Football : A paradigm shift

Playing football is part of my daily routine. Five-on-five, three-on-three, and on really good days, seven-on-seven, we can do with any number as long as we play. Since our make-shift ground is actually the park of a nearby apartment-complex, I get to play with a varied age-group. There are kids who’ve just been exposed to the splendour of Messi’s artistry and there are uncles who’ve tried to imitate Carlos Valderrama’s hairstyle at some point in their lives. A week back, I saw a kid wearing a David Silva jersey. I was surprised. Among kids and jerseys, you don’t usually get to see Iniesta and Xavi, leave alone the Silva mould of players who barely hit the spotlight. I don’t blame them. The shiny side of football appeals much more to us when we’re kids. The Ronaldos and the Messis are bound to attract the majority of that age group. So anyway, that kid was a left footed player, and a pretty good one to boot. I decided to have a chat with him after the game. The game wore on and his involvement in the play started decreasing. Fatigue maybe, I guessed.  Suddenly he gets the ball on the right wing, glides inside, and comes in front of me. I moved forward and he shifted the ball to his right foot. “Got him”, I thought. The end result was a nutmeg and a finish to the low right corner. I was even more interested to talk to him now. He looked 11-12, and had fantastic ball control for his age. The game ended and I immediately went up to him.

“Good game champ. Silva fan, eh?”

“Yeah, he plays for Man City. He’s better than Aguero.”

I patted his head and walked off with a thought that has been in my head for a while now. The kid was the catalyst for this article, but the thought has been present for a few years. So here goes..

When I spoke about Silva, the first thought in the kid’s head was Manchester City. A vast majority of football fans from his age group know Messi as a Barcelona player and Ronaldo as a Real Madrid player. “Rooney? He plays for Manchester United.”

Food for thought here is.. ‘Has the focal point of the game shifted from national to club-centric?’ I mean, most of you reading this, I’m sure if someone asked you which team Zinedine Zidane played for, the first thing in your head would’ve been France. At least when we were in our formative years as football fans, Ronaldo was a Brazil player, Kahn was the German hero and Figo was Portugal’s lone warrior. Hell, I didn’t even know which club Rui Costa played for till I saw him at Milan! I have a theory. If you want a good view of the global perception of a sport, ask a bunch of kids. Their outlook is the purest. They don’t hold any pre-conceived notions about the game. They feel what they see. And what they see is a fair reflection of how the game is portrayed to the public.

Coming back to the point, the game has undergone a sea-change in the way it is approached. Club careers are given much more importance than a national one. International friendlies are taken extremely lightly, and major tournaments see a host of important players underperforming. Ghana and Uruguay were one of the two best teams in the world cup with so many other talented players and hence teams not playing up to the mark. Something has to be wrong. This has been a trend for a good while now. The most vivid impression on my mind about this was caused by Ronaldinho’s massive underperformance in the 2006 World Cup. He was the world’s best player by a country-mile before the tournament began. At Germany, he just blatantly refused to put the same effort as he would for Barcelona. He was supposed to win Brazil that World Cup. All he ended up doing was appear in the newspapers for being found with girls and an X-Box(!!!!) at his apartment while the rest of the squad was training. Rooney at the 2010 World Cup can be one more example. Forget that, Rooney for England even now. Manchester United’s talisman has bombed in 85 goals in 120 matches over the last 3 seasons, which are considered his best yet. For the three-lions, the count is a measly 8 in 27 over the same time-frame. I’m not a sucker for statistics, but sometimes, they speak for themselves.

Rooney looking his usual England self

Similarly, if we have to pull out a list of major club football superstars who have underachieved for country, we’ll have a massive yet unfortunate list. Since the definition of ‘success’ matters a lot on personal perception, it’s better to not step into the exact names. I’m sure if you think for five minutes, keeping a time frame of say…the last decade, you’d find more than ten seriously brilliant club players who haven’t done much of note for their respective national teams. Before that era, it didn’t matter how Lothar Matthäus played for Bayern or how Bergkamp played for Arsenal. You just knew they’ll give their best when they turn up in white and orange respectively.

There can be a number of reasons behind this trend. For one, it could be because the glamour of club football in the modern day is much more than the internationals. The money, of course, is much more at the club level. Although it’s a repulsive thought, money drives the modern game. How many players will you find in today’s world who won’t switch if they’re given a higher paycheque at another club? The Euros, Copa Americas and World Cups are given due importance by the media. But I have a question: Do the players carry the same thoughts? Is the danger of missing the opening two weeks of the new season due to an injury on the back of their minds? Does this thought make them conscious and prevent them from giving their level best at major international tournaments? The second reason could be the lack of international matches between two major tournaments. There are the qualifiers, but each team plays about 10-15 of them over four years. Four international matches a year is simply not going to make a team function smoothly.  But then again, international friendlies between the already hectic club seasons would lead to injuries and fatigue. Hence the major players like to give a few of them a skip. Skipping international matches was nothing short of sacrilege in the last millennium.

The major awards and recognitions have become victims to this trend too. The Ballon d’Or is no longer subject to a player’s international performances. 50 goals in a season will win you the most prestigious individual award in football. So what if you’ve just had a goal-less World Cup?

The importance of staying fit for a Saturday afternoon kickoff is much more than turning up in your national colours and feeling the goosebumps when the national anthem rings out at the stadium. Unless it’s a major tournament, the latter is deemed meaningless. Well then, bring on the Gyan Asamoahs and the Forlans. Seeing a good World Cup is much more important to me than seeing five goal thrillers every weekend in various domestic leagues. Not that I mind seeing goals scored every weekend, but if it affects the game at the national level, I can do with a few less goals by Rooney for Manchester United.