What makes football superior to cricket? Both are run commercially these days, but football continues to be “the beautiful game” loved by all. Cricket developed on its British upperclassness, persuading colonial subjects to flatter the rulers by imitation until geniuses like N Sreenivasan and Lalit Modi turned the game into the most profitable Indian business. By contrast, football has a naturalness no other game has; from Africa and Latin America to Europe and Asia, kids take instinctively to kicking a ball around. That’s why Bradman is admired, but Pele is worshipped. That’s why the world cried with Messi when his spotkick went wild in the Copa America final against Chile.
For Messi and Argentina, this was the fourth defeat in an international final. How could he not cry his heart out? How could he not announce, in an emotional moment, that he was retiring from playing for Argentina? That announcement sent shudders across Argentina for the World Cup will be up for grabs in Russia just two years from now. The President of Argentina phoned Messi and requested him to stay on. The God of Argentina, Maradona, declared that Messi “will go to Russia in form to be world champion”. He went on to blame the country’s football association for the “disaster Argentine football has become”.
That is familiar territory for us because there is not a single sport in India that has not been turned into a disaster by the association concerned. Our most celebrated association official, Lalit Modi, has been so successful that he cannot even set foot in the country. Hockey, boxing, athletics, tennis, badminton, wrestling, archery, judo, rowing, cycling, table tennis have all been turned into arenas for politicians to showcase their ego. The Archery Association was headed by BJP’s V K Malhotra for more than 40 years; he quit last year only because he was appointed head of the All-India Council of Sports. At the head of the Football Federation is NCP politician, Praful Patel. How can football do any better than Air-India did under him?
The sense of loss becomes acute when we realise how glorious Indian football was once upon a time. A fixture between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal was enough to turn Calcutta wild with excitement. Mohun Bagan was among the oldest football clubs in Asia, founded in 1889. The world’s oldest football competition outside England is India’s Durand Cup, started in 1888 and still going strong. Run by the army, it began to be co-hosted by Osians, the arts foundation, from 2006. Entry to the ground is free and the winner gets `50 lakh.
Small wonder that the Indian team made quite an impact in the 1948 Olympics in London. The record crowd was dumb-struck when they saw the Indians enter the field barefoot. Shock turned into admiration as the bootless men put up a fight, keeping possession of the ball for impressive durations and scoring an equalising goal. The French eventually won 2-1 with a last-minute shot. In the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, India reached the semifinals. In February 2012, The London Economist devoted its famous obituary page to Sailen Manna who had starred in the London Olympics and captained the Indian team for a while thereafter. Calling him “a saint among footballers”, the magazine wrote: “For a very short while, in his time, (India) walked in the sun as a world-class footballing nation.”
It is important to know that Sailen Manna who belonged to the Mohun Bagan team was never paid a salary. Even to buy their club jersey, team members had to spend their own money. Manna managed to make ends meet with a job in the Geological Survey of India. How times have changed. Football has made Cristiano Ronaldo the world’s richest star. Indian cricketers have so much money they have trouble counting it. Indian footballers are spared that trouble because they have nothing to count. In cricket, politicians threw money to make money. In other sports, politicians simply played politics.
This great Indian tragedy was highlighted by the Supreme Court itself when the rivalry between two hockey associations came up for its consideration in 2013. Lamenting the “abysmally low” levels to which hockey had fallen, the court said, “Private individuals are controlling the games in India. Indian sports persons are at the mercy of politicians and businessmen... These officials run the federations at the cost of the game.”
Words of wisdom, but the monkey sees no wisdom, hears on wisdom, speaks no wisdom. And the monkey wins.