Prem Panicker

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Barefoot in Bengal and Other Stories

By Prem Panicker – June 14th, 2010
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Beautiful words on the beautiful game

[Joga Bonito, the beautiful game, showcases not merely great soccer but also some fine, at times compelling, writing. This post brings together a random collection of the best on the web -- and for many of these links, I am indebted to Twitter friends Supriya Nair, Gobbeldyspook, Bedathur, Kripesh, Siva KG, Nipen Mody, RK, Ant Sims, Ashish Chandorkar, Subhac, Sunny, Chigateri, Shom Biswas and others. If you are not following these people, do -- good sources for stories, information, insight et al].

#1. An often rehashed story, especially when the World Cup rolls around, is of how India almost — almost — made it to the World Cup once, only to be stymied because, poor us, we played barefoot and the organizers mandated boots on feet. A related story is of how we almost — almost — made it to the World Cup, but were, woe is us, stymied by our own poverty, and didn’t play in the global arena because we couldn’t afford the fares and related expenses.

In a story titled Barefoot in Bengal in the June issue of Sports Illustrated [the Indian edition, now on the stands], Arindam Basu goes to the best possible source, and punctures that particular balloon. Basu talks to 86-year-old Sailen Manna of Kolkatta, the man who led India in the 1948 Olympics in London and was due to captain that team to the World Cup in Brazil in 1950 — and finds out different. Quotes and clips:

“We had no idea about the World Cup then,” says Manna. “had we been better informed, we would have taken the initiative ourselves. For us, the Olympics was everything. There was nothing bigger.”

India did field a team two years later, at the 1952 Olympics. The players were barefoot — and got a 10-1 drubbing at the hands of Yugoslavia.

In 1950, SI says, India was in Group 10 of the qualifying tournament. When the other teams in the group — Burma, Indonesia and the Philippines – withdrew, India automatically qualified to go to Brazil — but mysteriously, did not make the trip though Brazil, the organizers, had offered to fly the Indian team to Rio. So why did we lose out on the one chance of playing in elite company? As is often the case with Indian sport, the blame rests with officials. SI says:

On May 23, 1950, AIFF president Moin-ul-Haq reached Calcutta a day after India had been drawn in Group C along with Italy, Sweden and Paraguay. Following a meeting, a cryptic press release said India was backing out of the World Cup. The reasons cited were disagreements over team selection, and insufficient practice time.

Rubbishing the “not allowed to play barefoot” myth among others, Kaushik Bandyopadhyay, associate editor of the journal Soccer and Society, tells SI:

“A careful study reveals that beneath the apparent financial difficulties given as cause of withdrawal lay the AIFF’s unusual failure to appreciate the importance of participating in the Cup, despite assurances from the organizing committee to bear a major part of the tour expenses.”

SI drives home the point in its concluding para:

The opportunity to play at the sport’s most glittering level was presented to the nation on a golden platter 60 years ago, but then swiftly squandered due to a decision made by officials. As Manna says, “Indian football would have been on a different level had we made that journey.”

Clearly then, as now, officialdom was the bane of Indian sport. The more things change…

#2: Among the better magazine cover stories on the World Cup is the one by Time, replete with good reading material. The cover story is by John Carlin, Courtesy Time magazinewhose book White Angels, tells the compelling story of Real Madrid’s 2003 season, which saw huge drama on-field and off centering on David Beckham. [If you haven't read the book yet, add it to your to-read list]. In his cover story titled The Global Game, Carlin looks at the enduring appeal of soccer, with Cameroon superstar Samuel Eto’o in sharp focus. Two clips — one on the game, and one on the issue of racism that will resonate even with cricket fans in light of the relatively recent ‘monkey business’ involving Harbhajan Singh and Andrew Symonds:

That is another of the reasons why soccer is so endlessly appealing: like life, it is unpredictable, irreducible to scientific certitude.


It has been glory and wealth and joy all the way. Or almost. A bane of African players in some parts of Europe is racism. Not within teams — Eto’o is adamant about that: “Nothing of that. If you’re good, you’re good, and that’s the end of it. But sometimes you find yourself in a stadium where the fans go after you because of your color, because they are ignorant, because they haven’t traveled.” Eto’o recalls one game for Barcelona at Zaragoza when sections of the crowd spent the whole time making monkey noises at him. He now regrets that he reacted by taunting the crowd himself, performing a triumphant “monkey dance” after he scored the winning goal. “In general, in Spain, this was not the norm. It was the exception,” he says, with the generosity of a man who intends to retire in Spain. “But football reflects life, and in life, such idiocy exists, unfortunately.”

Also from the Time cover story, this related article on the business of football. What strikes you as you read it is the obvious parallels with the mess surrounding the IPL:

Several of these deals under Havelange ended up in the hands of supporters like Horst Dassler, an heir to the Adidas sporting-goods fortune, who had helped Havelange gain office. Dassler had set up his own company, International Sport and Leisure (ISL), which specialized in the nascent business of reselling the broadcasting rights and pocketing a nice markup in the process.

But his deputy, Michel Zen-Ruffinen, then acting as FIFA general secretary, was convinced that the ISL-FIFA relationship was doomed by corruption, not a dubious strategy. He presented his evidence to Blatter and the FIFA board, alleging that his boss had committed fraud. Some board members backed him, and Swiss prosecutors leveled fraud charges against Blatter, but the case was eventually dropped. Blatter proclaimed his innocence throughout, saying the accusations were lodged to prevent his re-election. Zen-Ruffinen was soon out of FIFA, and Blatter was re-elected president. Since then, FIFA has knuckled down to business relatively scandal-free, although the 2010 World Cup is not without blemish. It has been revealed that resale rights of ticket and travel packages were awarded to a Swiss agency, Match Hospitality, that is partly owned by a company fronted by Blatter’s nephew Philippe.

Time has much more of interest to soccer fans. Also check out this collection of World Cup posters.

#3: With the idiosyncratic Diego Maradona pacing around in the dugout and the electric Lionel Messi producing scintillating runs marred by lackluster finishing, Argentina’s first outing in WC2010 was among the most watched games thus far this year.

Here’s a passionate open letter to Maradona and his men:

You fought your demons and you made it back. And for that alone, you deserve maybe more credit than for winning the World Cup almost single-handedly. I mean, after all, football was easy for you. It always has been. Life, on the other hand…

And here you are, Diego. With your inexperience as a manager alarming millions (including me), but with that special fire you have inside that burns the most whenever your name and the World Cup are written in the same sentence. And I know you have it, Diego. I see it in your eyes whenever you are on TV. You believe, Diego.

Now you are going to have to learn on the fly how to pass that fire along to your players, Diego.

Those players you finally got to gather and take to South Africa well in advance so you could build up that much-needed team spirit. Because we know they can play football. They just needed to be together, right? They just needed to believe in their strength as a squad and there will be no hurdle high enough to make them fail and fall. Right?

Spiegel Online has a great story on the legend, and his notional successor.

Messi is very young — only 22 — very polite, and extremely modest; the complete opposite of Maradona. He’s the world’s best player, the highest goal-scorer in Spain, and the man that could be either Maradona’s savior or a thorn in his side.

“I can only say that Leo enjoys more backing in our side than I had in the 1986 World Cup,” Maradona said recently. The coach constantly has to justify why Messi never plays anything like as well for his country as he does for his club. There are theories, of course. Some say Argentina lacks a player like Barcelona midfielder Xavi who can provide Messi with goal-scoring opportunities. Other claim it’s Maradona’s fault. They say Messi has no idea what he should be doing on the field because Maradona doesn’t know either.

Maradona suspects that this talented, friendly young man from Rosario could ruin everything. If Messi plays badly in South Africa, Argentina will have a hard time progressing to the latter stages of the competition. Even so, no one will blame Messi for that. Everyone will be pointing the finger at Maradona.

“When Messi has fun, we all have fun,” Maradona says. That was Maradona’s secret formula. But Messi isn’t Maradona. He needs order and structure for his genius to unfold and Maradona only creates chaos. Since his appointment as national coach, Maradona has picked more than 100 different players for the squad. Spanish sports magazine As recently wrote that the only way to stop Messi was “to give him Maradona as his coach.”

Spiegel, incidentally, is another good source for compelling reading on the WC. Here’s a collection — keep going back for more. And while on reading material, what follows is a collection of links that should keep you occupied when there is no live action on the telly:

#4: England’s World Cup campaigns seem doomed to tears of frustration and despair — vide, for instance, the greatest spill since British Petroleum:

While the Guardian mercilessly dissects the disjointed coverage of England’s defeat draw in the game against the US, the Daily Mirror has a story from the past — of another World Cup, Paul Gascoigne, and tears.

Gazza is effectively broke and relies on the generosity of a Geordie friend for his grace-and-favour apartment. He is an alcoholic and a drug user, with a history of depression and mental health problems. Sometimes he struggles to get better, but it’s a fight he often loses when opening time comes around as he drinks to broken promises and sentimental regrets.

It is easy to forget Gazza was the Wayne Rooney of his day – and then some. The lad was a match winner, blessed with as much natural ability on the ball as any English player has ever possessed, but armed with none of the pugnacious resilience needed to survive the pressures at the top.

#5: In some 36 hours from now, we should have our first look at Dunga’s Brazil — one that, pre-match expertise predicts, will be businesslike, but devoid of the flair that marks the green and the gold. Carlos Alberto, former captain of the Selecao,  is not impressed with the new dispensation:

“I am not confident in this side, because our national team do not play Brazilian football,” he says during a conversation to promote the 1Goal educational campaign for Africa. “I’m talking about movement and use of the ball. We have good defenders, but the midfielders: if you ask Brazilian kids, who are our midfielders, they shrug their shoulders.”

Brazil are likely to start their hunt for a sixth world title, against North Korea on Tuesday, with two defensive midfielders (Gilberto Silva and Felipe Melo) and probably only Kaká from the old school of elaboration. “They [Brazilian children] have to be told Felipe Melo is one of our central midfielders,” Carlos Alberto says. “In front we have one: Kaká, but nobody knows about his physical condition.

“The coach has chosen this way to play, and the results are very good, but let’s see what’s going to happen. If you look behind [the results] you see that most of our goals start from dead balls. Free-kicks or corner kicks. This is why I say it’s not Brazilian football.”

#6: Later today, the Dutch open their campaign against Denmark. From the New York Times, an excellently researched story on De Toekomst, the youth academy attached to Ajax and how it prepares the stars of the future. The Guardian, meanwhile, has a story on Holland’s Achilles heel – its feuding stars. [As a friend pointed out to me on Twitter, that feud is largely dead and buried if you go by the evidence of recent games -- but the story still makes for an interesting read]

It is the peculiar story of two of the more talented Dutchmen at the World Cup and the way, when egos collide, a flutter of a butterfly’s wing can quickly turn into a tempest. Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder are two players who wear the same colour shirt and share a philosophy that giving the ball away is a sin, but whose relationship is defined by male pride and stubbornness.

On the scale of great Dutch feuds, it is not in the same league those between Ruud Gullit and Dick Advocaat at the World Cup in 1994 or Edgar Davids and Guus Hiddink at Euro 1996. Yet Sneijder and Van Persie are keeping up an old tradition by going into this competition on the back of a two-year dispute. After all this is a major tournament and,Holland being Holland, it almost feels normal that the backdrop to the Oranje’s opening match, against Cameroon in Bloemfontein tomorrow, should include an unresolved row between two of their more gifted players.

#7: An ongoing narrative relates to South Africa, as the host country, and what WC2010 means to the country and indeed to all Africa. The New York Times has a story on the return of soccer to its African roots. Two other stories relating to the theme: The Guardian on the strange mix of poignancy and delight that pervades the host nation, and an earlier story from the New York Times on the high cost of staging the WC in South Africa. On a more positive note, an Indian blogger based in Cape Town writes of the soaring confidence within the South African football team. Plus, by way of bonus, a story on the witch-doctors of African football.

And while on blogging, here’s a site that gives you quick, crisp takes on the individual games. And still with blogging — where some of the most compelling stuff on the WC is coming up, incidentally — here’s a hilarious graphical representation of the strategies of the various teams. And staying with blogging for a beat longer, you know how big soccer really is when even the venerable Paris Review is moved to take note: specifically, the go-to magazine for all things literary has roped in the likes of producer/director Will Frears, son of Hollywood director Stephen Frears [My Beautiful Laundrette, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, Dangerous Liaisons {The Glenn Close-John Malkovich-Michelle Pfeiffer version} and the Helen Mirren-starrer The Queen, among others], to do a blog for the duration of the Cup. Check in daily for some great reading material.

#8: It will take wild horses to move me away from in front of the television tomorrow, when Brazil plays its first game — but the date I’ve marked in red since the calendar was announced is the 16th, when prohibitive favorites Spain take the field for the first time. The Guardian, on how the side has added to its native brilliance that most vital of ingredients, self-belief.

#9: And finally, for this edition of World Cup extra: Goldman Sachs, which has released reports on the World Cup economy for every edition of the tournament starting 1998, has the 2010 version of its report out — and the latest is as detailed as its predecessors. You can download the entire PDF here.

[Thanks to all who contributed links for this post. If you have interesting links on the game, share them in comments. And come back tomorrow -- I hope to introduce you to my all-time favorite book on soccer.]

  1. Fit to Post: Yahoo! India News » Blog Archive The Best Book on Football. Ever. « on June 15, 2010 at 10:36 am

    [...] is more.” For a sampler of what Galeano means, try this: Time, in its recent cover story [see this post from yesterday] included a personal essay by Michael Eliot on what he reckons was the greatest game of football [...]

  2. Nitai Mondal on June 15, 2010 at 3:26 am

    bad luck year 1950 !!! Qualified but withdrew…

  3. Dealer on June 14, 2010 at 4:00 pm

    Since you talked about corruption and FIFA, you should definitely read Andrew Jenning’s “Foul”. IMG, one of the reasons behind Modi’s suspension is prominently featured in stories of FIFA’s corruption as well…

  4. pandimi on June 14, 2010 at 2:31 pm

    Enough material to read between live action. Sadly the Sunday is behind us :(

  5. Sudhir on June 14, 2010 at 2:23 pm

    The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Time magazine, Sports Illustrated.
    There’s just no substitute for the well written word and the objective analysis of a good journalist, despite the avalanche of 24 hour TV channels. Do hope that the FTPblog and Y columns moves into that category.

  6. Moin on June 14, 2010 at 2:11 pm

    Great links to the various sites.

    Thanks for the info provided.

  7. A post, and a request « Smoke Signals on June 14, 2010 at 12:24 pm

    [...] to a bunch of friends on Twitter, I’ve got a comprehensive post up on the Yahoo India blog, rounding up interesting stories from the world of the [...]

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