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World Cup: The Power of Football

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By Mosarrap H. Khan

The year was 1911.  The day: 29 July. A group of eleven barefoot men stepped on to the field of Calcutta Football Club (not yet Kolkata). They were taking on eleven well-heeled Englishmen, playing the final of the IFA shield. A legend was born that day. Mohun Bagan club beat the East Yorkshire Regiment team 2-1. On the face of it, the final was yet another football match that the ‘natives’ played against their well-endowed colonial masters. Metaphorically speaking, the final denoted many things: the victory of the weak against the powerful (remember Lagaan?), the victory of the colonized over the colonizers, one of the first stirrings of freedom, and the overcoming of the ‘effeminate Bengali’ tag. Sports historian, Boria Majumdar’s quote on the reaction of an Englishman sums up the mood well: “Mohan-Bagan has succeeded in what the Congress and the Swadeshiwallas have failed to do so far to explode the myth that the Britishers are unbeatable in any sphere of life.”

The very first palpable casualty of an Indian team’s victory was the loss of prestige for Calcutta as the capital of British India. The very next year, 1912, the capital was moved to Delhi. While many attribute this move to the strong challenge posed to the British by the terrorist movements following the first Partition of Bengal (1905), Mohun Bagan’s victory, one could say, was the final nail in the coffin.

What is it about football that resonates with billions of people around the globe? Is it just the sheer magic, wizardry, skill, stamina, pace, grace, and beauty? Is it because football is perhaps one of the very few games that depend on the use of limited body parts? Or is it that football has always stood for a means of social mobility for the underdogs?

The celebration following Mohun Bagan’s victory against the Englishmen and the values that have been attributed to that momentous victory would suggest that the semiotic of class drives its appeal. The victory of Indian barefoot men in 1911 suggests one could win this game with an indomitable spirit. There was no need for elaborate gears (even an improvised round object would do) and no knowledge of complicated rules (like in cricket). An ability to kick the ball hard and dodge one’s opponents was all that one required.

In 1986, I watched my first live football match on television. It was also the first year I spent away from home in a boarding school. I had never watched any sports on television until then, as we didn’t have a television set at home until 1988. While my urban peers in the boarding school debated the impossible wizardry of Maradona and the World Cup, I had quite a hard time following them. Back home, I had somewhat started playing the game. But I had no pedantic knowledge about the greats of football and their achievements. It was a learning curve for me. It was not enough to play a game. In an urban setting, it was more important to demonstrate one’s knowledge about the game.

Not long after I had joined the school, one late night we were woken up to watch the semi-final match between Argentina and Belgium. I was too young and unschooled in the art of watching a live match. While my fellow boarders cheered at Maradona’s every move, for me, it was a lesson in spectatorship. However, Argentina’s victory and Maradona’s brilliance left a lasting impression on me.

A few months later, our class brought out a wall-magazine. I don’t clearly remember now if it were on Argentina or on Maradona. But I still remember Maradona’s picture in the middle of the magazine, which my supremely talented classmate, Partha, painted. Each pleat, each crumple of the blue-and-white jersey was so vivid that it appeared almost real.

I wrote my first magazine piece on Maradona, a brief profile. At that point in time, I didn’t have much of an idea of his footballing achievements. I was more interested in his personal life and struggles that I pieced together from the daily newspaper that was stuck on the wall of our hostel. It was a compelling life of poverty in Villa Fiorito, one of the poorest neighborhoods on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. He was born as the fifth child in a family of eight children. His father ground meat-bones in a factory from four in the morning until three in the afternoon. The neighborhood kids played with improvised balls made with stuffed rags and newspapers. These facts are well known by now. But in my childhood, such a life held me captive.

My first introduction to Pele also happened in the boarding school through my English textbook, which contained a brief chapter on the football great. Some of the snatches from his life stuck in my mind: His father, Donaldinho, stuffed rags into a sock and made a ball for Pele to kick around. The stuffing sometimes included old newspapers and the ball was tied with a string. Even before he dropped out of school, he worked as a shoeshine boy, stole peanuts from a warehouse along with his friends and sold them to make money, later worked as a cobbler’s apprentice. Pele formed his first football team with a bunch of his friends and they called themselves ‘the shoeless ones’. Once he started playing for Radium, he sold meat pies at a train station.

Two greats of football on two different sides of the digital divide: Maradona and Pele. One I had the fortune of watching live due to the 1980s global revolution in televised sports. The other I had only heard about and read about. One who struggled with drug-abuse and was hounded by the paparazzi; the other led a quieter, dignified life. One who switched clubs and ushered in the era of multi-million dollar transfers; the other never left his club in his home country, Brazil, until after his retirement, when he decided to join the New York Cosmos to promote football in the US (who would have thought I would end up in the same city one day?).

Yet, their lives were bound by a common thread: poverty. Football was a means to overcome poverty and struggles in their childhood.

In his autobiography, Maradona recollects his childhood struggles, “…if I had to define Fiorito with just one word, it would be ‘struggle’. In Fiorito, if it was possible to eat, people ate, and if it wasn’t, they didn’t…Our house had three rooms…When it rained we walked around dodging the leaks; you got wetter inside than out…My skin got thicker because of what I lived through in Fiorito.”

Pele, too, never quite forgot the poverty, which was his childhood companion: “And so we existed. But as I grew up I began to learn what poverty was…Poverty was wondering what would happen if we couldn’t raise the money for the firewood. Poverty was begrudging and even hating each stick of kindling that went into the hungry maw of that stove, and being forced to feed it, anyway. Poverty, in short, is being robbed of self-respect and self-reliance. Poverty is fear.”

The power of football lifted them out of their poverty and launched into the world of stardom. It’s an altogether different debate that Maradona and Pele handled their celebrity status differently because they played and lived their lives in two very different times of media excess.

One would have to agree that post-Maradona, football has become even more aspirational. There are thousands of youngsters who still dream of transcending poverty and making it big through football.

Yet, there is no doubt that football has also become one more cog in the machine of capitalism. When Pele was asked what has changed since his days as a footballer, he said that the biggest change has been the money that the players earned now. In his days, one had to play for about five years to earn $100,000. These days, a player earns multi-million dollars in a single year.

Take the case of David Beckham, the undisputed footballing icon of the new century, often celebrated more for his marketing power than his football skills. Past his prime, he signed a six-month contract with the Paris Saint-Germain team recently for a whopping monthly salary of 800,000 Euros ($1 million), which he has pledged to a charity. According to Forbes magazine in April 2012, Beckham was the highest-paid footballer earning $46 million a year, out of which $37 million came from advertising contracts alone. Paris Saint-Germain, one of the richest clubs in the world owned by the Qatar Investment Authority, has already launched replica shirts with Beckham’s name priced at 110 Euros. It is estimated that he might be pocketing at least 10 Euros from each shirt given that he helped sell one million replica shirts when he spent four years at Real Madrid (2003-2007).

The entry of big money has made these transfers even murkier. The current Brazilian superstar, Neymar, who scored two goals in the opening match, recently transferred to Barcelona from the Brazilian club, Santos, for an undisclosed amount running into millions of Euros. After intense speculation and accusations, in January, 2014, FC Barcelona disclosed the amount the club spent on Neymar’s transfer: 57.1 million Euros as transfer fee and another 56.7 million Euros as total salary cost to the club. While the signing amount might appear vulgar, things got murkier when the former President of the Brazilian club Santos, Luis Álvaro da Oliveira Ribeiro, accused in an interview that Neymar’s transfer included an orgy with a prostitute in Piccadilly, London, for the player’s father.

Have all this diminished the power of football?

I will end on a personal note. There was a time when my father enjoyed listening to music (even learnt classical music for a while), watching films, and acting in plays in his native village. At 67, he has given up most of these habits. But I know, for sure, he will still be sitting alone in front of the television set, late into the night, catching the latest action from the World Cup.

That is the power of football.

Photo-credit: Here


Mosarrap H. Khan is a doctoral candidate in the Dept. of English, New York University. He researches in the area of Muslim everyday life in South Asia. He is an editor of Cafe Dissensus.

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