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

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Cricket, wherefore art thou?

imageLong ago, they sat in a village green and sampled tea and scones. It was a lovely green meadow, with a slightly warm sun and a nice cool breeze. In the field men in white, starched whites, played a game of cricket. Ordinary bats, green wicket and a red ball. It was good balanced competition between bat and ball. It seemed like bliss. Those who watched remarked, “could anything be better than this? a thing of beauty!”

World Cups, whether they are cricket or football – and years ago it also included hockey- were stress times, coupled with a bit of happiness if Pakistan mainly, or Italy, were doing well. I can see you immediately saying whyever Italy? Well, just that through the 70’s when I learned my football, I remember Italian sides being quick, efficient, sometimes artistic and definitely tough. I can’t help it, but in my makeover, toughness counts.

Anyway, to get back to the World Cups. In this case specifically, cricket World Cup, because that is what is taking place at the moment. Anguish at our under achievement, characterised these World Cup periods over the last forty years. So for instance, 1983, 2003 and 2011 were really no problem. Those sides went as far as they could and should have. The worst cricketing day in my life, was the semi-final loss to Australia at Qaddafi, in 1987. Wholly unexpected, but more so, we broke the back of our team, which at that particular time was the best in the world. Luck did not favour us that day, when many decisions went against us, but also we were too sure of ourselves going into the game.

So to this time and this World Cup. My most engaged moment came, when I was saying my congregational prayers during the game with South Africa. As the prayer started, a huge roar went up and being aware of the situation of the match, I figured AB de Villiers had got out. Later while in sajda, another roar went up and then the firecrackers started, which meant Pakistan had won. That is the closest I have come to Pakistan in this World Cup and it is intolerably sad. A committed follower of cricket since the age of five. Sigh!

Its not our performance. One has seen good and bad days and this team has definitely performed better than ’03 and ’07. As an aside, in ’03, I was heavily involved with the team, due to my Pepsi position and somewhere there is even a photograph of myself holding the World Cup. To get back to the main theme, it is the way short form cricket has gone. The goons seem to have taken over, and the skill factor is gone. Its mostly to do with the terrible imbalance between bat and ball, coupled with the blatant change of rules, which have mercenerised this once beautiful game. The upshot is, that all the kids growing up will never desire to be bowlers anymore. Who wants to be sacrificial lambs? There is nothing inspirational about it anymore.

So while I do pray on a patriotic level that we go on to win this cup – and there are some great coincidental similarities with 1992 – but I have not been able to watch any of this stuff for a long time now. In the years ahead, I see test cricket totally declining or changing, because batsmen can only wallop the ball and cannot put their head down and bat 6-8 hours – Hanif batted 3 days plus to save a test match. Similarly, I see T20 and One day changing further, as lollypops will be served to batsmen, who will have rules bent to favour them. A 500 score is not far off, a hundred in less than 25 balls is on the cards, a 300 by an individual batsman and last a 150 runs concession by a bowler.

Oh, the gluttony of sixes and the starvation of wickets. Enjoy it, if that is what you like. Weekes famously said to a teenage Mushtaq Muhammad “Son, three fours are always better than two sixes”. I see the souls of Grace, Ranjitsinjhi, Bradman, McGilvray and Arlott weeping.

* picture taken from Yahoo images

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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