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The Not-So-Glorious Certainties of Football. May 31, 2006

Posted by Abhishek in Football, guest.
26 comments

Note: Arnold is guest writing on this blog. If you want him to join the Silly Point team on a full-time basis, please plead for him in the comments 😉

Football, any fan will be quick to assert, is a game of glorious uncertainties. I beg to differ.

Sure, there are upsets (like there are in every other sport), but if you look at the history of the World Cup, there have been far too many "certainties" for my liking. Let's take a look at just the finals for now, shall we? Here are some striking facts:

1. In 17 World Cups this far, we've had only 7 different countries lift the trophy. Even more surprisingly, the 34 teams that have competed in these 17 Finals have come from only 10 countries. I find this figure especially telling — not only are new teams not winning the Cup, they aren't even reaching the Final!

2. In the 9 Finals since 1970 (18 teams), there's been only one entry from outside the traditional powerhouses of Brazil, Germany, Argentina, Italy and the Netherlands. (The exception of course was France in '98.)

3. The last time a team made the Final for the first time (again excluding the French exception) was the Netherlands way back in 1974. The last time we had both Finalists appearing for the first time was in the 2nd edition in 1934!

So all the "glorious uncertainties", it would appear to me, happen in the early stages of the World Cup. But once it comes down to the games that really matter, we only see regular faces! When will the Senegals and the South Koreas of this world have what it takes in them to actually win the damn thing?

Another interesting point that one realizes is that home advantage plays a crucial role as far as the Football World Cup is concerned. Here are some more facts:

1. The two countries that have one the Cup once each — England (1966) and France (1998) — accomplished this on home ground. The only other team to have played in the Final only a single time — Sweden (1958) — also did so on home turf.

2. Countries seem to do well either in their own country or not too far from it. 6 World Cups were won by the home country and only Brazil has actually managed to win the Cup on a continent other than their own (Sweden '58, Mexico '70, USA '94 and Japan '02). When one adds to this the fact that no team from either North America or Asia could realistically be given too much chance of taking the Cup, the only real 'away-continent' victory remains Brazil in Sweden '58.

3. South Korea put their home advantage to good use in the last tournament and wound up reaching the semi-finals. I don't think any home team has been knocked out of the World Cup in the Group stages.

So why do teams have such a problem traveling away from home in this sport? And when will we have some new teams winning the Cup? Any answers?

What’s the good sport ? May 29, 2006

Posted by Abhishek in Abhishek, Motorsport.
7 comments

As the dust settles on yet another Monaco Grand Prix, pundits will, not unexpectedly, have much to talk about. Most notably, Michael Schumacher's 'stall' at La Rascasse – in the final minute of qualifying. After 8 hours of deliberations, talks and runs and re-runs of tapes and telemetry it was decided to relegate Schumacher to the back of the grid. But, yet, despite all odds, the man finished a spectacular 5th, registering en route, yet another fastest lap at Monaco.

But this is not about how well Schumacher drove around the back-file, how he made his strategy work for him, or even how he did not give up till the last corner of the last lap. That after all comes in-built with a Schumacher. A driver starting from last finishing 5th would have made the centre-point of any evening news show, but the fact remains, that all Schumacher takes away from Monaco apart from the 3 points, is yet another small stain, in what many believe to be a not-so-spotless shirt.

Schumacher has always bent the rules. When the $50,000 worth diamonds on a steering wheel are probably the cheapest parts of a car, not surprisingly, the stakes are high. So high in fact, that the lines between what is fair and what is not are often made murky ; smudged out by playing with them too often. Like a game of poker, you play your bluff calculating if the consequences are going to be worth the risk. In simple terms, Michael Schumacher is 7 times World Champion because in his book, winning is everything, worth any risk, any gamble.

We had a saying in school – "you are allowed to copy as long as you don't get caught". Schumacher tried to copy, but unfortunately for him, he got caught. But only this time. He knew what could happen, but if had got off lightly (which is not uncommon in F1), it meant a sure race win – and another joyous leap on the podium, surely something not to be spoilt by a Spanish kid in blue and yellow. He failed this time, but knowing from past experience he will do it again and again and again, so long as the balance is tipped in his favour. Consider, the ’94 championship fight between him and Damon Hill –when he slammed into his championship rival to pocket his 1st title with Benetton. Consider his jab at David Coulthard in the ’98 Argentine GP. Again unpunished.

Here readers will point me out to the stripped 2nd spot in the ’97 season to Villeneuve and the heavy fine for the incident at the Austrian GP with Rubens Barichello in ’04. Here too, Schumacher was totally aware of the risks, and was willing to take the chance. And here is where he is a cut above the rest.

Damon Hill once famously said:

"There are two things that set Michael apart from the rest of the drivers in Formula One – his sheer talent and his attitude. I am full of admiration for the former, but the latter leaves me cold."

And it is the latter that makes him a world beater. Talent – a lot of people have, but how many people are ready to put their brother’s life in danger to gain a single position?

Here I am reminded of ridiculous attempts at ‘diving’ in football, attempts at ball-tampering in cricket and doping in athletics. One man’s cheating is another’s ‘gamesmanship’ – and it is such questions that sport will have to answer in future times. These are not easy questions to resolve, and indeed with the increase in money and fame that sport commands, the law-makers have to be on their toes to ensure their idea of ‘fair-play’ is preserved. However he who knows where to cut corners, and bend the rules will always, always have his nose ahead. Only with a little black dot clinging to it.

The Monty Ball Problem May 28, 2006

Posted by ramanand in Cricket, Ramanand.
2 comments

On the first day of the 2nd Test between Sri Lanka and England at Edgbaston, the Lankan batsmen found themselves making a familiar journey from and to the pavilion in rapid succession. But for me as a neutral observer, the highlight of the morning was when Monty Panesar spectacularly dropped Lasith Malinga at mid-off . The ball looped droopily as if voluntarily seeking a pair of warm palms to avoid the chill, but Panesar contrived to hold his hands such as to form an event horizon of a rather leaky black hole. The Ministry of Silly Walks would have approved.

I tried to avoid using the word "incompetent" above, but in all fairness to the epitome of the species known as the "amiable Sardar", there's no more fitting epithet. What surprises me most is how Monty made his way to this high a level of the sport without having such a problem being given a penicillin shot. The days of ambling amateurs who could do just one thing very well (as Panesar no doubt can with his left-armers) are equivalent to the Dark Ages to modern coaches who grimly drop the likes of Anil Kumble (the subject of a lament on this blog) for reasons such as suspect fielding and batting in limited overs cricket. Perhaps by 2050, we will see teams saturated with five-dimensional players, i.e. all-rounders who can field, keep and even captain, a dream that will have most coaches drool in their sleep. The irony is that the same team that has in Andrew Flintoff the closest to a full four-dimensional player in cricket, also has Panesar replacing Ashley Giles, the previous incumbent of the "soloist trial" dock. England would prefer to hide Monty in the field in the little hole-in-the-ground that holds the bat-pad helmet, but that would be little solace to the spinner who is usually left wishing for much larger chasms ever since he dropped Dhoni in the last Bombay Test match. He has a tendency to make amends though; he caught Dhoni later in the same match while dismissing Malinga off his own bowling in this instance.

In all the professional flavours of modern sports, everything is strategised, margins are carefully pared away, and support staffs strain so that the quirks of luck are not all left to chance. Which is why such sights as Monty's fielding are rare to see these days. Mistakes at the highest of levels are caused by pressure situations and overworked players, and rarely by sustained ineptitude any more, which is a bit of a pity for the casual observer. The current series between India and West Indies have seen a bunch of utility players who can all bat, and so it's going to be a while before anyone puts on a performance like Courtney Walsh in whose hands the bat could be anything you imagine, except for an instrument to score runs. So when the same Walsh battles out overs to allow Lara at the other end to score a 1-wicket victory over the Aussies, you are permitted a chuckle. Or when uncertified madmen like Réné Higuita rush out to the half-line only to turn back and see the ball dribbling into the unguarded citadel. These things don't tend to happen much these days, and remain the preserve of soppy nostalgics. The phrase "human element" gets bandied a lot these days, and is usually a euphemism for "oops, I've done it again". With the players playing the percentages, it is left to Messrs. Bucknor, Terje Hauge and even the double act of Rauf-Doctrove to be custodians of the right to goof up.

So apart from providing writers with a opportunities to earn their daily roTii while having a good laugh, where does that leave poor old Monty? For one, the prospects of dropping Ricky Ponting when Australia are 12/3 in the 1st Ashes Test in 2007, and worse, having those "friendly" men rub it in, is too bone-chilling to contemplate. That something has to be done and soon is evident to Fletcher-Vaughan-Flintoff and co., despite Freddy's brave "I hope it's not catching" banter. Although we've taken the mickey out of the poor spinner, everyone seems to think very kindly of it all as Mike Brearley writes. His progress will be watched keenly over what should be a reasonably decent career even for an English tweaker. Till then, we'll try to resist the bait of silly comedy, but not before one final word from the resident pun-dit who thinks that right now, as far as fielding goes, Monty's name is Madh.

Question of the Day May 26, 2006

Posted by Abhishek in Abhishek, Football WC.
2 comments

What is common to : 'Crock' – 'Half Crock' – 'Schoolboy' and 'Gentle Giant' ?
Hint : Look at the post category.

OK here goes :

This nomenclature is attributed to Robbo – about whom you will here a lot of raving from me in the future. As for the descriptions, mea culpa.

“Jugo Bonito” or The Beautiful Game May 26, 2006

Posted by samratsengupta in Football, Samrat, Sport.
5 comments

The game captures the imagination and stokes the passion of people around the world like nothing else (hmmm. maybe s3x is a close second). The game is a bundle of contradictions; it can be ridiculously simple or be real complicated. It may be delectable and exotic like an elaborate Kashmiri Wazwan cuisine where savoring it requires patience, or a straightforward yet satisfying  Big Mac burger providing instant gratification. It may be synchronized like a philharmonic orchestra or may resemble a Bronx gang war slugfest; it can be an opera concert or a staccato rap song. All highly entertaining depending on your tastes.

It is a sport that is discussed fervently across continents, be it notorious drug dealers in a high security prison in Bogota (incidentally the Columbian goalkeeper Rene Higuita(1990-94) was also in such a prison), or slumkids  in a ghetto in Lagos, or suburban mothers "soccer moms" in US mid-west while watching their young girls kicking around, or executives in corporate boardroom meetings in Frankfurt, or a group of Kolkata collegians holding an animated conversation on Maradona vs Pele in "Adda"(gossip) sessions in the "Para"(locality) youth club.

The diversity of this game is mindboggling. This is a game that is played simultaneously in NATO bases and Taliban camps in Afghanistan. The fanatical following it enjoys, brings out the best patriotic feelings and the worst jingoistic emotions, example being the infamous "Futbol War" between El Salvador and
Honduras. In Marx's words Football is the modern Opium  of the Masses, it is a universal language and expression.

The Football World Cup is the greatest event and spectacle of the world beating even the Olympics hands down, the World Cup has played a stellar role for more than half a century in sustaining and also enhancing football's popularity all over the world. FIFA in my opinion has also done a commendable job in managing the sport competently and professionally.

In India also the game has tremendous following, though it is not apparent and in your face like cricket, but the World Cup is one of the most looked forward of all events, and this is not confined to the usual regional suspects Bengal, Kerala and Goa.

The game has evolved over time, cannot comment too much of the games in the 50s and 60s though have seen numerous snippets from those days on television, but nothing much can be inferred from those grainy and jerky frames; seem more like Charlie Chaplin, Laurel Hardy pictures. The movements seem contrived and cartoon like. But recently saw a few clips in slow  motion, especially few dribbles of Stanley Matthew who was renowned for them. The way he controlled the ball was impeccable, the feint he gave to defenders was remarkable. Though coming to feints and maneuvers (the hindi word "jhaasa" seems more appropriate) no one compares to Maradona. The way he could mesmerize was unparalleled, ask the leadenfooted English defenders in the 1986 QF. In the current crop Ronaldinho and Zidane come close in the "Jhaasa" aspect. Though overall I still consider Maradona as superior, but the way Ronaldinho is progressing he may also touch similar divine heights.

One thing I lament about current state of football is the similar playing styles of the teams. Due to increased heterogeneity and intermingling of players and coaches in the European leagues, more technology, greater intercontinental exposure etc all the styles have began to converge., As an example the styles of England and Brazil prior to the 80s were as different as chalk and cheese, but now in this decade they may only be as different as say, two varieties of cheese. Teams across the globe have adopted the "Best Practices" of other teams, say the slow build-up of Brazil, the Catenaccio defence of Italy, the combative mid-field of Germany, the uncomplicated British way of attack, Total football of Dutch etc.  So all aspire to be the same, but obviously the degree and capability of implementation varies. So in a sense the uniqueness and competitive advantages of the different teams and styles are being eroded. Even the African teams nowadays have an accomplished technical game, compare that to the raw unpolished talent and unbridled enthusiasm of the Cameroon team of 1990. So the lack of diversity in playing styles, has dulled the game somewhat, but it has taken the game to a higher level with teams playing with lot more nous nowadays, and adapting their gameplan accordingly. Games are more competitive, players are fitter, the results remain as unpredictable as ever. Ultimately the thrill and magic of football remains the same.

An ode to Anil bhaiyya May 25, 2006

Posted by Abhishek in Abhishek, Cricket.
1 comment so far

 

The name Anil, is commonly used in literature, especially by native writers – to indicate that they aren’t simply aping the ("western") books they read, by having protagonists with names like Michael and James. Anil is usually your neighbourhood boy-turned-society saviour and a perfect example of the powerless protagonist. Anil gets the vegetable for his mother, marries off his sister and ensures that the bills are paid. Anil can also play the trusted manservant to a flamboyant Karan, the close confidante to the beautiful Soniya or Rakesh's ever present chauffeur. 'Anil' – short, sweet and uncomplicated; the name itself belying decency and probably, a degree of impotency. Kumble's parents, therefore, could not have chosen a better name for him.

 

'Anil' is the perfect moniker for a man who is India's leading wicket-taker, the scion of the Indian spin attack for ages and only the second man to have taken 10 wickets in an innings, and still finds himself outside of the one-day team and out of favour with the selectors. Anil is the perfect name for a boy, who would fulfill his task to the hilt, and then run off the pitch before photographers could get a chance to get to him. Here one is reminded of the ever effervescent Manchester United and ex-England midfielder Paul Scholes, whose story we shall reserve for another day. Anil Kumble, in short is the possible hero of the day, who never got his due. Much, like Amitabh Bachchan's Jay in Sholay, he won every time – only to die in the end.

OK, maybe I am being a bit ruesome here. Yes, nobody denies Kumble's efforts as a class bowler. Nobody denies that Kumble is India’s highest wicket-taker; nobody denies that he took 10 wickets in an innings and has been the architect of many a India victory. Yet, no-one sticks his head out to say, Kumble is the best spinner India has produced – leave alone India’s best bowler. Kumble gets his due as 'a son of Karnataka' but never as a 'son of India' and more so, Indian cricket. I will be very surprised, if one day Kumble was to win the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award.

 

Kumble

The image that most comes to mind is the one of an injured Kumble soldiering on with a broken jaw during India’s last tour to the West Indies, in what turned out to be another fruitless errand, another what-could-have-been. What Kumble deserves is a grand send-off into the sunset. I know, he will be the last to accept that the end is nigh, though by giving him an automatic place in every ODI till the World Cup, much like they turn to him in tests we will ensure that we get Kumble’s best during the WC. Replacing him with Ramesh Powar is laughable indeed, a trading of tried and tested pure gold, for silver-plated brass. Powar might yet mature, but putting Kumble’s neck to the altar is a little bit more that I can digest. If Ramesh Powar is being labeled as the ‘find of the season’ by the BCCI admiralty, the quality of the Indian new-comers is questionable indeed.

 

In spite of all this, the Anil in the Kumble carries on, involved multitudinally with cricket, via his interests in software and his company. And for a quiet man, Kumble’s role as the head of the unofficial Indian player’s association in remarkable indeed. But as long as Kumble is not given what he merits, unfortunately he will remain another has-been in India’s cricketing history, another powerless protagonist in an unremarkable novel.

Running alone, again… May 25, 2006

Posted by shamanth42 in Athletics, Shamanth.
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‘Yawn’ is my usual greeting to any talk of ‘aiming for medals in the next Olympics’. We’ve all thickened our skins to failure by now, we’re sufficiently immune to such talk to move on without bothering to pay too much attention.  

Given that cynicism has dragged us into such a morass of heck-nothing-we-do-is-going-to-matter-anyway apathy, it would have taken a rare self belief for Usha to stick her neck out and say her school is targeting an Olympic gold in 2012.  

Given how failures and neglect have fed off each other and worn down Indian athletics, your first impulse is to cry out and tell her: sit down, dear; quit dreaming, we really would prefer to fail silently by not trying rather than endure another heartbreak of wasted talent and effort. 

You think awhile and say, hey, wait up, this is something she can do. You notice that Infosys is accompanying her, and that somehow seems appropriate – both having traversed similar paths, albeit in different dimensions – both having ventured out on their own on largely untrodden roads, yet standing scrupulously apart from the rest of the system, both clear of any stains of politics or murk that you’d have thought were essential to success, both rare but unlikely symbols of middle-class pride to a nation groping for role models.  

But what really gives hope for Usha’s wards is that they are going to be fresh, young. They will carry no burdens of past failures. All they need think of is their race, their event – they haven’t to carry scars of battles for funding, against politics, against the system. Courage isn’t that hard to come by if you clear the way for it. It astounds you that past Indian athletes managed what they did, walking that lonely a path all by themselves. 

Of course, there’s still a long way to go, the ride has only begun, and you still cant help a sneaking feeling that we’re perhaps hoping for too much. But Usha's wards are at least traveling in the right direction(that that comes as a surprise tells you how much we’ve resigned ourselves to) – they will enjoy the journey, traverse newer roads, and hopefully give us occasional gifts by aspiring for what we never thought possible.

Hello, World! May 21, 2006

Posted by Abhishek in Abhishek, Miscellaneous.
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Welcome to Silly Point, the definitive sports blog.

We will be up and blogging from this Saturday, 27th of May – just in time for you to catch up with all the amazing sports action the world is going to witness in June. We will have a in-depth coverage of the FIFA World Cup, India’s tour to the West Indies and indeed everything else in the world of sport.

So if you love your sport – and can’t get enough, wait till you read Silly Point.

So do visit again from Saturday and get set for some heavy dose of sports and sports writing. As we like to say, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!