Football managers sans frontiers
Opinion

Football managers sans frontiers

A month after the Russian World Cup spectacle came to a fairytale finish, the English Premier League has kicked off and the contrasts were perceptible. The noise from the stands in Britain and the billboards in Chinese and Arabic and the logos of the airliners of cash-rich Emirates and the many hued players themselves, football has truly become global with all its advantages and malcontents. It would take some time for the spectators and viewers to get used to the new set of players and impresarios on the technical area who shout instructions and look more vexed.

It will take some time for things to get clear as well as for the players and managers to click as a team. This could also be the occasion to take stock of the transformations that have taken over the beautiful game in these years and decades. The change of managers and owners of some of the English clubs might provide some indication. The very visible owner of the Chelsea club, a Russian oligarch, Roman Abramovich who used to be present at most of the matches, is no longer there and he is reported to have taken up Israeli citizenship after having been refused the UK visa. And so the coach of that team, Jose Mourinho, looks dishevelled and quite lost, and gone is his ‘special one’ hauteur.

The other Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov’s shares in the Arsenal Club have been bought out by the US millionaire Stan Koenka and that has also coincided with the exit of the French manager Arsene Wenger, the longest serving coach after perhaps Alex Ferguson. The current champion club, Manchester City, is owned by Abu Dhabi’s ruler Sheikh Mansour who had also acquired it from the fugitive former Thai Premier, Takshi Shinawatra. As for the other Manchester club, the United, a US tycoon Avram Glazer owns it, and he also has a finger in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers of the US. This is the kind of money that has been pumped into British football.

This is also possibly one reason why Eric Hobsbawm called the English Premier championship the globalisation of the game. The growth of the global market and rapid communication has transformed live matches where teams are not particularly linked to any country, still less to any individual city. Nothing illustrates globalisation more than what football has been transformed in the past two decades, he said. Sport has become a market activity and the lobbying for the World Cup by Kuwait is an interesting case in point.

Michel Platini, a great player and one time French captain and later deputy head of the FIFA, attended a lunch at Elysee Palace with French President Sarkozy and the Qatari royal family just before the 2010 vote for the World Cup bidding. It was at this lunch that Sarkozy let the Qataris know the price for Platini’s vote; support for the local team Paris Saint-Germain which the latter readily bought and invested millions of pounds ,including the 200 million pounds for buying Brazil’s Neymar, the costliest player in the world. Qatar did not stop at that, it bought the TV rights to the French Ligue 1 games and Qatar Airways ordered 50 A320 planes from France’s Airbus factory in Toulouse. Around that time the Argentine FIFA member sought from the British Premier Cameron the Falklands islands in return for his vote and the latter blanched.

Though Platini insisted he did not vote for Qatar because Sarkozy asked him to and abandoned his earlier backing for the US and, instead, supported the desert kingdom with no football infrastructure or history, and a harsh climate, what swung him was the exciting possibilities the game would bring to new territories and to new cultures, instead of being merely Euro-centric in the colder climates. Though the summers would be extreme hot in Qatar with temperatures soaring to 50 degrees C, and the Qataris had offered to have all the stadiums air conditioned, conditions outside would be harsh, even for workers engaged in building these super-structures. Qatar offered to host the championship in winter, to turn it into a winter event. Anyway Qatari inducements were too tempting to be turned down.

Platini, it seems, was the easiest hurdle to cross for the Qataris. According to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), nearly 1,200 stadium construction workers, including many from India, have died since the World Cup was awarded in 2010 to Qatar. To put things in perspective ITUC has provided the figures for casualties before major sporting events worldwide; the Sochi Winter Olympics had 60 deaths, the Athens Olympics caused 40 deaths and ten workers were killed before the Beijing Olympics and the 2014 Brazil World Cup cost seven lives.

As if these were not enough, six neighbouring Arab countries that had already cut off ties with Qatar had written to FIFA to strip it of hosting the 2020 World Cup because, they said, it was a country that is the ‘base of Islamic terrorism’. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen and Mauritania had collectively written to the football governing body to remove Qatar as hosts under Article 85 of the FIFA code.

Even before the bidding the Qataris complained they were being penalised for Putin’s kleptocratic regime outwitting them and winning the 2018 bid. But the Americans who had a grouse that the tournament was stolen from under their nose began to look into the financial irregularities within the FIFA itself. A US Department of Justice inquiry found that Jack Warner, a top FIFA official, was involved in ‘wire fraud, racketeering, money laundering’ and a ‘whole raft of dodgy practices’ that also included a payment of 2 million pounds from Chairman Blatter to his deputy Platini. Blatter, in turn, blamed Platini for changing his vote in favour of Qatar. Eventually both resigned and Blatter later said that he had visions of bringing the US and Russia together and that football could make them shake hands. It was all not for him but for the glory of the game. ‘What I was asking was the Nobel Prize for Peace; for football, not for the man. It is the movement for FIFA, what it had done for the world.’

For all the talk of globalisation football, the game, has its own specific variants, the Anglo-American one that combines accurate construction with dazzling thematic patterns, and refuses to be bound by any conventional rules; the rugged splendour of the Teutonic school; the highly finished but unpleasantly slick and insipid products of the Czech style with its strict adherence to certain artificial conditions; the old Russian endgame studies, which attain the sparkling summits, and the mechanical Soviet problem of the so-called ‘task’ type, which replaces artistic strategy by the ponderous working of themes to their utmost capacity.

This is a description provided by novelist Vladimir Nabokov seven decades back and it is not about football, but of another game, chess that is the favourite of the Russians, but that description fits in aptly for football as well.

A philosophy professor Jean Michel Salankis has ventured even further, saying that soccer is not for the mentally disadvantaged. ‘Wherever you go people talk about soccer in terms of theories, there is a theory of the playmaker, there is the theory of the counterattack, the theory of the three-man defence, and so on.  Such capacity for abstract thinking though makes every fan a potential philosopher’. This again was formulated some six decades ago.

In the Mediterranean region where divinity is present in every rock face and cornice, you are aware, for instance, that the soccer ball is a symbol of sainthood, said the novelist Albert Camus, a goalkeeper of the Algerian team himself. Or goalkeepers are patriarchal figures with roots deep in the culture of European Christianity, according to Prof.Gunter Gebauer of the Institute of Sports in Berlin. Meditating on the soccer ball, he said, ‘It is mistreated in the vilest fashion, but it returns to your feet and is cherished and loved. This is like the saint who is thrown out of town and comes back to conquer the people’s hearts.’

On the goalkeeper he has some illuminating thoughts. ‘They are bound up with intrinsically European values, where our house is our castle and the source of our pride and honour. We guard it against intrusion, just as a goalkeeper guards his goal. Scoring is like penetrating into the stranger’s house, burning his belongings.’ About goalkeepers the fastest goal was scored, in 32 seconds, by Brazil’s Pele when the opposing goalkeeper was genuflecting before his goal post.

Prof. Frederick Exley puts it this way, ‘Part of it was my feeling that football was an island in a world of circumspection. In football a man is asked to do a difficult and brutal job, and either he did it or got out. There is nothing rhetorical or vague. I chose to believe that it was not unlike the jobs which all men had been called upon to do. The recompense one gained was the feeling of being alive.’

But in the second decade of this century all that has changed and one evidence of it has been the Moscow games that has not escaped the  data tsunami with the entry of the Silicon Valley with its big data analytics. Here data is collected by GPs antennae, accelerometer, and the GNSS receiver and placed in the shin guard and every team is trying to find expected goals, shots, fouls, tying to analyse strengths and weakness of opponents using waves of these data. Big data also indicates whether a team should depend on square passes or the long ball. Earlier these were left to the inspired moments of the players, or the hunch of the coaches, but now statistics is the ‘third eye’. The FIFA has already given its blessings to the use of the Electronic Performance Tracking System to control and improve player and team performance.

With such data fixation, not only among economists, players change, strategies are altered, even throw-ins and corner kicks have become data driven. This has resulted in millions of avid football fans having not a clue to what is going on in the middle of the field. The great Dutch coaches who once held sway, the Hiddinks, Coemans, Advocats and the Louis van Gaals have all stagnated with not a clue to what is happening to their concept of  ‘total football’.  Matches have become something like real-time movies directed by data scientists.

Two of  the most successful coaches of the German Bundeslega teams, of Bayern Munich and Dortmund,  have crossed over to the English Premier League and carry on their rivalry in a new setting, under news owners and before a new set of fans. Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopps now are in charge of Manchester City and Liverpool and they have started their mind games, Tiki taka and power soccer, amid the third eye of the big date ring masters, while the oil sheikhs and Russian oligarchs and the American hedge fund managers battle it out and the FIFA bosses play for even higher stakes, possibly the Nobel Peace Prize.