Winner Takes All

imageIn late 1973 Red Star Belgrade came to Anfield in the European Cup (Champions League today) and ran the legs off Liverpool. Liverpool were one of the favourites, and couple of years later won the same European trophy twice back to back, besides winning the UEFA Cup twice in this period, and five League Championships in eight years and being runners-up in the remaining three. So no mugs.

Anfield must have been shocked. Absolutely, no argument about that. At the end of the match, the Kop (at the time, the most celebrated football crowd in the world, pre Heysel and Hillsborough), simply stood up and gave them a standing ovation, genuine and appreciative of the great skill of that Red Star team.

History records this particular Red Star Belgrade team was one of the great underachievers of club football. They were one of the best football teams in the world, but simply disappeared into the unknown. A later Red Star team won the European Cup in 1991, and that is what Red Star Belgrade is known for today. Like some other underachievers, namely Puskas Hungarians of 1954 and Tele Santana Brazilians of 1982, they won nothing and today, even very knowledgeable football fans do not know of them.

Who really remembers the 1970 South Africans? Except that they were one of the most magical cricket teams to exist. But they never won on the world stage, other than the 4-0 drubbing of Australia. Players like Barry Richards, Graeme Pollock and Mike Proctor were kings of their era.

This winner takes all mentality is a modern phenomenon. It has several aspects to it. Firstly, it expects that people win something to be acknowledged and become somebody. Secondly, the expectations and loyalty of supporters is also short and variable.

If, it’s a question of numbers and probabilities, one wonders how people will achieve acknowledgement in this world. Only 2 percent are outstanding in the Bell Curve. I am presuming title winners will come from within this 2 percent. So, what of the 98 per cent? Are they to be consigned to the scrap machine? Will these people live out an also-ran existence, because fortune did not smile on them?

The other point is of patience and loyalty. I read the Liverpool and Manchester United forums. In the old days, Shankly and Busby were given deep loyalty. When their teams were not doing well, the supporters never lost patience. Nowadays, Rogers, Moyes and Van Gaal, have had praise and then dung heaped on them. Sometimes this variability is week to week. A good performance and the manager is up in the sky; a bad performance and he is buried. The recent case of Mourinho is a stark reminder, ‘success is now measured in concrete returns – the trophies’.

There is a more obscure third matter, people my age will notice. In the past, there used to be a case for aesthetics in sports. Today it has been replaced by efficiency, because of the need to win. Guardiola, Benitez and Mourinho are all about this efficiency. Used to be that the luxury, skilful, maverick player would roam the park. They would deliver supreme beauty of skill, but were not too pushed about marking opposite players or getting back in position. Nevertheless, the joy of watching what they did with the ball was enough. Today these players have disappeared. Messi and Ronaldo, the most skilful players today, do not exercise their skills in matches as a Finney, Zico or Rivera (thats right, how many have heard these names, they were great, but never won a famous trophy). The same with a graceful batsman. They crunch the beauty out of his game and leave instead an efficient, slogging or boring run machine. One has to watch a free-wheeling Kanhai to understand what I mean. The joy of the visual has gone and the efficient deliverer has to perform on the stage.

Now just imagine this thinking spread across sports, art, literature and more. The flamboyant beauty of a Sobers innings, the risky manoeuvre of a Senna in F1, the audacious paint strokes of a Van Gogh, the long styled challenging writings of a Dickens. All these have disappeared and been replaced by efficiency, which cuts out risks and delivers results. Today, the winner takes all and so we also refine our lives accordingly. Imagine you advising your child to pursue a profession which is guaranteed good returns, shunning any particular artistic skills which may have been the real passion. Drabness starts to take over life.

The breaking moment!

imageIt was concentration, just before half time. Perhaps perpetrated by frustration or by a needless desire for Liverpool to score a goal. The 33 year old, took his eyes off the ball and it slipped under his foot. Next thing you know, there is a goal forty yards away and the goal keeper is picking the ball out of the net. Liverpool are one down and lose that day.

On such fine margins are fates decided. Brendan Rodgers, Liverpool manager would say, “hey, the slip was not even mine”. True you cannot legislate for such things. Especially, if it is your most reliable player. But stuff happens. Fact is that the Steven Gerrard slip cost Liverpool the Premier League title. Something broke that day, in the hearts and mind of the Anfield dressing room. It was never the same again.

I have seen this before. There are times when you give your all, you believe intensely and you are actually good enough. Its the real thing and the world believes also. You have your hand on the prize and everything in fate is going for you. But fate has something else planned for you, just before the final line. When it happens, the final last moment failure is too big to handle. It breaks you.

Back in 1982, Brazil had the World Cup in their hand. There were no equivalents in the history of football, barring Puskas and his Hungarians of the 1950s. Tele Santana and his team seemed in-human. They floated on the ground and created magic, which I have not seen again in these forty plus years of watching football. Never will, because football has become too safety first and structured. Watching them quietly was Enzo Bearzot, grizzled professional and a knowing Italian. He saw things which no one else saw. On that fateful afternoon in Barcelona, Paolo Rossi, rose out of a disastrous World Cup, to score the most famous hat-trick in football. Brazil lost, just! It broke all of us. I saw many friends cry that afternoon. But it definitely broke Brazil and Tele Santana and they were never the same again.

Coming into the 1999 final, Pakistan looked the real deal. We had beaten the Aussies at Headingly, a couple of weeks before and we looked like champions. The fastest bowler, the wiliest left armer, the best spinner and two of the best all rounders. Then we had very good batsmen. That was the team. It was a mature team, with a combination to fit. One just felt right. When I arrived at Lords that morning, the only misgiving was a fresh looking pitch. It looked like a Brisbane pitch on the first day. It was. Our team, on a high and expecting things to role their way, collapsed that day. It was built on a belief, which was based on the normal English summer conditions. We lost badly and for me its the turning point of Pakistan cricket. We lost a lot more that day. It broke us and over the next decade and a half we have never fully pieced it together again.

So to Brendan Rodgers. Liverpool manager. For twenty plus matches, he created a sublime attacking machine. Its philosophy steeped in offence, it simply scored more than it let in. It was exhilarating to watch and for a few months we all believed in the magic. Then it happened and we came down to earth. It broke him and I think, he did not have the wherewithal to repair the heart. In todays world of commerce, even sports is subservient. Success is the only answer. BR found that out. He has been dismissed as Liverpool’s manager.

For Liverpool I will say, what I have said these forty four years. You Will Never Walk Alone. For Brendan Rodgers, a thank you for the 2014 season. Good luck for the future. There may be other pastures, where this wound may heal.

*picture courtesy Premierleague.com

Brazil, a demolition which took 32 years

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David Luis fell to the ground, both hands raised to the heavens in prayer and forgiveness, in the aftermath of Germany’s 7-1 demolition of Brazil. Luis, blaming himself as the captain, probably did not realise that this story began 32 years before, one desolate afternoon in Barcelona, Spain, and he was just a culmination of that event.

Brazil came into the 1982 World Cup tournament, with the tag of history’s best, alongside the 1954 Hungarians. Having seen all the matches they played in that tournament, I can personally testify, that in 40 years of watching football, I have never seen anything quite like it.

Spread out in a rather normal 4-3-2-1 formation, it was because of what they did on the field that made it different. Tele Santana, the coach, had unabashedly made an attacking machine and its one purpose was to be destructive for the opposition. The fullbacks, Junior and Leandro were more attackers than defenders. Couple that with Socrates the captain midfield general, who roamed to all portions of the ground, Zico and Falcao, great attacking midfielders and lastly Eder the attacking left sided player and you had a team which moved like quick silver and made the ball talk on the ground. Mind, this team lacked Careca, the star forward who fractured his leg weeks before the tournament. Yet it attacked as no one has in the history of football.

This team carried a nations belief in its indestructibility. They would simply score more goals than any opposition in the world. Through that tournament they tore teams apart and arrived in the round of pre semis, needing a draw to go through versus Italy. Italy itself seemed a dour side, with its forward Paulo Rossi just having come out of a three year ban for match fixing, and totally out of sorts. Yet the pedigree was there, as Enzo Bearzot had built a very good side which did well in 1978 and fancied it could handle Brazil now.

That fateful afternoon, Brazil attacked as never before. In a game, which had the most sublime football played in the history of the game, Brazil chased the game through 90 minutes, equalising twice, while the Italians defended doggedly and attacked on the counter. Yet Paulo Rossi rising from the ashes of his career, scored the most famous hatrick in football and took the game for Italy, by 3-2. Italy went on to win the 1982 World Cup, though probably being second best to Brazil.

In Brazil the heart and belief were broken. Santana’s magic and promise and the waste of the greatest team to play, were never forgiven. Brazil never forgot Cerezzo and his awful pass across goal, pounced on by Rossi to score. A psyche change occurred and now flair was considered second best and players were encouraged who were tough and stopped play. Exit the playmaker Socrates type, enter Dunga the destroyer. Looking down the years of football history, one sees a dramatic shift.. Naturally, every now and then a player of iconic ability would come, but the team generally played closed football. So we had Romario and Bebeto in 1994, who won the tournament against the Italians. Ronaldo in 1998 when the final was lost to an electric French team. Ronaldo and Ronaldinho in 2002, when the Germans were beaten. Yet through the years, with the mind set of hard football, Dunga and Fernandinho and the likes have prevailed.

So to 2014, and once the flair player Neymar was gone, and Silva the core was suspended, there was no quality on the field to challenge the clinical Germans. Where a Rubinho, Coutinho or a Ronaldinho would make a difference, Scolari chose to leave these flair players out. End result a broken team and a broken philosophy.

What is not natural to one, is rarely the best. For Brazil, football is an art form, win or lose. They need to go back to their way. They need to forget 1982, Cerezzo and Paulo Rossi. Maybe today is the shock which will make it happen.

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