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Sport without borders: Forget Team India, we should cheer leagues in India

How watching Euro 2000 while lounging in Brazilian rainforests sparked some new theories on competitive sport, nationalism.

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There are some striking similarities between Indian cricket and English football. Both lose consistently. Both make news for all the wrong reasons. In India, it is match-fixing. In England, it is football hooliganism.

They rocked all of Belgium and more last week after their team’s very brief moment of glory following a freak victory against Germany. Sure enough, BBC’s Panorama was proudly advertising its latest episode, `England’s Shame’, an expose on the hooligans put together by undercover reporters using secret cameras. A whole army of Manoj Prabhakars let loose on poor, unsuspecting lager-drunk thugs with Geoffrey Boycott accents who continued to insist they had done their `coontry’ proud.

So why was the world’s most football-crazed `coontry’ totally unconcerned by all this?

The Brazilians, actually, had problems of their own. In the buzzing beachside tourist trap of Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana beachfront the theme of the evening was also football. Most shopkeepers sat in front of one small TV kept on a stool in front of a cart selling native Indian masks, wildly cheering as one more goal was scored. They screamed, burst crackers, sang, hugged and kissed, blocked the traffic. They did everything football fans do anywhere. Except throw beer and sodawater bottles. Or burn furniture.

The excitement was not over former masters Portugal’s victory over England. It was because Flamengo, their city’s own club had defeated Vasco da Gama, from a few hundred miles away. Has any domestic game in India ever caused such excitement?

On the Varig flight to Manaus, a thriving port town in the heart of the Amazon rainforests, the in-flight video has a budding American novelist who came to Brazil to develop a new plot confessing to having spent all his time on the beach. “The girls are so beautiful here,” he says. “Anybody who comes here becomes a lech. Don’t blame me if I’ve written nothing so far.” It is, actually, the problem with anybody who visits Brazil. So I decided to sit back and theorise instead. The result is a new Football Doctrine of Sporting Excellence and National Development (FDSEND).

The Brazilians take very little too seriously in life. The same in-flight video quotes de Gaulle as having asked if Brazil was a serious country at all. Which a Brazilian editor counters with typical Cariocan nonchalance by insinuating a complicity between his countrymen and the French, in a `pagan’ sort of sense. “Both think you only have one life. So enjoy it fully.” Hence the couldn’t-care-less Brazilian world-view.

Except when it comes to football. Even in a casual evening game the same leggy teenagers who dance the samba topless at the Amazonian resort literally smash the spirit, if not the legs, of the tourists—almost exclusively the cream of international publishing—who stray near their penalty area. They live and die for football, their national team, and their own clubs, Flamengo, Palmeiras, Vasco, Corinthians, and so on. What else do we in India have to talk about except our national cricket team? Such as it is.

So here goes the first part of my theory. To build excellence in any sport create domestic competition. In all great sporting nations, inter-state or inter-club rivalries are as passionate as between national teams at the Olympics. From baseball, NBA and European club football to inter-university athletic rivalries in the US, it is internal competition that produces great stars and greater national teams. How does this work in India?

When was the last time you heard someone get all worked up about even a Karnata-ka-Bombay Ranji final? Most of our domestic cricket finals are not watched even by a thousand paying spectators. Nobody buys a Delhi, or Haryana, or Tamil Nadu or Bengal Ranji T-shirt. Where is the blood, sweat and tears of competition? When people only go through the motions in the domestic game, if they collect runs by the thousand without braving the pressure and the noise, the tension and the nerves, how do you suddenly expect them to match up to the best in the world? Contrast this with the nations that have strong, bitterly fought domestic leagues. This is why Australia and South Africa are the top cricketing nations in the world.

Domestic sporting competition of this kind could work in other ways in a diverse country. It could help produce some healthy rivalries among our states which fight over nothing except central doles and the dwindling waters of the unfortunate rivers they share. You could take the same rivalries to the Karnataka-Hyderabad or Punjab-Haryana cricket matches and generate a little more sporting excellence rather than blood and debris on the streets and writs in the Supreme Court. We have, on the other hand, gone out of our way to systematically kill all domestic sporting competition. Even the old, famous inter-college rivalries, Hindu vs Stephen’s in Delhi, for example, have now faded away.

Football can teach you a lot, particularly when you are in Brazil with little else to occupy your mind. The finest match of Euro 2000 so far was the allegedly inconsequential France-Holland game since both had already made it to the last eight.

But it was football of the highest quality. And how many of the battling bodies on the pitch looked non-European! Between themselves the two teams fielded six black players. This, when the French fully rested their guided missile destroyer, Zinedine Zidane, a native Algerian. Is there a message in the fact that the most improved European football teams come from nations, former colonial powers, that have adopted liberal multi-culturalism?

France, Holland, Portugal are now the hottest teams in Europe. On the contrary, the team that has declined the most is of one country that has resisted multi-culturalism with the unrelenting steeliness of a BMW engine. Well, any surprise then that the Germans were beaten not just by England (after more than three decades) but also routed 3-0 by the Portuguese second string team?

As the respective empires strike back, as people from former colonies pour in, sometimes as illegal human cargo in the suffocating backs of trucks, they enrich the once insular European societies. To their sporting teams they bring not only variety but new vibrancy and virility. Variety, native originality and genius, are all things that will build and enrich nations in the new economy. It seems only the hybrids will thrive in the new economy, and vice versa. The new economy loves diversity, it abhors all notions of purity, whether racial, caste, ethnic or cultural. No wonder that the insular old empires, the Germanys and the Japans, will have to look at their immigration policies all over again.

IT is this multinational, multicultural variety that enriches the game at the club level. Almost all European clubs hire liberally from other countries. The biggest of the Latin American names play club football for them. How different would our cricket have looked if the Delhi Ranji team included a Shane Warne and a Mark Waugh or if Bombay had Brian Lara batting alongside Tendulkar. That would have not only lifted the level of the game but also brought paying spectators to the grounds. Of course, while it has generally kept pace with the decline in the overall fortunes of Britain, one reason English cricket has declined so rapidly is its protectionist policy; the world’s best are no longer attracted by county cricket and England is today the team even we can beat, even with Azhar in our team.

But this diversity business can have its problems. In the France-Holland match, Dutch winger Marc Overmars kept on breaking into the French penalty area and passing, almost on cue, to French midfielder Patrick Viera, who also happens to be his club (Arsenal) teammate, much to the chagrin of his countrymen and amusement of the commentators. Rivals now, in their national teams, the two spend a lot more time playing together in English premiership than for their countries. So club loyalties sometimes can get mixed up with national commitment!

Tailpiece: Of course all this world-without-borders romanticism can be taken too far in real life. As in the case of the most poorly reported war currently on in the world. In the never-ending African bush war Ethiopian Su(Sukhoi)-27s are battling it out with Eritrean MiG-29s for air superiority. The pilots, respectively, are Russians and Ukrainian mercenaries, all former comrades in the Soviet Air Force, now at each other’s throats with heat-seeking missiles for other people’s countries.

This National Interest was first published on June 24, 2000


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