is Love.

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HOW TO WIN A WORLD CUP : GERMANY EDITION

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Every four years, the hopes of millions of fans ride on their respective teams as they make a bid to be crowned World Champions. Unfortunately, the road to the top is strewn with millions of broken hearts when the one last team is left standing after the final.

2014 was no different as world footballing superpowers converged on Brazil to vie for supremacy with vastly contrasting modus operandi for accomplishing their mission. Some hoped the prayers and passion of a nation will carry them despite selection blunders, coaching bungles, unfortunate injuries, and David Luiz. Some bet it all on one talisman making it unfair for both the talisman and the team, and in the end have to reconcile the somewhat ironic truth that that talisman was chosen as the best individual player of the tournament but the team finished distinctly second best. Some blazed a bright trail of flair only for it to fizz out way before the end like a firework over the Copacabana on a particularly revelrous night. Some others had history weighing them down, whether it be their record of near misses in final matches or in penalty shootouts.

And then there is Germany.
They of impeccably rehearsed game plans. They of early acclimatisation in Brazilian conditions (I do a weekly football podcast, and in our World Cup preview episode we had pointed out that Germany’s meticulous preparation for Brazilian conditions makes them one of the favourites). They of booking their hotel in the more tropical areas of Brazil rather than cooler resorts which is what other teams did. The South American teams supposedly had an advantage given their familiarity with the conditions but given as most key players play in Europe anyway, it was starting from scratch for almost everyone. As usual, Germany looked for the marginal edge.

Their winning the World Cup is no accident. In fact, as with most things German, things are supposed to happen by design rather than accident in their football too. A decade long program by the DFB, the German football federation, and meticulous planning are at the heart of a most convincing triumph. As manager Joachim Loew put it: “We started this project 10 years ago, so this is the result of many years’ work.” Embarrassed and embattled by the group stage exit in Euro 2000, the DFB decided to do the classic German thing – find a more efficient way to do something. Rather than just have clubs run their own academies and unearth talent, it sort of centralized the process by launching its own program and focusing on finding and nurturing homegrown talent. The dividend paid itself in the form of the trophy (United Germany’s first World Cup) that Philip Lahm held aloft at the Maracana yesterday night.

It was a perfect microcosm of all that German football had been building towards when young (and homegrown) Mario Gotze replaced the veteran Miroslav Klose and produced a wonder touch for the winning goal. After scoring the goal with 7 minutes left in extra time, he went to Manuel Neuer, the goalie who won the golden glove at this World Cup, and simply told him ‘Now you do your job’. That is the root of the German philosophy – everyone has a role; everyone works as a team (the DFB program not only develops skills but from an early age imparts tactical knowledge too).

And at the end, as Gary Lineker so famously put it, Germany wins.

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COMPOSING THEIR REDEMPTION SONG

20 YEARS AGO, had Andres Escobar not scored a fateful own goal in their World Cup group game against the United States, Colombia would have been the opponents of eventual champions Brazil in the Round Of 16. As it happened, Brazil took on the United States and won 1-0. But that paled in comparison to the tragic fallout of that match and that own goal – Escobar was gunned down* outside a nightclub in the city of Medellin allegedly by drug traffickers who had bet heavy money on Colombia who were pre tournament favourites.

Escobar paid the ultimate price and that incident crystallized into a symbolic moment that brought forth what the confluence of drug money and the heady rush of winning at football hath wrought on the country. It was something that country would take more than a decade and a half to recover from as its soccer team stuttered through World Cups in between. It would haunt every discussion about Colombian football until the 2014 World Cup, where the players’ free spirit and beautiful football headlined by star James Rodriguez would banish those references or at least send them to the background.

Brazil met Colombia in a World Cup after their paths almost crossed in 1994, this time in the 2014 quarterfinal. A shaky and even panicked Brazil prevailed 2-1 by the skin of their teeth but it was probably the day hope was reborn for Colombian football. It is a loss they go out of, not having to fear for their lives like those in the 1994 squad did. It is a loss they bow out with their heads held high; and who knows a refereeing call here or there and they could have been taking on Germany at Belo Horizonte in the semi.

In the late 80s and early 90s, football and football clubs were avenues of choice for drug lords to launder their drug money from the cocaine business and the ring leader of them all was Colombia most wanted man – Pablo Escobar (no relation to Andres). While the football was the opium of the masses in a sense, it was being fuelled by drug money with national players being invited on whim to play for and with Pablo Escobar, and you just didn’t say ‘no’ to him. As the government stepped up its crackdown, their grip on Colombian football only seemed to strengthen including death and kidnapping threats to the 1994 squad if they did not select or selected certain players in the team. Millions of dollars were riding on gambles as the cartels laid out the cash; they virtually owned local Colombian soccer, and used that influence in national team selection too.

The games had turned into charades; far removed from what you want the beautiful game to be. Andres Escobar’s death, the subsequent escalation of government efforts to bust Pablo Escobar and his consequent capture began a purge the results of which you see today on the pitch in the form of a team that plays free flowing football and celebrates like they are really enjoying their game. Clubs severed their ties to cartels, the cartels themselves dwindled and became weaker and it was a new generation of footballers that took center stage. They are not all gone (in fact, some are in the ascendancy) but it is a remarkable story of what aspects of lives a sport can define – for both good and for bad.

Andres Escobar, an amazingly bright player, was a victim of the dark side, but ironically his death was the wake up call that led to the clean up. Today the Colombia you saw against Brazil was not one that has completely healed from those scars of 20 years ago, but definitely one that chose the light over the path of darkness. It is perhaps symbolic that their most famous player James Rodriguez was barely 2 when the nation woke up to the dark news of Andres’ death while their least famous player, backup goalie Faryd Mondragon was a part of the roster in 1994.

This is a new generation composing their redemption song on their own rhythm. Colombia is leaving its past behind. And the future looks bright. Never mind that loss to Brazil. 

*There is an exceptionally good ESPN documentary about the Escobar saga and its background. Titled ‘The Two Escobars’. You can find it here

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CRICKET’S NEW HEGEMONY AND HOW TO STOP IT

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What if the future of cricket is just watching more of these series. Over and over and over? Not that appealing, is it?

The other day while browsing a stats column on Cricinfo, I found something intriguing about whitewashes in a series involving four or more tests since 2011. It has happened an amazing four times as of writing which compares quite alarmingly to the fact that whitewashes involving four or more tests had happened only 12 times out of 207 series in the history of Test cricket prior to 2011. Andy Zaltzman, the writer of the said column in his usual delightful turn of phrase called it “A golden age of cricketing travel sickness”. But then, as I counted the whitewashes post 2011 something more remarkable stood out – all those four series involved either India,
Australia or England (India lost to England and Australia 4-0 in 2011 and 2011-12 and then Australia lost to India 4-0 and of course there was the 5-0 result in The Ashes recently). The Big Three. The marquee teams in cricket today. Or so they would like to believe.

The oddity of that stat really hit home when this week we found out about the proposal tabled at an ICC meeting that was essentially designed to abandon the Future Tours Program (FTP) and create a monopoly through a trifecta of BCCI, Cricket Australia and the ECB that would financially rule cricket by virtually making sure the only meaningful cricket and hence the only meaningful money comes from and remains with these boards in question because apparently “They are attaching the right of a country to rule the cricket world to its economic strength” as an ICC official put it. The proposal involves, among other things, a two tier Test system to replace the World Test Championship but one where while football league style promotion and relegation were possible. However, citing the “importance of those markets and teams to prospective ICC media rights buyers” (the report’s language) the Big Three would be exempt
from relegation. Imagine Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea demanding a clause like that when the Premier League was created. Or a bunch of countries getting together and calling themselves ‘permanent members’ of a security council of a league of nations kind of a body and then self appointing themselves the arbiters in all sorts of conflicts around the world. (Oh, wait, that may have already happened.) Bonkers, right?

Presumably, like some of the extractive financial institutions they have sometimes echoed in terms of their inclination for avarice, the Big Three are ‘too big to fail’. In Seventeenth Century England, monopolies were granted in virtually everything making it the dominant form of economic enterprised, a ruthlessly extractive agreement that would profit at the cost of the customer. Of course, to a large extent the Glorious Revolution and the Industrial Revolution changed all that but as Daren Acemoglu and James A Robinson write in ‘Why Nations Fail’

“These monopolies…gave individuals or groups the sole right to control the production of many goods. They impeded the type of allocation of talent, which is so crucial to economic prosperity.”

 

The current revelations about what the future of cricket might look like sound eerily similar. While the arguments are being made by these three boards that they have the best interests of the game in mind, they are facetious at best. (The proposed profit sharing arrangements distinctly place the poorer boards at a disadvantage. They get to produce less of the products because the Big Three would be busy playing (and based on the statistical evidence, maybe whitewashing) each other and they get a smaller cut too. The rich become richer and poor become poorer. Sound familiar?

Monopoly power and rent seeking, to use the typical economic terms to describe such a blatant cornering of the market, have been as old as time itself but there is only so much of the abuse of power that the game we love for its beauty can take. You might argue that if you go by a business yardstick or capitalist sentiment, these three boards have earned their keep based on the fact as to how their teams draw the crowds and fill the coffers while a West Indies v New Zealand test match goes empty. But there is a problem. Sport is not always business as usual. Major League Baseball in the United States faced a similar problem at the turn of the Millennium. Big market and rich teams were winning all the pennants and the World Series leaving smaller market and smaller budget teams in the lurch. (Those of you who have seen ‘Moneyball’ know the narrative.) In 2000, the commissioner constituted a blue ribbon panel to study baseball economics and suggest how the playing field can be leveled. It suggested quite pointedly:

“Sports leagues do not function as free markets. If they did, the clubs would be clustered in a few large markets. Rather, sports leagues are blends of cooperation and competition—cooperation for the sake of producing satisfactory competitiveness.”

Without this ‘satisfactory competitiveness’ people would simply stop caring about the sport. We need the West Indieses, the New Zealands, the Sri Lankas and the rest (and let’s not even get started on how South Africa have been ignored in the draft proposal, and they are the current No. 1!). As Jarrod Kimber notes in his plea to fans in another Cricinfo column, perhaps it is time to send the boards a message. As he rightly points out,

“We have no vote in cricket. All we have is our passion, which is what makes the money that gives these men their power…They are banking on you not knowing or caring about any of this… What this does is allow cricket’s most important men to run the game while no one is watching. Show them you’re watching.”

This post is my contribution to let them know. (I have incidentally sent it across to all three boards.)

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MADIBA AND SPORT

“Sport can create hope where once there was only despair” – Nelson Mandela

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“He told me thanks for all we’ve done for South Africa,” – Francois Pienaar, South African rugby captain in 1995 on what Mandela said to him as he handed over the World Cup to him in Johannesburg

This afternoon at about 5, Anthony, my roommate at the Temple University residence hall received a call from his girlfriend, Kim. She wanted to know if he’d heard the news about Nelson Mandela passing away. Anthony said he just got a news alert on his phone. From ESPN. He expressed his surprise that the alert that came the earliest was from ESPN and not CNN and the like. I got the news on twitter and soon there was a picture from Liverpool Football Club’s official account showing Mandela in a reds jersey when he met the team. I couldn’t help but feel a deep sense of personal loss, as I am sure many others have.

Nelson Mandela, a man great for so many reasons, it’s futile to even attempt to list them, always had a special connection to sport. Whether it was during his days at the Robben Island prison following soccer scores, or inquiring with visitors if Don Bradman was still alive, there are few world leaders who have so genuinely believed in the power of sport to rekindle hope and leveraged it so well to make society better.

I have always marveled at how during his youth Mandela’s face so uncannily resembled Muhammad Ali’s. And unsurprisingly, Mandela was a big fan of Ali. He once said, “If I was in a crowded room with Ali, I would stop what I was doing and go to him. He is the Greatest.” That is high endorsement not just because of Mandela’s stature but the fact that Madiba was a boxer himself. When he became the president of South Africa in 1994, his immediate mission was to begin healing the scars of apartheid and reunite the nation of South Africa. One of the first things he did immediately after his inauguration as President was watch a soccer game involving South Africa and Zambia. South Africa, out of international sport because of apartheid, made its reentry, none more dramatic than that historic World Cup of Rugby in 1995.

Mandela took great interest in what was seen as the white man’s sport and used the event (South Africa were hosts) to unite the nation to rally behind the Springboks, as the rugby team was known. The Clint Eastwood film ‘Invictus’ (based on the book ‘Playing With The Enemy’) chronicles how the surprise South African title triumph acted as a breaker of barriers as Mandela handed the trophy over to the white captain of the team, Francois Pienaar.

We often talk about taking sport as a metaphor for life and being inspired to be better based on what we see on a sporting pitch. Mandela, like he did for almost everything he believed in, lived that spirit. He was instrumental is landing South Africa the soccer World Cup in 2010 and it turned out to be an amazing showcase for the people. Above all, for Mandela, sport represented hope and provided the opportunity to heal, two things he deeply believed in. Today’s generation and the ones to come will do very well to keep his legacy of hope and kindness alive through the language he believed everyone easily understood – sport.

“Sport has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand.” – Nelson Mandela

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ZENDULKAR: ZEN AND THE ART OF SACHIN

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Now that he can shed his zen like silence, the best we fans can do is to just step back and let Tendulkar define his own legacy.

I began watching cricket in 1987, when I was six years old. Needless to add, I have followed the entirety of Sachin Tendulkar’s career (one of the first ever pieces of cricket action I saw on our own TV was his assault on Abdul Qadir in that exhibition game in 1989). And I have savoured and enjoyed every moment of what turned out to be a career spanning at least four different eras for Indian cricket. And now that he’s stepped off the field for the last time, the battle for his legacy and its definition has begun in earnest. I was 9,000 miles away as the events unfolded at the Wankhede in Mumbai and was resigned to catching highlights and YouTube clips of his last innings (Harsha Bhogle was so excited he blurted out ‘And a half century in his last test innings’ as Tendulkar got to his fifty with India still trailing the West Indies) and then, that speech.

The sheer honesty of emotion in that speech obviously floored everyone including yours truly (in fact, it just made me feel a little bit more alone as a frame of reference I have pretty much known all my cricket watching life dissolved). But here is the thing. The speech was stirring primarily because this was the first time we were seeing a Sachin behind that zen-like aura that he would exude as he went about his business on the cricket field. Whenever there has been a controversy or a talking point about him, the rest of the country has debated it to bits but hardly, if ever, we heard anything from him. In a way, it was a good thing. But the unintended consequences of always letting his bat do the talking were deeper than Tendulkar could have imagined. It polarized his fans (yes,everyone, even those who have made a career out of criticising him, is deep down, a fan) into two camps – the one that had nothing but divine reverence for him and the other that looked for ever sharper critical needles to puncture the Tendulkar myth.

It is said that ‘if you torture data long enough, they will confess anything’ and the data driven prosecution has been tirelessly on the case forensically slicing and dicing the extraordinary number of data points Tendulkar generated by just being around for so long. I am currently a doctoral program candidate and I know that in the social sciences large enough datasets can be used to pretty much demonstrate anything. I am not taking sides here – both parties have equally leaned on the data to make their case. That, as I wrote in an earlier post, has been a problem. The upshot has been an extraoridnary statistical zeal that whiffed the last remaining bits of romance out of watching Tendulkar. For those of you wondering why the swansong end of Sachin’s career felt so long, you need to look no further than ‘the-waiting-for-the-next-milestone-with-baited-breath’ syndrome for your answer. Everything had to be a round figure. 100 International centuries (whatever that means!). 200 Tests. Most this. Highest that. Sachin’s zen like silence didn’t help. And that is why I believe that now the burden is off his shoulders, there is a likelihood a more candid Sachin provides his legacy a new angle – one that comes from his point of view.

When Muhammad Ali took on George Foreman in the ‘Rumble In The Jungle’ in Zaire, many rightly reasoned that the younger and more brutal Foreman would have the edge. Ali, though, had a trick up his sleeve. And that was his ability to absorb the pressure and the blows and hit back as Foreman grew tired to score the knockout. And he knew who he was doing it for. The throngs in the stadium in Kinshasa and the millions worldwide who were screaming ‘Ali bomaye’ (Ali kill him!). Ali was an artist and despite his missteps and clumsy attempts at comebacks late in his career (a fight against Larry Holmes was particularly embarrassing) the moniker of The Greatest still sits well on him if go by his moves in the ring and his sheer willpower in terms of not giving up (the Thrilla In Manilla against Joe Frazier was such a fight). But Ali’s outspokenness, the very trait that made him such a sensation apart from his skill at boxing, became his enemy in his latter years. He was perceived and dismissed as a gloater, a trash talker who didn’t have anything left in the tank in terms of boxing.

In Tendulkar’s case, the very trait that made him the zenith of batsmanship in the modern cricketing era, his ability to shut everything out, was the one that acted against him towards the end of his career. The silence created enough space for all sorts of theories to flourish on either side of the debate; both the statheads and the worshipers jostling to impose their definition on a legacy that does not belong to either of them. But now that we know from the man himself how much he admires his admirers and as he sheds that zen boundary around him, I think it is time to just step back and let Sachin define that legacy himself.

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