David replacing Goliath

October 1st, 2013

It hasn’t gone according to the plan for David Moyes and Manchester United so far, has it? But it was never going to be easy. It was David walking into Goliath’s shoes, literally. Replacing Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United was always going to be a near-impossible task. The thing is, you don’t find replacements for a genius, you do your best in picking the right man who you think can fill the void to a certain extent. Despite early season results, Moyes for me remains that man.

When Moyes was appointed the manager of Manchester United on May 11, there was a sense of caution and not excitement amongst United supporters. They knew Moyes had done well at Everton – for most part of the 11 seasons at his former club, he did very well with the limited resources at his disposal. But United is a different ball game. Here supporters aren’t used to losing too many games. Here the manager isn’t supposed to be under pressure and most importantly, here there is a sense of invincibility which Ferguson built with sheer hard work, grit and determination.

Two months into the new season and United supporters are facing the reality. Life after Ferguson was always going to be difficult – anyone who thought differently was lying to themselves and to others. United are a special club – and I don’t say this with red-tinted glasses – in the sense they are perhaps the only club who have had one manager for 27 years. Look around European clubs, and they have chopped and changed managers a lot. Real Madrid, Chelsea, Manchester City have the financial muscle to change their managers and things move on without too much disruption. United can’t do that. United’s financial worries – yes they very much exist – despite being one of the most richest clubs in the world are pretty well-known.

I can understand United supporters being worried but what were they actually expecting. Did they actually expect Moyes would walk in and just pick up from where Ferguson left off? That there wouldn’t be any bumps along the way? If they did, they were terribly underrating Ferguson.

The media and rival club fans are having a field day. Any talk of a perceived crisis at United is music to their ears. But supporters are fickle. Take the case of Arsene Wenger. He has been at Arsenal for 17 years and when they lost to Aston Villa in the opening game of the 2013-14 season Arsenal fans were actually calling for him to be sacked. Fast forward five games and they’re hailing him as a genius and want him to be given a new contract!

There are bound to be a few rocky patches as United are in a transition – in fact they are in the mother of all transitions – period. And this is not just applicable under Moyes’ stewardship, it would be with any other manager – Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola or anyone. As a United supporter, I am really looking forward to this season with a lot of intrigue, excitement and of course, fear as it is a whole new football experience for me. Supporters shouldn’t press the panic buttons and enjoy watching the evolution of a new era at Old Trafford. Maybe it will end in a disaster, maybe it will be a resounding success. It was always going to be a challenge for the new manager, for the players and for the supporters.

In the aftermath of the 1958 Munich tragedy, United’s assistant manager Jimmy Murphy was told that the club would be shut down as they couldn’t find enough players for the next match. Murphy, one of United’s greatest heroes, was adamant that he will find players to play for the club (which he did) and told the management: “How we are in the future will be founded on how we behave today.” It’s a start of a new era and Manchester United need to ensure that they stick to what they believe in, unless it starts going horribly wrong.

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All rise to the King

June 22nd, 2013

With 35:20 seconds to go and the score 90-88 in the riveting Game 7 of the NBA finals between San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat, Spurs’ power forward Tim Duncan had a chance to tie the game. It was an easy jump shot – one which could be termed as Duncan’s bread and butter – but somehow Duncan missed it. Duncan knew, Spurs knew, the Heat knew and almost everyone watching the game knew, Spurs had blown their chance. A frustrated Duncan went back to help his team on the other end of the court and slammed the floor in frustration. Seven seconds later, Heat’s superstar and the best basketball player in the world, LeBron James sunk in a basket to make the score 92-88. The Heat ended up winning their second consecutive NBA title 95-88, largely due to an excellent performance by James. He scored 37 points, collected 12 rebounds and made four assists in what will go down as a career-defining performance for the Miami star. Where Duncan missed, James scored. The finals which Heat won 4-3 in a best-of-seven series, the margins were really this close.

James, despite being one of the most talented players to have come out in the last 20 years, doesn’t get the respect. Frankly, even I am guilty as charged on that count. There’s something about James which is unlikeable. You don’t seem to warm to him. But James has certainly shut up the doubters, myself included with some superb performances in the 2012-13 season.

He started off as a hot-shot upstart with Cleveland Cavaliers. For seven years, James carried Cleveland but never had the team to make the final push for the title. That James was a superstar in the making was too obvious, even when he was at Cleveland; he became the youngest player to reach the 15,000 points mark in NBA history, won two Most Valuable Players (MVP) awards in 2009 and 2010 and was on the All-Star team for six consecutive seasons.

In 2010, when James was a free agent, he decided to join the Miami Heat and bore the ire of disgruntled Cavaliers’ fans. That his decision was telecast live by ESPN in an unimaginatively titled programme “The Decision” didn’t help him to gain popularity. James was criticized heavily for being arrogant and making a show of something which hundreds of players do every season. The money generated through advertising and other revenue streams through the programme was given to different charities was barely mentioned.

James has been the stand out performer in NBA for the last six-seven years. Since his move to Miami, he and the Heat have reached three NBA finals and won two of them. When James won his first title in 2012, he said it was the toughest thing he had ever done. History, however, tells us that the tougher thing to do is retaining the crown. Sport is full of examples where a player or a team has had one unbelievable season to win a title. Thomas Muster was the king of clay for a short period of time in the 1990s. Manchester City were destined to be the new tour de force in English football last year after dramatically winning the English Premier League title. Damon Hill was supposed to be a Formula One legend when he became a champion in 1996. Yet they never managed to build a legacy as they failed to live up to their triumphs.

James could have easily fallen into the same category if Heat hadn’t retained the title. There would have always been questions about his ability if not for back-to-back titles. The two men he is often compared to – Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant – did that on two occasion. Jordan, in fact, won it three times in a row from 1991-93 and 1996-98.

Basketball fans and experts, surprisingly, haven’t given up on the idea of finding the next Michael Jordan. That search, in my opinion, is quite futile as Jordan is not only the greatest basketball player of all-time but is also arguably the greatest athlete of all-time (more on that in this post I wrote four years ago: (http://blogs.business-standard.com/aabhas-sharma/2009/08/08/jordan-is-the-goat/).

James is a supremely talented basketball player, who is perhaps at the peak of his prowess. The next Jordan will be impossible to find. Maybe there’s a need to find the next LeBron James. Going by James’ performances in the last few years, even that search could prove a lot more difficult than it actually seems.

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More than a manager

May 10th, 2013

It hasn’t sunk in yet and I don’t think it will till the next season of Premier League begins. The thought of Manchester United without Sir Alex Ferguson is scary, daunting and gut-wrenching for fans of the club. How do you deal with the idea of a man who was a constant for the last 27 years not being there in the manager’s dug out? 1,146 managers came and went in the top four divisions of English football since Sir Alex took over at Old Trafford on November 6, 1986. Take a moment and let that figure sink in.

What Sir Alex did at United will never be repeated. Forget the number of trophies he won or the fact that he knew the art of making good players into great ones better than anyone else, what United fans will miss most about him is just his mere presence.

It is difficult to describe the effect he had on an average United fan. People often wonder in amusement why watching a United game every week is so important for me. I tell them, is 90 minutes in a week where you completely forget about the daily drudgery of life and immerse yourself in something which genuinely makes you happy too much to ask? In those 90 minutes, Sir Alex was this great comforter, a man who you trusted to make everything alright. For any football fan, heartbreak and defeats are a part of the game. But what made it different for United fans was that the pain didn’t last long because Sir Alex was around.

One of his biggest strength was to rise in the face of adversity and that rubbed on to the fans as well. The bigger the challenge, the stronger he came back. The word impossible didn’t exist in his dictionary. Rival fans often say that United’s history of scoring late goals is down to luck, but the truth is it is anything but luck. You can be lucky once a year, twice or if lady luck is extremely pleased with you, then three times a year. United scored late goals because Sir Alex instilled the belief that no game was lost till the referee blew the final whistle.

He was once compared with Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, some even thought that the Arsenal man was better, especially around 2002-04. Wenger is undoubtedly a very good manager but never had one thing which Sir Alex had: the strength to adapt. Sir Alex saw football evolve multiple times during his tenure and every time he adapted himself and his team to rise to the challenge. Football, and more importantly for him, Manchester United weren’t this big a phenomenon when he took over. They were a world-famous club but not this juggernaut of a club they’ve become. There weren’t too many foreign players, not many clubs were owned by sheikhs and oligarchs and football certainly didn’t have this big an audience. The most remarkable thing about Sir Alex was that he always managed to adapt and mould his team to the required question. Whatever the question, Sir Alex was the answer.

Between 2004-06, Chelsea under Jose Mourinho threatened to monopolise the English Premier League, Sir Alex was patient and had faith in players like Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo to mature into world beaters. United won three consecutive titles and a Champions League in the next three years. Last year after narrowly missing out the title against Manchester City, there was talk about a power shift in Manchester and that City would upstage United. Sir Alex nipped this talk in the bud and won United’s 20th title with six games to spare. Managers are hailed geniuses for creating one winning team, like Wenger did with Arsenal in 2004. But Sir Alex created team after team and delivered results.

Like an old grandfather does it with his grand children, he has really spoilt United fans. I am not sure how many fans actually realize what a privilege it has been to watch United dominate during his reign. The last 27 years – 17 for me personally – suddenly feel like a long, dreamy ride. And what a ride it has been. One of the banners in Old Trafford’s Stretford End embodies his tenure as Manchester United manager: “The Impossible Dream – Made Possible”

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The original Boy Wonder

March 20th, 2013

The English media are notorious to hype their football players – especially teenage prodigies. Anyone with a fair amount of talent scores a wonder goal in his teens is often hyped up as the “next big thing”. Some live up to the hype and make a good career out of it while others just fizzle out. And then there was Michael Owen.

Owen, who announced his retirement from international football yesterday, was a player worth getting all the hype that came his way. The Boy Wonder, they called him and he truly was. The Boy Who Shook The World were the headlines when he scored THAT goal against Argentina. He was one of those players – and many Liverpool fans would admit – who made you follow football or a particular club, he really was that good.

Owen burst on to the scene in 1998 at St Etienne during the World Cup. A year before, he had made his debut for Liverpool and was talked about as a future star. But on that night when England were playing fierce rivals Argentina, the 18-year-old who scored one of the finest goals in World Cup history.

There was no looking back from that moment on. Owen continued to score goals for Liverpool and help them win trophies and also won Ballon D’Or or the European footballer of the year in 2001. He scored two in the FA Cup final in 2001 against Arsenal to dramatically win the trophy for his club. He scored a memorable hat-trick in England’s mauling of Germany in a World Cup qualifier.

Owen had the knack of making the most difficult thing in football – putting ball in the back of the net – look ridiculously easy. Some people are born to write, some are born to act, some destined to sing, while there are very few who are born to score goals. It’s a cliché used for footballers but it holds true for Owen, he was born to score goals.

After seven years at Liverpool, Owen moved to Real Madrid for a fee of 8 million pounds. This was the “Galacticos” era at Madrid – Raul, Ronaldo, David Beckham, Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo were the illustrious names in that team. Owen, till that point, could genuinely stake a claim for being an equal in that elite group of football players. But unlike those great players, Owen often doesn’t get the acclaim he deserves.

Injuries, mainly after2005, the year when he moved to Newcastle United from Real Madrid took a toll on his career. Newcastle fans never took a liking to him as they thought he was a waste of money, a perma-crock who sat on the bench or sidelines and picked up a hefty pay packet. After four forgettable years blighted by injury, Owen moved on a free transfer to Manchester United. That transfer burnt all the bridges he had with Liverpool, the fans called him a traitor, Judas for wearing the red of Manchester after being revered in the red of Liverpool.

Owen at the point had a chance to go to Hull City, a club which got relegated after just one year in the Premier League, or join Manchester United. Liverpool allegiances aside, it actually was a no-brainer. But he received a torrent of abuse on Twitter, became the butt of all jokes because of his injuries. The move to United didn’t turn out be a great one – although he scored a memorable goal in the Manchester derby and scored in the league Cup final – and Owen was a bit-part player, when he was fit.

Injuries ruined Owen and it’s a pity because Owen shouldn’t be remembered as someone who was injured more often than not. It doesn’t do justice to someone of Owen’s ilk. He will go down as one of the best strikers of his generation.

In his day, Michael Owen was a delight to watch, a goal scorer who terrorized defences all over the world. The ending might have not been what Owen would have thought it would be like but Owen’s story is what most young footballers dream of – play for the biggest clubs in the world and score goals for which people will always remember you for.

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The Mourinho-Madrid story

February 4th, 2013

Sometime last week when Real Madrid announced that their president Fiorentino Perez will hold a press conference – football fans on Twitter, message boards and forums were abuzz that Jose Mourinho was going to get the sack. The lead up to the press conference was dramatic as well. Spain’s leading newspaper and Real Madrid’s mouthpiece, Marca had carried a story that top Real players like Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas had given an ultimatum that it will be either them or Mourinho at the club. Perez took the microphone and to the disappointment of many said that all these reports are false and there’s no mutiny in Madrid. In six months, what was termed as a match made in heaven has turned into a match made in hell.

Hindsight is wonderful but it was clear from the very beginning that it was going to be an uphill task for Mourinho at Madrid. He got rid of club legend and crowd favourite Raul in his first season as manager. He rubbed the Santiago Bernabeu faithful the wrong way and it wasn’t an auspicious start for him. Jorge Valdano, director of football, Real Madrid was shown the door in the second season as he and Mourinho didn’t see eye to eye with each other.

Real Madrid are one of the biggest – if not the biggest – club in the world. And it’s a club which functions unlike any other club. While all clubs want to be liked, Real Madrid want to be revered by one and all – apart from Barcelona fans obviously. They not only want to win, they want to win it by playing beautiful football. In the eyes of their management, Real Madrid should be the darlings of world football, they want a good image, a club where everything works perfectly.

Jose Mourinho is the antithesis of Real Madrid. He has a devil may care attitude and knows just one thing – winning. And he is pretty damn good at it. He loves to build a siege mentality within the club – either you’re with us or you’re against us. Real Madrid wants everyone to be with them. The other thing with Mourinho is that at every club he has been with, players have been in love with him. They can’t hear a word against him and speak fondly of him even when he has left their club. Marco Materazzi famously sobbed in front of cameras and gave Mourinho a hug when his manager left Inter Milan for Madrid. John Terry tried to speak to the club officials at Chelsea to prevent Mourinho from leaving, Didier Drogba admitted he shed more than a few tears when Mourinho left.

At Madrid, he has been at war with Ramos and Casillas. He even committed a “sin” by dropping the club captain Casillas to the bench. He has been confrontational with players, officials and the media. He has been booed relentlessly by the Madrid fans at the Bernabeu. In fact, before one match, Mourinho came and sat in the dugout 40 minutes before kick-off so that the fans could have their fill of booing and concentrated on supporting the team during a match.

Mourinho’s philosophy is simple: as long as he is winning you football matches – shut up and put up with him. But the 2013 season so far has been anything but rosy for him and Madrid. More than halfway in the season, Real Madrid lie 15 points adrift of league leaders Barcelona. If that wasn’t enough, to rub salt in their wounds, local rivals and Real’s not-so-famous city cousins, Atletico Madrid are second and seven points ahead of them. It’s clear that Real Madrid won’t win the league this season, unless there is a collapse of epic proportions by Barcelona.

When I said that Real Madrid are a club which are different from others, there was another reason. At any other club, winning the league would amount to a successful season. But at Real Madrid, it’s never enough, they want the biggest prize in Europe: the Champions League (CL). As nine-time record winners, Madrid see it as their stomping ground. It has been nine years since they last won the CL and Perez when he got Mourinho on board in 2010-11 that he wanted the CL above anything else. Mourinho too made it clear that one of his ambitions was to become the first manager to win the CL with three different clubs. He already has two – one with Porto in 2004 and the other with Inter in 2010.

Mourinho is a modern-day great, a football manager who collects trophies for fun. He knows that even if he wins the CL with Madrid, he will leave at the end of the season. He would love to show the middle finger in form of the CL trophy to the Madrid fans, media and the management. Will the Madrid-Mourinho story provide one more episode of drama? We will see in two weeks time when Madrid take on Manchester United. I won’t be surprised if Jose Mourinho isn’t the manager of Real Madrid on March 6, if Real Madrid lose to United. Win or lose, Mourinho will always be seen as a villain by a majority of Real Madrid fans.It always was a match made in hell.

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Messi or Maradona?

December 19th, 2012

It’s hard to argue against the notion that Lionel Messi is perhaps the best football player of all time. He actually scores more goals in a year than an entire team put together. Case in point: Liverpool Football Club. Messi has scored 90 goals in 2012, Liverpool 88 – and they fielded 38 players in all competitions.

He not only scores more goals than anyone else, he also scores them in doubles and trebles. So far in the 2013 La Liga season, he hasn’t scored a single goal in any game – only twos and threes. He also has an insane number of assists against his name – well at least Liverpool beat Messi in this aspect. He is already the number one goal scorer for Barcelona – a club where illustrious names like Ronaldo, Romario, Maradona, Rivaldo all plied their trade.

Yet there are people who have tried to argue that Messi isn’t all that great till he wins a World Cup, till he takes a struggling side like Napoli to a league title. At this point, I would like to confess that even I was one of them (not any more though). After all Diego Maradona — his only true rival to the greatest of all time throne – played in an inferior team. Messi has Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Carles Puyol to name a few, as teammates and these are players who form the nucleus of not only one of the best club teams of all time but also of one of the best international teams. Spain have been tremendous over the last few years and Messi’s teammates have been at the forefront of their success. Maradona didn’t have this luxury. But this needs to be put in a bit of perspective.

No doubt what Maradona achieved with Napoli was phenomenal. With Maradona spearheading them, Napoli won two league titles, one UEFA Cup and two domestic cups in a seven-year spell. Now Napoli weren’t a great team by any standard but neither were they awful as often as it is portrayed. Of course, Maradona transformed them and was the man for them but they weren’t that bad before him and after him. In 1980-81 they finished 3rd, in 81-82 they finished 4th. They had two poor seasons after that where they finished 9th and 12th but they weren’t as bad as people assume. In 91-92, the year Maradona left them Napoli finished 4th, in 93-94 and 94-95 they finished 5th and 6th. So yes, Maradona was critical to their success and almo

Then there’s the argument of not doing anything worthwhile with his national team, Argentina. Messi is a different player with Argentina, Maradona was Argentina. Maradona won the World Cup in 1986 and fans still remember it as Maradona’s World Cup, like 1958 was Pele’s World Cup. Messi has had one opportunity in 2010 but failed to deliver. Maradona was 26 when he won the World Cup in 1986, Messi will be 26 in 2014 when the next World Cup in Brazil takes place. So there’s time for him to rectify that.

Fans will always find an argument or two to debate whether Messi is better or Maradona. If Messi continues to play like he has done in the last five years, the voices against him will slowly and slowly fade away in distance. Even if he calls it a day tomorrow, he will be among the top three football players of all-time. If he wins the World Cup in 2014 or perhaps even after that, then there will be no debate.

Sorry Diego, you will have to vacate your throne of the greatest player of all time, as it is you’re being pushed off it almost every single week. Goal after goal, assist after assist, your successor has all but claimed your crown.

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Those were the days

September 18th, 2012

I read this random comment — from who I don’t remember — but it certainly struck a chord. It went like this: “Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory.” I often find people reminiscing about the past and saying “those were the days”, more so in the case of their school days. You can take a random dip stick poll and you will find people saying that school days were the best. “Oh man, those were the days.” “Best days of my life” are some comments which you often see on Facebook when someone uploads a random picture of your school or starts talking about school.

Human beings do have this tendency of glossing over the past and view things from rose-tinted glasses. Take the case of music. Anyone in their late 20s or early 30s would go gaga over Guns’n’Roses, Metallica and say that contemporary music is nothing compared to the good old days. The same can be said about movies to a certain extent as well. Though we can safely say that any such notions will never be applicable to the 1980s Bollywood films because a chunk of them were downright atrocious. However, in the case of school days, almost everyone is in agreement that — to use Bryan Adams’ most karaoked line — “those were the best days of my life.”

Perhaps I am an exception because honestly I couldn’t wait to get out of school. No I didn’t have any traumatic experience in school which scarred me for life, neither was I bullied by the big boys who ate my lunch. I had a “normal” school life and for majority of the years I went to an all-boys school which did have its fair share of memorable and fun experiences. Even today when I meet my old school friends we do have a hearty laugh about some of the silly things we did.

But when I look back on those days on the whole, I honestly think that was it actually that good as people claim it to be? Or is it just getting swept in a wave of nostalgia and remember only the good things? Almost every day back then was a literal struggle. There was this getting up early every single morning, the stress of exams, the homework, the PT uniform, the sports day rehearsals, the unit tests, the term exams which made your life – at least it made mine — miserable.

Perhaps people who were exceptionally good at studies enjoyed school more than I ever did.  They didn’t have to deal with the struggle of scoring two extra marks so that in the “aggregate” score they could pass. They perhaps did not shed bucket loads of sweat every time the teacher entered with the dreaded answer sheets to tell you much you scored. Or perhaps their struggles were different. They just had to top the class or it was the end of the world.

Then there was the humiliation which came along of being an average student, students whose parents were made to attend parent-teacher meetings “without fail.” How you were told that if you couldn’t write an essay on “Science: Boon or Bane?” or couldn’t tell a chemical formula, you were a good for nothing fellow. Life was doomed if you didn’t know your Sine, Cosine and Tangent and couldn’t separate sulphur dioxide from sulphuric acid.

I look at my cousin brothers and sisters who are in school and can’t help but feel for them and their daily struggle with the tremendous amount of pressure they face in school. Not that the stress subsides when you get out of school as you have to deal with all other kinds of pressure as you grow up. But at least it is not dripping with nostalgia and doesn’t involve saying “those were the days” when they certainly weren’t. Sometimes nostalgia is like a grammar lesson; you find the present tense but past perfect.

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Look beyond the Olympics

July 31st, 2012

The country might not come to a standstill – like it does when a crucial cricket match is being played – when an Olympian is participating in any event. But if any athlete does win a medal, the euphoria is perhaps on the same level as it is with a cricket match. When Gagan Narang won the bronze medal in 10m rifle shooting at London Olympics, users on social media went overboard with tweets and Facebook updates. Would they have done the same if he had won the world championships or broken a world record – which in the past he has done – in shooting? Perhaps not. We would read it in the newspaper the next day and think “all this is good but will he win a medal at the Olympics?”

That’s where the Olympics are different from any other sporting event in the world. For athletes it is the pinnacle, their Everest, their final frontier. They might win world championships – like Mary Kom has five of them – and win medals at other international events, it’s never the same as winning a medal at the Olympics. We might be harsh in judging the athletes just on the basis of their performance at the Olympics as after all winning a world championship in any sport is indeed a big deal. The level of competition is always the same, in some cases it might be even tougher than that at the Olympics. Then why don’t we give as much importance to a world championship in shooting or boxing?

A friend of mine argued me at length about how the Olympics are perhaps “marketed” far better than any of these events. To be fair it is true, most of the times majority of the people aren’t aware of other international events in sports like wrestling or badminton or boxing. But when it’s Olympics there is this great hype – rightly so in my opinion – that we all are taken by it and want our athletes to win.

I believe it is time that we start paying more attention to the achievements of our athletes in other international events. Once every four years it is nice to support them, watch them or cheer them on at the Olympics. But their dedication to the sport and their achievements need to be lauded every time they do well at the international level. Don’t give them monetary rewards like we do when they win an Olympic medal but it would be nice to at least recognize it on a bigger scale – in the terms of watching the event and supporting them. The Olympics just because of its great history and romance are the Holy Grail for the athletes. For the sake of our athletes, let’s look beyond the Olympics and as spectators not make it our Holy Grail.

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Hypnotic but unattractive?

June 30th, 2012

There has been a sense of disappointment among many football fans watching Spain reach the final of the European Championships in Poland and Ukraine. A team which can – if it wins the final on Sunday – lay a genuine claim to the title of greatest football team of all time leaving fans disappointed. Something doesn’t seem right about it. The biggest grouse with Spain it seems is that they are “boring” to watch. Or perhaps calling them boring is a bit harsh but most of the fans find them a bit unexciting to watch. It’s like watching a cat attack a mouse. Hypnotic but unattractive.

It’s not entertaining enough like the way Germany have entertained in Poland and Ukraine or Brazil are known to entrance people with their flamboyant football . The fact that Spain have suddenly stopped playing with a traditional striker adds weight to that argument. Fans love strikers or players who can entertain and score goals. Marco Van Basten, Ronaldo, Roberto Baggio, Thierry Henry are the ones whose posters adorn the walls not the Xavis or the Cannavaros. And with majority of Spanish players coming from Real Madrid and Barcelona, two teams known to play with flair, people expect Spain to replicate that. But Barcelona have Lionel Messi and Real Madrid have Cristiano Ronaldo. Two players who have the ability to do the extraordinary at any moment in a football match. Spain don’t, in fact, no other team in the world have that luxury.

I have thoroughly enjoyed watching Spain – even though I can see where the boring tag comes from. They pass the ball beautifully, control the game and make the opposition sweat. They are in love with the football and aren’t afraid of it like the English players seemed to be. They are patient enough to choke teams with their passing and then in a split second, just like a cobra, they attack with venom. Just watching Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta dictate the terms, make the ball obey every command of theirs is enough for me to not get bored.

Opposition teams are more often than not are afraid to attack them and put ten men behind the ball. When you play against Spain, you know that you won’t be seeing much of the ball and teams are content to sit back and invite them to attack. Great teams not only know how to keep possession of the ball but also master the art of passing it perfectly and Spain do both of these things to perfection. They keep moving the ball and will keep at it until they find an opening It’s not pleasing to the eye at times and certainly won’t fascinate part-time football fans but no can deny it’s extremely effective.

Most neutral or part-time fans love watching end-to-end football and that happens when both teams end up making mistakes. The way Spain control a game means that majority of the game happens in the opposition’s half, so the chances of end-to-end stuff football are zilch. They might lack the swagger of champion teams but they have the skill, craft and the ability to make the simplest thing in football look beautiful – passing the ball.

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Curious case of Rio Ferdinand

June 4th, 2012

Sometime in October 2011, in an English Premier League match against Queens Park Rangers (QPR), Chelsea and then England captain John Terry was accused of racially abusing QPR defender Anton Ferdinand. Racism has always existed in football and perhaps will keep on rearing its ugly head from time to time. Such cases are common in Spain, Italy and other European leagues as well. But the matter is swiftly dealt with and punishment is meted out to the guilty party.

However the Terry-Ferdinand case has been handled differently and has had severe repercussions. Not for John Terry. Not for Anton Ferdinand either but his brother Rio Ferdinand. Terry and Rio are team-mates in the England squad and with the possibility of them playing Euro 2012 together leading to division in the team, England manager Roy Hodgson opted to keep Rio out of the team citing “football reasons.”

One can say that with Terry — an integral part of the Chelsea team which won the UEFA Champions League and the FA Cup — had a better season than Rio. Hogdson said that the racism issue never came to his mind when selecting the squad and it was because of “footballing reasons” he left Rio out. Hodgson made it cler that this was a case of choosing Terry or Rio not Terry AND Rio.

On Sunday, England centre back Gary Cahill fractured his jaw and a replacement had to be summoned. If it were footballing reasons alone, surely Rio should have been called up. But what does Hodgson do? He calls the uncapped Martin Kelly. Instead of calling Ferdinand, a player with 443 Premier League appearances, who has played in three World Cups, Hodgson has gone for a 22-year-old with just 22 league starts. Now has Kelly had a better season than Rio? Perhaps Kelly had a great Christmas and got better presents than Rio but in the football sense, a blind man could tell you who had a better season.

What’s bizarre in this whole saga is that Rio doesn’t have anything to do with the case. Terry, who is scheduled to be in court in July to answer the racism allegations gets to represent his country while Rio doesn’t. It should have been Terry cooling his heels back home and Rio should have been out there on the pitch.

Still one can argue for football harmony that Rio should just not be picked. Or if we go one step ahead and say that in Hodgson’s defence he doesn’t want to pick up players on the wrong side of 30s (Ferdinand is 33) and he wants to blood youngsters.  But what about Micah Richards? How Kelly gets ahead of Richards, who played a significant role in his club Manchester City’s maiden Premier League title? Hodgson made a mistake in picking Terry ahead of Rio and now injuries have dealt him a hand where he is forced to cover up his mistake by committing more mistakes.

It’s appalling that Rio Ferdinand is being punished for Terry racially abusing his brother. A team should pick its best players, England and Hodgson unfortunately haven’t done that. And that too for a man who is allegedly facing racism charges.

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