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The FIFA storm

Lots of action, drama unfolded in the past few days surrounding FIFA and the future of football in general. Camps were formed, strong opinions, stronger press conferences, FBI in action, twitter flooded with emotions – all possible ingredients of a classic Hollywood movie came into life in a week. Camera, focus, media coverage, action then went into the FIFA Congress at Zurich when the famous or infamous (depending on the camp you belonged to) Sepp Blatter got elected as the head of FIFA yesterday……. again!!!!! Prior to the voting, as part of the build up, UEFA announced veiled (or was it direct?) threats against Fifa through Platini. Even Mr. Putin, Mr. Cameron played their roles to the great drama. But still Mr. Blatter won…. convincingly.

Are there genuine issues in FIFA? Definitely… Grumbling and rumbling about rampant corruption charges were floating not for months, but for years. Allegations, denials were all part of the natural drama in the world of football for last few years.

Is this the beautiful game that everybody dreamt of for last 40 years? No is the answer.

Is there a need to rectify the rotten system and processes? Definitely yes… and the good thing is that everyone acknowledges that there is a major problem – that is the first step towards rectification indeed.

However what baffles me is the approach taken by Sepp Blatter’s opponents. If you have to fight head on, you have to really fight HEAD ON!! You just cannot fight for some time and then back out and then crib for the rest of the days, Mr. Figo. If you need to change the system, you need to get inside the rotten system and then change the same. You just cannot shout and scream from outside hoping that the rotten system will change on its own. To win a vote anywhere in the world, you need to form teams, you need to do lot of lobbying, campaigning and spread your point of view across all voters. I am sure all of Blatter’s opponents did the same – but did they fight till the end?

Now after the voting results, twitteratti is again full of rants from ex players, general public lamenting that the dooms day of football has again arrived yesterday. But what’s the use of this emotional outbursts apart from relieving your heart? Unless we play strongly within the system and then go for change, the existing system will continue the same way, irrespective of how much rotten it might be!!!

The only thing now to see is whether UEFA will lead the world with Latin American countries to bring up an alternate “rebel” FIFA equivalent and an alternative world cup soon….  Is there a Kerry Packer equivalent in the making? Well, UEFA and Mr. Platini – if you really meant those threats of withdrawing from FIFA, you better execute the same quickly to save international football….

Indian Super League (ISL) – the saviour or the conqueror ?

The Indian Super League (ISL) has just kicked off in India with a great optimism that it will transform Indian soccer and the “sleeping giants” will wake up and be a formidable soccer power in next 10-15 years. Yes, it has attracted lots of attention in the recent past – good money flowing in, a large number of “star” world cuppers will be in action, lot of media hype surrounding the event, Bollywood and Sports heroes in the fray, big advertisements – all the ingredients for a masala dish are out and are being mixed in true Indian fashion.

 

As I welcome a sudden energy surrounding Indian football, my question is whether ISL the saviour or the conqueror ? When I mention the word ‘conqueror’, it automatically implies that there will be a victor AND there will be ‘death’ of someone. Also, when I use the word ‘saviour’, it means saving or healing an existing disease AND that does not imply death of anyone. Of course, I will prefer ‘saviour’ any day! But based on the events that led to the build up of the event, I have a feeling that ISL is acting as the conqueror rather than a saviour!

We always talk of “inclusive” growth – but in this case, we do not see that happen. Irrespective of the quality of Indian football, over 100+ years, we had Indian football clubs like East Bengal, Mohan Bagan, Salgaoncar, Dempo, etc etc who have been serving Indian football. Yes, the quality was poor – but that was not just the problem of the clubs, but the problem of India as a nation. Hence, if we have to improve the quality and make the “sleeping giant” wake, it has to be started using the same clubs where the footballers play for the entire year. But what do we see here ?

We suddenly have a new tournament with a total NEW set of teams and management, ignoring the current structure and totally ignoring the current set of clubs. It’s like the equivalent of the cricket Packer Series – only difference is that this is allowed by the India football federation, AIFF! If the same model was implemented to improve the i-League using the existing clubs, definitely this would have improved Indian football by leaps and bounds. Nowhere in the world we have seen improvement of football by ignoring current set of clubs – even in Japan, the existing J-League was “enhanced” when Zico and other international players went there to play and boost Japanese football and not creating new football teams, new tournaments, etc. Can we imagine that to improve say cricket in Netherlands, all current teams/clubs are ignored and a new tournament comes in with new teams ? Or to improve Indian cricket standards in test matches, have totally new teams, new tournament and ignore the Ranji Trophy along with all the current state teams ?

The message of ISL has been “I am rich, I have money, ‘poor’ people will start licking my shoes; so I don’t care about others – but lets make a tournament for 3 months and lets have some fun” … will this really improve football ? If the answer is “yes”, then out of 12 months, we play a tournament for 3 months with a set of players, teams, coaches and then for the rest 9 months, the same players goes back to the poor old infrastructure, back to the ‘poor’ old clubs, back with the poor quality coaches ? And in spite of that, our football will improve ? Come on !

If the ultimate design is “kill the old clubs, kill all tournaments like i-league, Federation Cup, make this the only tournament”, then probably Indian football will improve, but by that process it will lose many supporters who are loyal to the existing clubs. The best way to test the popularity of ISL is to have an ISL match in parallel to an East Bengal – Mohan Bagan match and see which match attracts more spectators. I think I can predict the answer ….

Let us not make this ISL the whims and fancies of some rich people, time pass for some bollywood stars and cricketers, who still does not address how the long term old clubs will improve their infrastructure, bring in more experienced coaches, bring in modern sports medicinal research into play. Yes, Indian football needs complete overhauling, but not in this fashion. If same money, stardom, infrastructure was used to enhance the main football tournament in India, the i-league, then definitely our soccer standards would have improved in the long run, without “killing” someone by design!

Champions League 2014 Final

At the outset, I was totally pessimistic on today’s final between Atletico Madrid (AM) and Real Madrid (RM) – simply because Real Madrid was a much superior team in terms of individual players, experience and style of play. This effectively meant that Atletico Madrid as the “weaker” team will play to a strategy that will be hardly entertaining. As I believe a weaker team will have to play defensive and a “negative” brand of football, relying on either counter-attacks, slice of luck or eventually the “lottery” system of penalties. This is the way I have seen football evolved over years and I had written the same in an earlier post (click on the link https://ayanmajumdar.wordpress.com/2011/09/04/the-evolution-from-a-laymans-eyes/ to read the same). But this is not the topic that I want to write on today. What I want to share with you are my thoughts on some defining moments of today’s game.

Firstly the gamble of playing an injured Diego Costa backfired on AM. Not just of being deprived of a prolific striker, but also consuming one of the important substitutions which will be costly specially if the game went into extra-time. And as destiny would have it, the match did went into the extra 30 minutes, thanks to a last-minute injury-time equaliser. Whether a star player who is injured should be brought into the playing XI is always debatable, but I personally believe this is worth a gamble. Because one chance or one flick resulting in a goal can be priceless plus the morale of the others rise tremendously when you have the star striker playing, when many people think he won’t.

Then came an ultra-defensive display of AM for next 30 minutes. Hardly the RM creative players got space – be it Ronaldo or Gareth Bale or anybody else – only exception was Di Maria who was threatening to break free through some skilful wing play. In the history of the game, there have been many instances when defensive-playing teams have pulled the result in the end … and they have done defending doggedly in their own half. However, what I found a difference between AM and other defensive teams of the past, AM forced the opponents to keep the ball in the mid-field and not just in front of their penalty box. This is indeed a credible strategy – as the pressure of soaking of attacks just in front of the penalty box is too high. Very often, the team’s succumb and one moment of brilliance of the opponents or one mistake of the defense can lead to disaster.

But the “mistake” came from RM – an almost trophy-loss mistake from the experienced Casillas. I still wondered what he was thinking ! The AM player Godin was getting an innocent center, there were 2 stoppers behind Godin, the ball was even not within the small box and on top of it Godin had his back towards the goal – so the most he can do is to head backward, which can never be powerful. But to my dismay, Casillas went ahead, was caught in the no-man’s land and that tame back-head was a goal !! Just reminded me of 1990 world cup when Zenga, the Italian goalkeeper, made a similar mistake against Argentina and that had resulted in the elimination of Italy when the world was thinking that Italy should be the champion!

Then was a continuous spell of dogged defending – very often by 8-9 players. By that time the pressure increased from RM and in spite of the defense, Di Maria was breaking the defense – however Ronaldo and Bale were often spectators. So, my thought was that either there will be a mistake or a blunder for RM to come back to the game, or it would be a victory of AM. My thoughts were almost coming true … almost …

Then came the equaliser in the 93rd minute of the game – just 2 minutes away from the end of the match. And I felt that there was a big mistake by AM in their defense. Yes, it was a great corner and a great header by Sergio Ramos, but what was the defense doing ? I will not blame why Ramos got the space to head without being challenged greatly (as that kind of movement and head flick can happen without much challenge).

I will blame the strategy of defending against a corner – normally you keep two defenders keeping the ends of the two posts with the goalkeeper in the middle. And the reason you keep those two defenders is to thwart out a perfect head or a perfect shot – which will beat a goalkeeper when the ball enters through the corner. To me, irrespective of the quality of the goalkeeper, there is that space having the width of a ball which an out-stretched goalkeeper will never reach – if you can place there, whether in a dead-ball situation or a penalty or a shot, the chances of getting a goal is 90% … and that is why you keep those two defenders to protect that precise situation. But here, there was no defender at all manning the posts – and so a perfect header from Ramos was beyond the AM goalkeeper Courtois to protect. Look at goal below for you to judge:

So, just 2 minutes away from the match, a drastic mistake aided by a perfect header … the match was equalised and the die was cast.

It was now just a matter of time when RM will tear apart AM – as not only they got rejuvenated by that life given when they were about to die, but equally AM players will feel the despair of being so near and yet so far. And now you have a  rejuvenated RM coming at a despairing more-mentally-tired AM with full venom for 30 minutes. So it was just one goal and the flood-gates will open … and it so did … the strike from Gareth Bale after a mesmerizing run by Di Maria – the match was over. Two more came in as a bonus.

So, at the end of the day, I felt the right team won and the right spirit of the game was upheld – a spirit of positive, entertaining football (instead of a negative defensive brand of soccer).

PS : I don’t know who was the Man of the Match – but my choice would be Di Maria as he alone threatened AM continuously and was definitely the architect of the Gareth Bale goal

Champions of Europe

 

The fact of undiminished passion

Here is a country that ranks in the 150’s in the world, here is a city where people crib about lack of amenities, here are tourists who highlight about the great divide between the have’s and the have-not’s, here is a weather equivalent to natural sauna which prevents people to venture outdoors, here are the localites who struggle for employment – Yet, here is that city where the law of undiminished passion reigns. This is the city of Kolkata or erstwhile Calcutta !

In a country where sports means either mediocre (read ‘poor’) performance or only cricket, I sometimes wonder how come this part of India is so much different from the rest of the country when it comes to the love for football. It is this city again which calls for a hundred thousand spectators rooting for a local derby between East Bengal and Mohan Bagan. The standard of the game is quite poor – very often tending to below average when compared with other South East Asian countries. But that does not deter the thousands of supporters who overcome many odds when it comes to public transport to shout for their teams.

Whenever the FIFA world cup happens, the city is broadly divided into two camps – one for Brazil and one for Argentina. The traditional Brazil-love got split when the Kolkatan’s witnessed the magic of one Diego Maradona in the 1986 world cup. From that day, there has been a great vocabulary rivalry between the two camps, something rare to be seen in a city which is thousands of miles away from both the countries. There are hero worships of the Ronaldo’s, Ronaldinho’s, Messi’s of the world that surpasses normal expectations. Even the city looks like Buenos Aires or Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paolo whenever one of these teams reaches the knockout stages of any game.

Where in the world you will find around 10,000 people lined up in the streets, in front of the airport at 3 am in the night, just to catch a glimpse of Maradona, Forlan or Messi – who will be just passing by in a car ? For a international friendly between Argentina and Venezuela, the city is gripped with so much excitement that even in offices, people are coming wearing the Argentina colours !

This madness, this passion, this fan following for the game of football in a country where cricket rules is quite unique. This love for the beautiful game is quite remarkable specially when there is no success for years from India’s international team.

Hope one day this passion will help the city to host a World Cup final – that day, I can guarantee, all records for maximum fan following will break. Long live the passion ! As quoted in a famous Bengali film song, “Bangali’r sera khela football” – let this love relationship continue forever !

Evolution – for good or bad ?

I hereby attempt to compare the changing face of two popular sports (at least for many Indians) – Cricket and Soccer. I tend to compare the current state of matters in the respective World Cups with the versions that I watched in the late 80’s and try to conclude whether the evolution of the game has become exciting for the new generation or has taken a step back.

First comes Cricket, of course – how can go for anything else being an Indian :-)

The current rules and regulations have made the game ‘exciting’ for a generation who did not have the chance to watch the same version in the late 80’s. The field restrictions, introduction of power-plays, the restriction of one-bouncer-per-over, etc etc have forced teams to become more aggressive in batting. The bowlers may cry their voice hoarse – but net-net, the game has turned over to more exciting times. In the late 80’s, if a team used to score at a rate of 3.5 without losing any wicket, we used to say “wow”. Nowadays, anything less than 6.0 runs per over in the initial 10-12 overs is looked upon as a crime. Earlier, a score of 230-240 in 50 overs was looked upon as a fighting and even winning total. But if you think that by making the same total in today’s game, you will win a match, then I would suggest to take a walk ! Earlier, we had to count how many Indian’s could actually hit a sixer – we were left with limited names like Srikkanth, Shastri, Kapil. Now-a-days, we have to count how many cannot hit a six – and the number would be limited to only 2 – 3 players. Hence, the game has taken a step forward making it more exciting.

Now comes Soccer …….

We grew up with the mesmerisation of Samba football by Brazil, the great flow of Kempes, Ardilles and Maradona’s, the clinical striking by the Rossi’s, Linekar’s of the world. The music called soccer was very much visible when we saw the Socrates, Zico’s, Platini’s of the world gliding through the football pitch and either scoring goals or making way for others to score. The football was great – a typical end-to-end stuff with lots of attacking moves, great skills and overall a fantastic flow to watch from basically any team in the world cups. But if you see the general nature of the game in current world cups – it’s more strategy, more ‘defense-first’ approach and coaches think how you can stop the flow of the opponents instead of concentrating on generating the flow themselves. Gone are the days when you could see personal flair and grace, gone are the days when even you could see fantastic free-kicks – that itself has become almost extinct (and of course, the players, coaches blame the ball for that !!). If you see the last 2-3 world cups, the quality of soccer has changed to more defense, more stress on counter-attacks (rather than normal attacks), more crowding of the midfield, more players of the definition “defensive mid-field” or “blockers” have come to the arena. Apart from perhaps Barcelona Football Club, rarely I have seen flowing, passing football at an international arena – be it from Brazil, Argentina or from Holland, Germany, Italy. To me, I think football has evolved (rightfully or wrong-fully) in a “negative” direction wherein the game have not increased its excitement, but gained more in the tactics of “stop the opponents at any cost” instead of “lets outplay our opponents”. That is why even the current Copa America 2011 (which is currently in its group league stages) have 17 goals in 11-12 matches (if I remember correctly). This itself reflects in which direction football is moving forward …..

I know many of you will not like the above analysis, but as always, I am ready for a healthy, passionate debate :-)

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