Bemoaning the Leadership Void at Chelsea FC

Back when I first became a football fan – and subsequently a Chelsea supporter – in the early 2000’s, I was spoilt with the presence of all the massive personalities in the club who constantly showed immense leadership on the field – especially when Chelsea needed it most. These are players who would constantly motivate other fellow players, never stop trying till the final whistle, never accept defeat, never give up, and never let others around them give up. They were also players who would sometimes win games just by the fear their daunting personalities instilled in the opposition.

drogba-terry-lampard

To me personally, Didier Drogba was the man who embodied all the qualities I love in a footballer – the technical ability, athleticism, ability to shepherd his fellow players when the going gets tough, and the ability to intimidate and bully the opponent defense into complete submission. Just ask Arsene Wenger and he will personally attest to all of that. And then you had the likes of Essien and Ballack who were completely in their element tackling, shoving, and generally bullying the opponents – especially in the mid-field. Do you remember anyone ever picking a fight with Essien or Ballack AND WINNING it?!!? And then you had the calm presence of Lampard and Terry – two guys who formed the core of the team and whom you could almost always count on. And then you still had Ashley Cole and Ivanovic – two players who displayed their own sense of leadership to the team and the opponents.

Regardless of what each player’s qualities were, the team almost always played with a “Fuck you, we will find a way to win this game!” kind of attitude. That confidence may have bordered on arrogance at times. But for the fans, that gave a sense of belief in the team that no matter what the scoreline was, there was always hope and that it was never over till the final whistle. (Cue 2012 Champions League campaign).

And that is what I miss the most now – and have missed for a good few years. Ever since the departures of Terry, Lampard, Drogba and company, there has been a massive massive leadership void within Chelsea that has not come anywhere near to being filled. There has been almost nobody who has taken over the role of the team motivator. Cesar Azpilecueta has done an acceptable job as the Captain but has inevitably been far below the standards set by John Terry and Frank Lampard. The club has definitely had its share of stars – Hazard, Fabregas, Costa – but I don’t recollect anyone stepping up to shepherd the players when the scoreline is not in their favor. But the personalities I miss the most are those who took up the role of the team bully. Chelsea has sorely missed someone on the pitch who instilled a sense of fear and intimidation in the opponents just by their mere presence. Perhaps a case can be made for Diego “I go to battle” Costa for the role of the team bully – but that was just a temporary stint.

So as much as I am super excited to see this generation of super young Chelsea players grow and play together for the next several years, I still do not know who will grow up to become the next leaders of the team – someone who will yell at their own teammates to not give up, someone who will set the team’s standards by their own work, someone who instills a sense of belief in the teammates that it is not over till its over, and someone who will intimidate and bully the opponents into self doubt and submission. My money is on Andreas Christenssen, Christian Pulisic, Reece James, and – get this – Billy Gilmour. I don’t expect to see any significant transformation in any of them for at least 2-4 years, but I do have a sense that this young crop of Chelsea players will eventually grow on to take up the mantle vacated by the likes of Drogba, Terry, Lampard, Essien, Ballack and others.

As a side note, I do have to acknowledge this lack of ‘leaders’ being an issue with most of the other top clubs in England. Nobody has taken up the roles vacated by Giggs, Scholes, Neville, Ferdinand, Vidic (Man Utd); or Kompany, Yaya Toure (Man City); Henry, Bergkamp, Viera, Pires (Arsenal); or Gerrard, Carragher (Liverpool). I wonder who the ones would be stepping up in those clubs.

Life Lessons from AFC Ajax: Living With Societal Expectations

Read Part 1 here.

The more I thought about how Ajax expressed themselves on the pitch without fear, the more I got drawn into society’s own predicament at large. We, as a society, have always lived at the bottom of the ocean of expectations. It is an ocean of our own making, and our objective in our lives are all about just finding ways to get that Oxygen from above the ocean – but without actually rising above the water. Many have indeed tried to rise above the water. Some of them were crushed by the force of the ocean, and some were simply dragged down by their fellow humans just because the bottom dwellers could not stand being confronted with the possibility of a life beyond their complacency.

Expectations are what we are born into, grow up being fed, learn to live with, and ensure to pass it along to the next generation. This is a cycle that is as old as civilization itself. It is true of almost every person I have ever met or known in my life, and it is certainly true of my own life. I am 33 years old and vaguely remember that time when I thought I could do whatever the fuck I wanted to do. That attitude did not stem from rebellion, but from a healthy ignorance of societal expectations. I lived without fear of what I would become in the future because one, I simply didn’t care; and two, I thought I could be anyone I wanted to be! But that was an extremely short lived time though. The burden of being a ‘smart student’ in my childhood was that I HAD TO top my class, score more than 90% every time, and avoid all other forms of activities in order to achieve those objectives.

Eventually, after many years, I came to realize that those were not in fact my own objectives, but societal expectations that had trickled down through society’s different layers and eventually appeared as parental and peer pressures. But like everyone else, I just went along with it and made those my own ‘goals’ and ‘ambitions’. Over time, those ‘goals’ and ‘ambitions’ may have taken on different forms, but still continued to be manifestations of societal expectations at large. And so, ultimately, I became one among those bottom dwellers living under the ocean of expectations set by a society we did not get to choose.

It may appear that these goals or objectives are our own and come of our own free will and volition. But mostly it is just a manifestation of what society has defined as the broad expectations from all of us – depending on where we are born into (think race, economic status, caste, skin color, gender, etc). Even if we somehow live with the complete ignorance that these all are our own goals and objectives, the problem is that we still live with the associated expectations. And because, fundamentally, they are not our own, we will always pursue these ‘goals’ while living with the fear of having something to lose if we don’t achieve them.

And there you have it: FEAR. It is at the back of our minds to varying degrees depending on our circumstances. We do not live in a society where we are told “Do what you want”. We are in a society where we are at best told “Do what you want as long as it is within the general framework of what the society expects from someone in your position”. At worst, it is “This is what you are expected to do and this is what you are supposed to dream of.” I am now seeing the next generation being beaten down to submission by the same societal expectations that got me more than a decade ago. I also see the even younger ones – the truly free spirited ones – who are on the cusp of getting sucked into the ocean. Somehow, in all this, I feel that the age of that healthy ignorance seems to be getting lower and lower with each passing generation.

I am reminded of ‘The Logical Song’ by Supertramp:

When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful
A miracle, oh it was beautiful, magical
And all the birds in the trees, well they’d be singing so happily
Oh joyfully, playfully watching me
But then they send me away to teach me how to be sensible
Logical, oh responsible, practical

And they showed me a world where I could be so dependable
Oh clinical, oh intellectual, cynical
…..
I said, watch what you say or they’ll be calling you a radical
Liberal, oh fanatical, criminal
Won’t you sign up your name, we’d like to feel you’re Acceptable
Respectable, oh presentable, a vegetable!

As the song says, I do believe that in the end, we become a vegetable. Maybe an acceptable, respectable and presentable vegetable – but a vegetable nonetheless. At the age of 33, I have been through enough institutions to have had my own interpretation of ‘freedom’ become narrower and narrower. So much so, that even if I were to simply decide that I would break free of these shackles and quit my job and do my own thing, I wouldn’t know what the fuck it is that I even WANT to do! Never mind the question of whether I have the resources or knowledge to accomplish it, I am unable to even figure out what it is that I truly want in the first place.

In fact why think that far ahead? Let us just look at this blog right here. What I write, how I write and when I write on this blog all inevitably are (at least in part) decided by what would be ‘acceptable’ or ‘popular’ by those who read it. Why don’t I just simply write whatever it is that I want to and not care about if it is ‘correct’, or who reads it or how people feel about it? Why am I currently thinking that people nowadays have the attention span of a goldfish, so this post would be read by more if it was split into two? Why do I even care about who reads my post? Why do I seek any form of validation at all?

The unfortunate answer to all these is that, like most others, I have been sufficiently institutionalized to seek society’s approval in whatever it is I do. And it is simply not easy to break away from that mindset. This is what living in fear of not meeting the expectations laid out by someone else can do to our lives.

I am reminded of a quote in a Daft Punk song “Giorgio by Moroder” where Giovanni Giorgio has this to say about making music:

Once you free your mind about the concept of harmony and of music being correct, you can do whatever you want. So nobody told me what to do, and there was no preconception of what to do.

Now imagine a world without societal expectations, where children are brought up to be what they want to be, where people truly pursue their passions, where people are not taught what to think, do or say, and where it doesn’t necessarily take the innocence of a 5 year old kid to come up with a question like “What Would Happen If There Were No Number 6?” (No seriously, why couldn’t I think of that question?). There would be no fear of not meeting expectations, no fear of missing out on something, and we could pursue our own goals just because we want to have fun.

Ajax may have knocked out my favorite team from the Champions League. But in doing so, it has also given me a life lesson on what it means to live without fear or expectations – societal or our own  – and what it means to pursue something just because we want to express ourselves and have fun.

Life Lessons from AFC Ajax: Playing Without Fear

I wrote this less than 2 hours after watching Juventus get eliminated by Ajax Amsterdam in the Quarter Finals of the UEFA Champions League. What I saw was not a narrative laden story of a comeback, or an underdog overcoming the odds, or a bunch of players showing ‘team spirit’, or a dazzling individual performance, or big money players vs inexperienced youth, or Johan Cryuff’s Total Football, and definitely nothing related to Cristiano Ronaldo’s broken streak of UCL Semi-Final appearances and/or trophies. (Make no mistake, you WILL read a lot of articles peddling those narratives in the coming days and weeks). No. What I saw transcended all that can be fit into a nice narrative. To me, what Ajax did and showed the world had almost nothing to do with football itself per se. Instead, what Ajax did to Real Madrid and Juventus came down to just one single idea:

A complete lack of fear.

I have been a loyal and dedicated Juventus fan for over 16 years now, sticking with the club through their current absolute dominance in Serie A and (especially) through their darkest time period during Calciopoli when they were forced to play in Serie B. I have been through enough heartbreaks rooting for this team in Europe in the last decade and a half. Losing 3 finals, getting eliminated in injury time in a knockout round, giving up big leads – I have been through them all. So when Ronaldo arrived in Turin this past summer, I was once again hopeful of finally seeing the Old Lady lift that one elusive trophy. So yes, it was extremely painful to see Juventus get knocked out in the Quarter Finals today by Ajax. But as much as that hurt, it also reminded me of why I began to support Juventus in the first place.

It was the 14th of May in 2003. A packed house at the now defunct Stadio Delle Alpi awaited the 2nd leg of the Juventus – Real Madrid Semi-final. Real Madrid led 2-1 coming into the 2nd leg thanks to their victory at the Bernabaeu. And then, this happened:

I vividly remember watching the game in my living room well past midnight. My parents were asleep upstairs and I tried my best to contain my enthusiasm by not yelling out loud during the match. At that time, I had just begun to watch football. I had no team to support and it appeared that the default team to root for among my friends circle was Manchester United. But they had just been dispatched in a rather humiliating fashion by the magnificence of THAT Ronaldo a couple of weeks prior. And I never bothered much about them anyway. But when I saw what Juventus did to Real Madrid that night, it made me fall in love with Juve for reasons I never really understood – untill I saw Ajax do the same to them 16 years after that night.

That night in Turin, Juventus played not just with a will and determination to WIN, but also with an attitude of complete fearlessness. I can still remember the excitement from that night every time Juventus got the ball. You just felt like SOMETHING would happen! The quick passing of the balls, Edgar Davids just refusing any Madrid player to pass through, Pavel Nedved pulling the strings and scoring the goal of the season, Del Piero and Trezeguet just making something happen out of nothing, Gigi Buffon reminding Luis Figo that he simply cannot score against him from a penalty kick – it was all there! That night Juventus played not just with an intent to win, but more so with an attitude of having absolutely nothing to lose. Real Madrid had absolutely no answer to Juventus running amok. Even THAT Ronaldo had nothing to offer. How do you play against a team that is just ‘going for it’ because they just don’t give a fuck otherwise? What strategy do you follow when you have the opposition coming at you just for fun and playing with a “Fuck you! I don’t care” attitude? That night, Juventus played for fun. That night, Juventus played like they had absolutely nothing to lose.

That night, Juventus played with absolutely no fear.

And I just fell in love with them then.

16 years since that night, today, Ajax reminded me of THAT Juventus and why I fell in love with them then. Like that night in Turin, Ajax today played like they had nothing to lose. They played for fun, and they played without fear. Even in the last ten minutes, when other teams would have fallen back to defend, Ajax just continued to express themselves the only way they knew – by playing without fear or having anything to lose. They eventually won the tie 3-2 (even though it could have EASILY been 6-2 or 8-2) and earned a deserved standing ovation from the Juventini in Turin. (Perhaps there were many more in that stadium who were also reminded of THAT Juve from all those years ago).

The lack of fear that Ajax played with stems from the attitude of playing like they have nothing to lose. That attitude in turn comes from a general to complete lack of preset expectations. Let us face it. Ajax absolutely did not have ‘Win the UEFA Champions League’ in their list of objectives at the start of their season. They probably still don’t. Which is why they are able to play with such a fearlessness and just have the opposition be completely clueless on how to address their approach. If they can iron out their decision making in front of goal, they can wipe out any team if they continue to play with this attitude. So I sincerely hope they continue to NOT have ‘Win UEFA Champions League’ as one of their objectives this season – until after they win it.

The unfortunate side effect of this is that due to the same lack of expectations, they will ultimately be compelled to sell their best players to clubs that do have those expectations and want to build the best team to fulfill them. That is also unfortunate in an ironic way because the very players who might potentially win the Champions League by playing without fear this year will end up in teams that DO play with the fear and expectations that they set themselves. But till that happens, let us all just appreciate and enjoy the phenomenal display of fearlessness shown by this young Ajax team.

Read the second part here. 

Dear Football Commentator: VAR is NOT the Controversy; YOU Are

Earlier this week, I watched the phenomenal Man City vs Tottenham 2nd leg at the Etihad. The tie ended 4-3 to City with Spurs moving to the Semis on away goals rule. Despite the remarkable scoreline, one of the most obvious things that will come to anyone’s recollection about the game will be the use of VAR to decide two instances of goals – with one being awarded (Llorente), and another not awarded due to an offside (Sterling). While the decisions were correct, the way the commentators portrayed VAR and its role in the process has been very annoying – in this match and others. By commentators, I am referring to anyone with any significant influence and position who puts out opinions/commentary/articles etc. So this includes live commentary personnel, football writers, twitter celebrities, fan blog writers, etc.

Situations like Sterling’s goal being negated for a missed offside decision are the exact kind of decisions that the VAR was brought in for. And they have been doing their job just fine in Serie A and other competitions – just like they have begun to do so in the Champions League. So the only objective way to react to situations like this is to acknowledge the role the VAR played in ensuring the correct decision was made during the match.

Instead, in a ridiculous turn of events, most football commentators have come to characterize ANY decision made by the VAR as ‘controversial’! This is even more true when it comes to the VAR overturning a decision made by the on field referee. Until recently, the same commentators had been calling for the introduction of VAR to rectify the incorrect decisions made in the field. But when it is finally in play and starts overturning those very same incorrect decisions, it is suddenly deemed to be ‘controversial’! Are you serious?

In addition to just terming any VAR intervention as ‘controversial’, there are a bunch of other phrases that these commentators have an affinity to use:

  • City were “robbed by VAR”
  • “VAR denies” City a goal
  • “VAR raises its head” once again in this tie
  • “VAR drama once again”

Ok first of all, nobody ever gets ‘robbed’ by the VAR. Getting ‘robbed’ assumes that you had actually scored a goal LEGITIMATELY to start with, and the VAR overturns it for no good reason. This has never happened in the short history of the VAR. Getting ‘robbed’ can only refer to incidents like Frank Lampard’s ghost goal in the 2006 World Cup which he did score legitimately, but was not awarded by the referee. Or it can also refer to Tom Henning Overbo’s refereeing that night in Stamford Bridge in 2009 (Oh Lord please give me the strength to let go of this!). So if a team scores a goal, and the VAR later catches a foul or offside in its build up, it is no longer a legitimate goal to start with! So no, VAR does not ‘rob’ anyone of anything.

And no. VAR does not ‘deny’ anyone of a goal either. It is fair to make statements like “Hugo Lloris denies City a chance to go ahead with a remarkable save”, or even “the striker was denied a goal by the woodwork”. But making a statement like “VAR denies City a goal” is akin to accusing it of ‘robbing’ (see above). The only way to use ‘deny’ and ‘VAR’ in the same sentence is something like this: “VAR correctly denies Manchester City of a goal for an offside that was not spotted in the field.”

And what does it even mean to say “VAR raises its head again”? I have heard this multiple times on TV. The phrase ‘raises its head’ is generally used to show something under a negative light – which is why you typically hear people say “….raises its ugly head again”. Nobody ever says “…raises its beautiful head again”. Just because an on-field decision is overturned by the VAR doesn’t make it something that needs to be shown in a negative light. VAR is a process that allows the referee to utilize additional time and information to make a correct decision – even if that means overturning what was previously awarded.

And let us all just agree that there is no ‘drama’ with VAR. The only ‘drama’ lies is in people’s reactions to potentially overturning an incorrect decision. So it is not the VAR that is ‘causing’ the drama. If anything, it is the VAR that is being used to ‘resolve’ or even ‘prevent’ the drama arising out of an incorrect decision on the field.

But why is all this important you may ask? After all, it is just a game and commentators are supposed to give words to what is happening or has happened in their own words.

OK first of all, no competitive sporting event is ever just a game. Don’t even dare say that to a sports fan – regardless of sport. Secondly, the primary requirement of any commentator’s job is to be unbiased and objective. Everything else follows that. A part of that requirement is to not create a narrative that simply doesn’t exist. And that is where I am unhappy.

The problem with generating a narrative that terms VAR as something ‘controversial’ is that it ultimately leads to football fans questioning the very integrity of the decision making process in the game. This is highly ironic as the VAR was brought in because the integrity of the decision making process was being questioned (due to a large number of high profile incorrect calls). Further, it can lead to a lot of resentment among the fans whose team were at the so called ‘receiving end’ of the VAR process. This resentment will typically not exist if the accepted narrative is that the VAR did what the on field referee should have initially done. But if the act of VAR overturning an on field call is termed ‘controversial’, this will always lead to resentment and a feeling of having been ‘robbed’ or ‘denied’ by some arcane process. And in the long run, that is unsustainable as a lot of people will eventually simply call for scrapping the VAR. And how unfortunate would that be!

That is not to say the VAR is perfect. I would love to see the referee make a live announcement to the entire stadium to explain the final decision after VAR review (NFL style). This can go a long way to let the fans all around the world know the thinking behind the decision. And that would also hopefully shut these commentators up as they can no longer simply speculate why the referee made that decision.

But till then, we have to acknowledge that the VAR is simply providing additional information and time to the on field referee to make the correct calls. Overturning an incorrect call does not make it controversial. In fact, the commentators who continue to call that process as controversial are the ones who are actually causing the controversy.

pretty-please-with-sugar-on-top

So here is my sincere request to all football commentators:

The VAR is a good thing that has happened to football and it is also long overdue. It does not become controversial just because it was used to overturn an on field decision, and it certainly does not rob anyone of anything. Your job is to stay objective and unbiased in how you report the football events, which means you need to understand and acknowledge what VAR is and what it is not. So, as the Wolf would say,

“Pretty please, with sugar on top, do your fucking jobs!”

Discovering American Football

Among my initial impressions of American culture and lifestyle, what really caught my eye were the isolationist tendencies that this country has consciously and sub-consciously adopted over the course of the past 2 centuries. (The validity of the ‘why’ is not relevant to this discussion). And more specifically, how these isolationist policies had manifested themselves in the day to day workings of the society. And of all the different aspects of American culture that exhibit this isolationist propensity, perhaps the most visible, glaring and sometimes obvious one is sports.

American sports (apart from Olympic events) are mostly just that – sports played in America. American Football, Baseball, Basketball and Ice hockey are sports where the biggest sporting events include teams from within North America playing each other to be crowned ‘World Champions’. (Sure there are instances of international participation – notably for Basketball, and also for Baseball in Latin America and Japan). But for an outsider looking in – like an immigrant such as myself – the universal, unquestioned acceptance of such a largely self-contained system among its people seems to display a certain sense of ignorance, apathy and maybe even some arrogance over other sports that are a lot more popular in the rest of the world. And THIS can and does work towards discouraging people unfamiliar with the sports to explore it.

Additionally, for an immigrant coming in to this country well beyond his/her formative years, it can seem to be a rather daunting, and sometimes even pointless, task to explore the sports. My own initial thoughts went along these lines: “I have no association with these sports. I never grew up with them. I have no reason to be interested in them now. So I will still continue to just watch cricket, soccer and tennis.” And this was (and in many cases, still is) echoed among most of my fellow Indian friends. It would have been that much easier to simply keep my status quo and not make an effort into exploring the product of a seemingly isolationist thinking.

But it is only when one looks beyond this apparent barrier of sports apathy and isolationism does one discover a whole new universe of sporting culture this country has to offer. And so I decided to take the plunge to see what’s out there – at least as far as American Football is concerned.

High angle of fans in Lane Stadium football
Lane Stadium, Virginia Tech

Doing my Master’s in a university with a big football tradition such as Virginia Tech inevitably exposed me to a lot of buzz around the game and the team. An American classmate of mine volunteered to feed my curiosity by watching the VT vs Nebraska (2009) game with me and explaining all the rules and objectives. VT won that game – a rather low scoring encounter with a memorable finish. And I got hooked on to the sport. I watched most of the VT games and even managed to follow some of the other ACC/BCS games that season. I even recollect going to my friend’s super bowl party that winter.

My initial efforts to watch and understand the game may have been borne out of a desire to socialize and make new friends. But over time, the sport itself grew on me – to the extent that I started to watch even non-VT games whenever they were on. So in my third semester (and second football season), I decided to watch a few games at Lane Stadium – home of the Virginia Tech Hokies. That was also the first time I learnt about the tradition of tailgating.

I just couldn’t believe it! I had never seen anything like it before. People drank alcohol for hours before the game, during the game, and for hours after the game! Lane Stadium ended up being a spot where 67,000 drunk college kids cheered on a bunch of other college kids playing football! Wow! It was just incredible! And I definitely wanted more! So I ended up going to 3-4 more games at the Lane Stadium, the most memorable of which being the 28-21 win over Georgia Tech on a Thursday night.

In the end, maybe it was being around a lot of people who all cheered for the same team, maybe it was that I was looking to socialize and make new friends, or maybe it is because I am a big sports guy by nature and American football was a sport that I came to like, or maybe it was a combination of all of them. But whatever may have been the contributing factor, by the time I graduated in December 2010, I was no longer looking at American football as an outsider. I was a fan of the sport and I had a team to root for.

Over the last 6 years since my graduation, I have become even more knowledgeable about the game – not so much its history, as about the tactics, strategy and the team itself. I have a big group of American friends who are passionate about the game, and I feed off their passion and get increasingly more involved in the game over the season. Though the Big 10 and Big 12 conferences in the Midwest have little to do with VT and the ACC, I nevertheless have watched most of the VT games and a bunch of other ACC and other conference games. I have always watched the BCS bowls/playoffs even though there was no team in there to cheer for personally.

I have come to realize that to grow an interest in any new sport, one need 3 things: a general liking to the sport itself, a team to root for, and friends to watch the games with (preferably rooting for the same team). I have been fortunate to have all of them and so I now find myself cursing, clapping, shouting, jumping around and being my usual animated self whenever I am watching a VT game. I follow fan blogs that discuss each game, the team, recruiting and all associated gossip and rumors –  all clear indications that I have something personally invested in the outcome of the games every weekend!

And speaking of having something personally invested in a team, I have also realized that I have a direct affiliation to the Virginia Tech football team. I went to school there and so there is a very valid reason to root for them. Which made me then question my affiliation to all the soccer teams that I have passionately supported for well over a decade now – Chelsea and Juventus. I suppose we don’t need a reason to choose a sports team to root for, but technically speaking, I have a more valid affiliation to VT football than to Chelsea or Juventus! (I know! This is sacrilege!) But I choose not to break my head about that.

Of course, the elephant in the room here is the absence of anything NFL in my encounters with American football. I do watch the games at the bar or at my friends’ place when they are on. I will even appreciate a close/good game regardless of who is playing. But the absence of having a team to root for has pretty much held me back from following it as closely as I do for college football. Many of my friends are either fans of the Broncos or the Packers, so whenever I am watching a game with them, I end up cheering with them. I do have some affinity towards the Broncos, so if I were to really pick a team, I would probably go with them. But until I truly commit to an NFL team and start rooting for it, I probably wouldn’t feel the same way about it as I do with college football.

At the end of the day, I find that I have spent many weekends watching American football with my friends to great satisfaction – bonding, cheering and even having opinions of my own about how the teams should have played. These experiences have proved to be a very fruitful, having served as an easy avenue to assimilate into the American lifestyle and to have a larger sense of belonging in a  new society and culture that is half way around the world from where I grew up. I have benefited greatly from this experience and I definitely intend to keep exploring this further.

 

 

 

 

A Perfect Example Demonstrating the Inherent Bias in a Sports Fan

Yesterday I watched with great satisfaction Chelsea getting the better of Arsenal (well, duh!) early in the morning. That pretty much made my day and my weekend. The match was not without incident. Arsene Wenger openly pushed Mourinho in the latter’s technical area following a Gary Cahill tackle on Alexis Sanchez. I am not as interested in why Wenger pushed Mourinho or what exactly transpired there. What drew my attention earlier today is how fans from the two teams reacted to the news that Arsene Wenger wouldn’t be charged by the FA. For this, I looked at the SB Nation blogs for both the teams. (Yes, I follow the Arsenal and Man Utd SB Nation blogs in addition to Chelsea’s).

Wenger pushing Mourinho. But of course, Mourinho is at fault!

If you are not aware, SB Nation is a very well organized website with separate blogs for each sports team across different sports and geographies. The content is generally admirable and there are usually few posts every day on each blog, so this way you will always have something to read about your team. As a fan, this is invaluable as it gives a sense of being part of a fan community from all over the world. You should definitely check it out. But I digress.

So following the FA’s announcement today, We Ain’t Got No History, SB Nation’s Chelsea Blog ran a post that pretty much summed up my feelings. Just the hypocrisy of the FA when it comes to punishing Mourinho (or Pardew for that matter) over other managers is something that never seems to go away. I can possibly write an entire post on that but I won’t. For the most part, WAGNH’s post covers it – with a generous dose of sarcasm and an underlying frustration. Here is a quote from there:

“Point B” was of course on the pitch, where managers aren’t allowed, technically, but let’s not worry too much about technicalities.  It’s not like they matter anyway.

Here’s a thought exercise.  Say we reverse the roles, and it’s Jose Mourinho (or, say, Alan Pardew) who puts both hands on Wenger’s chest and shoves him (however meekly), just how many games do you think he would’ve gotten here?  Three?  Four?  Ten?  Perhaps with a public flogging or two?

Mind you, the Arsenal manager received a fine and a one-match ban for a “sarcastic pat on the back” of the fourth official in 2010.  It’s good to know that the FA considers a light tap on the back a far harsher offense than physically confronting the opposing manager in his own technical area.

The tone and the text is self explanatory. Chelsea fans have seen Mourinho being fined and/or banned for far less by the FA. And watching Wenger go without as much as a warning obviously bothers us. But, whatever. Chelsea still won and Arsene Wenger still hasn’t won the only contest against Mourinho that actually matters – the one on the pitch. I was ready to cease my interest in this incident and get on with my work. But then…..

In comes The Short Fuse! SB Nation’s Arsenal blog. Ah! The Arsenal fans must be extremely relieved that their manager didn’t get any further punishment, right? Perhaps they realized that a manager just going out of his technical area itself constitutes a violation of the game’s rules? Nevermind actually pushing the other manager in the latter’s technical area! Surely they know that a manager is not allowed on the pitch itself? Obviously only the medical team is allowed on the pitch in case of injury, right?

Well, Fuck all that! Here is what The Short Fuse had to say (Bold emphasis added by me):

Both managers have admitted, in their own words, that it was a heated match.  Mourinho stated, accurately, that he’s been guilty of doing “many wrong things in football”, with Wenger confirming in his post-match press conference that Mourinho was guilty yet again in the sport by preventing him from attending to his fallen player, in this case Alexis Sanchez, after being viciously assaulted by Gary Cahill.

After agreeing with Mourinho in that he was wrong, while concluding that Wenger – who’s only got the best interests and concern for his player – was acting in good faith and acted only after being unjustly provoked, the FA made the correct and honest decision today.

I don’t even know where to start. Read the text slowly paying attention to each and every word or phrase. Look at the choice of words used here: ‘fallen player’, ‘viciously assaulted’, ‘Wenger confirming’ that ‘Mourinho was guilty yet again’, ‘being unjustly provoked’?????? Really??

Just to clarify, here is Mourinho’s full quote (You should really read all the quotes here):

But to be fair, I do so many wrong things in football, sometimes you lose emotions but not this time. This time I was just in my technical area and it was not my problem. Story over.

Ah! Nothing makes a quote fit your own narrative more than just picking pieces of it that you like! In addition to the quote manipulation, the choice of words used in the post reeks of complete and unapologetic bias. Apparently Mourinho was at fault because Wenger just confirmed it. Yes, that is all you need. Wenger confirmed that Mourinho was at fault. Case closed. Let’s all go home, eh? And while we are on the way, let’s also give Mourinho a 3 match ban OK?

(On a side note, this is exactly the kind of quotes I expect to hear on Fox News. Complete and unapologetic bias).

Now I can definitely understand the agitated state of mind of the Arsenal fan following yet another loss to Chelsea (and Mourinho). I can also understand the frustration and helplessness of supporting a constantly under achieving team. I can almost feel the outrage in the mind of the guy who wrote that Arsenal post. And it is something I have felt myself many many times over in the past decade or so that I have supported Chelsea. (God knows what all I wanted to do to referee Tom Overbo after the Chelsea – Barcelona semi-final from 2009). So yes I understand the outrage. But to blatantly portray a situation in a favorable light to your fellow fans while painting the other team as evil by twisting quotes and facts (especially like the above) shows something far more fundamental in a sports fan’s psyche. It shows the basic human condition of the need to rationalize by choosing to believe biased points of view.

Sports gives rise to many such situations at an extraordinary frequency – irrespective of whom you support. Add to this all the passion and rivalries that are part of any sport and you have a recipe for extreme mood swings on a weekly basis at the very least! And when the human mind has to cope with these mood swings, it just turns to the ever present tools of rationalization, confirmation bias and subjective validation to make itself feel better. These tools manifest themselves in things such as online arguments, finding fault with the referee, conspiracy theories, declaring that the other team ‘just didn’t deserve to win’, finding a scapegoat, calling for someone’s head, manipulating and presenting quotes and facts that fit our narrative, collective commiseration, etc. The list really is pretty long.

So when we have situations where we are extremely frustrated – like your sports team losing to a hated rival – our minds automatically look for how we can rationalize and justify the loss. Because if we can indeed justify it, then we get a sense of satisfaction from ‘knowing’ that there was something out of our team’s control that cost the result. This does not make us feel happy but it definitely helps in dealing with the pain. (Trust me I have been there many times).

And this is what The Short Fuse has done. The writer has clearly succumbed to the mind’s need to rationalize. His mind is essentially telling him: “Fuck objectivity! I just need to feel good right now!” And THAT, is a celebration of the human condition. The resulting piece only shows to what extent he must have been feeling that outrage and frustration.

The interesting thing about this is that it is not restricted to just sports. The same feelings of outrage, frustration and ultimately rationalization/justification also prevail strongly in all things that we hold sacred. These include topics such as religion, gun control, politics etc. The more passionate you get about something and hold it sacred, the less objective you tend to get in that topic. It is just the way the mind works.

Isn’t it indeed a fascinating world we live in – where we can put sports, religion and gun control in the same box?

Americans to become Soccer fans for Exact Duration of Team USA Matches

With the start of the soccer world cup, the small fraction of the American population who are even remotely aware of the sport’s existence, appear to be showing a passing interest in the proceedings. Most of them have decided to become soccer fans and to actually give a shit about the sport for the exact duration of Team USA matches.

Sport Bars to be crowded from Kick-off to Final Whistle of Team USA matches only

Sport bars across the country have subscribed to the Team USA World Cup Special on their respective Cable TV providers. The special package allows the bars to show the broadcast of Team USA matches only. The broadcast starts exactly at kick-off and ends exactly at the final whistle. The advertisement for that special package explained that the time between kickoff and final whistle in Team USA matches is pretty much the exact duration when any American would even give a shit about the sport. It also said that it would cover the final celebrations only if USA won the World cup.

“Apparently this is something big. I think USA is playing. So I guess I will watch our matches,” said Tim, who learnt about the existence of this sport last year when his European college roommate was playing FIFA on his computer. When asked about other countries’ matches, he replied, “Oh I was not aware that there were other teams playing in this tournament. Maybe I will read up on the teams and the results online after the World cup.”

There appears to be no shortage of support for Team USA. There were reports that people who ‘would rather watch reruns of College football from 10 years ago’ were also supporting the USMNT.

“Go Team USA! We are the best! Wait…does it mean I have to actually watch this match? What sport is this? Why is this called football? Why is he playing the ball with his foot all the time?” wondered Bob, a truck driver from Wisconsin.

But what would happen if USA were to win the World Cup? To this, Pete, a NY Yankees fan replied, “First of all I do not understand this tournament. If this is a World Cup, why do they have different countries playing each other? Is this the Olympics? Why can’t they just have a bunch of city based teams in a country play other city teams in their own country and the winners crown themselves World Champions? That’s the way it is in the US of A! This World Cup is just a waste of time.”

 

What makes a winning Football Team? Part I: The Circumstances

I am not talking about ‘winning mentality’ or ‘winning tactics’ or ‘hard work’ or ‘discipline’ or ‘sacrifice for the team’ or ‘work ethics’. I am simply asking what makes a winning football team? More specifically put, I am asking what makes aconsistently winning team? What was so special about Johan Cryuff’s ‘Dream Team’,  Real Madrid’s ‘Second Galacticos’, Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona team, the current Bayern Munich team, AC Milan in the mid 2000’s, Spain’s impressive run of 3 major international titles or Manchester United’s hugely successful team in the mid to late 2000’s?

A hugely successful period for the Spanish national team

All those above mentioned examples were teams that won or are winning titles in a specific period of time – usually between 3 and 5 years. During these years, the team wins the domestic leagues and cups and reaches the finals or semi finals of the Champions League almost always, and winning it at least once. If a team is able to do this for 3-5 years, then it can be considered a successful team by any standards. The teams mentioned in the list above have all done it. So, the question is if there is a pattern here at all. If so, then whatdoes it take to build such a consistently winning team?

The answer to the first question is ‘Yes.’

Every football player goes through a normal distribution curve (bell shaped curve) when his performance is plotted against time. (I am not going to take into account uncertainties such as injuries, fallouts with managers, attitude problems, etc.) The peak of a player’s career lasts for a certain period of time. Here the ‘peak’ should not be construed as the absolute pinnacle in a player’s career. Instead it should be looked at as the period during which a player has been the most productive as compared to the rest of his career. How high the peak goes is largely left to the player and his inherent talent, guidance and work ethic. Its timing and how long the peak lasts for is usually a function of the player’s position. For strikers, the peak period usually lasts between the ages of 25 and 31. For attacking midfielders, that range holds true as well with perhaps a couple of years thrown in there to widen that range in some cases. Central midfielders and defenders have the largest peak period with a generally observed age range of 23 to 32. Needless to say, an argument can be made that within that large range, a central midfielder or defender has an even higher peak period generally found between the ages of 26 and 31. Goalkeepers on the other hand can last forever. You can really take any example: Buffon, Van der Saar, Valdes, Howard, etc.

There are of course exceptions with early bloomers and some exceptional talents. Pep Guardiola (player), Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi, Wayne Rooney, are good examples for early bloomers and exceptional talents. You only need to look at Paul Scholes, Andrea Pirlo or Claude Makelele for examples of players with exceptional talent who were/are practically still playing in their prime even past the age of 33 or so.

So if a striker is playing during his peak period and banging in goals regularly, what the manager wants is a set of attacking mid-fielders who are also playing in their peak period feeding him the ball and creating chances. Behind them, he wants the central mid-fielders also playing at their peak, holding up play, dictating the pace and distributing the balls as needed. And finally behind them, he wants the defenders and the goal keeper to also be playing at their peaks.

Now imagine if the manager gets his wish. Imagine a team that has been playing with the same set of players for 2-3 years and all the players have started or just about to start their peak periods in their careers. Imagine all the players in the team have been playing a single style of football under one single manager who has created a specific role for each player to play in the team. Imagine this manager stays on for a few more years. And now, finally, imagine this team playing under these set of circumstances for the next 3-5 years.

What do you think is going to happen?

Now it becomes obvious. Every single team I mentioned at the beginning went through such a phase that resulted – not just coincided – in their most successful periods – winning consistently and amassing trophies all the while. Maybe there was one or two factors missing such as a constant manager. But for the most part, a consistently winning team essentially consists of a set of players – most, if not all, of whom are playing at their peaks and have played with each other for a while.

This is the pattern that is there among all the successful ‘teams’ during their most illustrious periods. In the next post, I will be discussing the current situation with respect to most of the big clubs and what is happening with them as it concerns the ‘peak period production’ of their players.

And as far as this year’s World Cup goes, there is mostly one team (and perhaps two) that is playing in such a set of circumstances and it is also the team I would bet on to win the tournament.

It starts with a ‘G’.

Football Fan Wants All Teams to Play Attacking Football All The Time

Saying that he was bored to death after watching the Atletico Madrid vs Chelsea match, local football fan decided that he wants all teams to play attacking football all the time. He said that his decision was largely influenced by how Chelsea ‘parked the bus’ for the entire game and didn’t let Atletico Madrid score a single goal, thereby gaining a very valuable draw in the away leg of the Champions League Semi Final.

Football Fan deeply dissatisfied with Chelsea successfully parking the bus against all top attacking teams in Europe

“I cannot imagine how bad the game was. It was like watching paint dry. Chelsea just parked the bus and did not let Atleti to create any clear cut chances! They just could not breach Chelsea’s defense! That is just simply unacceptable from Chelsea! They should not be allowed to do that!” he said while expressing outrage about the scoreless draw.

The football fan now wants all teams to be required to play attacking football because “that is what is most entertaining and creates a lot of goals!”.

“It is not right to play a defensive game even if the team is playing away from home. Always attack attack attack!”

The self proclaimed Bayern Munich fan then went on to give examples of clubs like Barcelona and Bayern Munich who generally have a lot of possession and are always shown to be attacking the ball. “I was always supporting Barcelona. They were my passion. But then after last season’s semi final when they lost 8-0 on aggregate to Bayern Munich, I just started getting attracted to Bayern somehow. Now I just support Bayern. They are the best team in the world because they keep playing attacking football all the time! It is real great to watch them.” Digressing from the topic a bit, he then went on to criticize how fans who previously supported Chelsea changed their allegiance to Man City after City started spending and winning more titles.

Football Fan insists that is the only way to go and nothing else is acceptable

When asked to elaborate about why all teams should play the same style of football, he said “I mean, who wants to watch teams with different styles of football and hailing from different football cultures – aerially dominating, long ball tactics, physical game play, counter attacking tactics, extremely defensive formations stifling the opponent’s attack, parking the bus – pitted against each other? Really, who wants to watch those styles of play going up against each other? All I want to see is two possession based teams who pass the ball a lot and create opportunities from through balls or cut-ins. Everything else is just boring!”

He went a step further and said that the players should not feel proud if they win by playing any other style of football and that if a free-passing team such as Bayern Munich or Barcelona loses, they should always feel proud of sticking to their brand of football. “Take the Barcelona – Chelsea semi final 2nd leg at the Nou Camp in 2012. I am sure that at the end of the day, all Barcelona players and fans were celebrating with pride how they never abandoned their philosophy and played with it right to the end of them getting knocked out! Never mind the fact that with practically 100% possession in the second half, Barcelona were able to generate only ONE meaningful shot on target with those tactics. I am just proud that they kept maintaining possession and passing the ball around aimlessly while Chelsea did not give them even an inch of space for a through ball. Chelsea do not deserve any credit for their performance that day at all – even if it was with ten men”.

Football fan feels Torres’ goal against Barcelona should make all Chelsea fans feel extremely ashamed of themselves

Among recent games, he pointed to the way Arsenal lost 6-0 to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. “Hats off to Arsenal for not at all changing any of their tactics or style of football while playing away against a top counter attacking team in all of Europe! Arsene Wenger deserves a lot of credit for sticking with his attacking free flowing possession based football away from home against Chelsea. The final score line doesn’t matter at all! The important thing is that Arsenal did not stop playing their brand of football right to the end. I am sure that all Arsenal players and fans were extremely proud about that and celebrated like they won a trophy or something!”

In the end, the fan said that tactics do not mean anything if it does not involve free flowing attacking football. “The only tactics that makes a game good to watch are those that get employed in a possession based attacking game. Everything else is just simply unacceptable. Shame on all the teams who employ other tactics to beat possession based attack minded teams! If you want to beat them, beat them with free passing tiki-taka football which is very impressive to watch. Otherwise, just don’t play and bore us with defensive displays stifling even the best attacking teams in Europe! That is just unacceptable!”

Narendra Modi reminds me of Manchester United

Being half way around the planet from all the NaMo and RaGa and MaBa and ArKe waves during the election campaign, I have had little to no direct exposure to the ground realities in India. All my ‘information’ came from Facebook status messages, newspaper headlines quoting politicians out of context, memes, satire posts on Faking News and some input from my parents who are seeing all this first hand in Bangalore. So in order to get real information, I have had to make additional effort to look through the biased media, read a very long list of ‘expert’ opinions on both sides of the story, find compilation of statistics on so many issues that are being debated and of course, frame my own opinion at the end. In any case, the general gist of what I am hearing is this:

Screw Mario. Here comes NaMo

There is this NaMo dude who is the Uber Dude and who is expected to simply win the next election. Then there is RaGa who is going all out to let people know he has an IQ less than Timmy. New kid on the block ArKe is trying all in his power to just play spoilsport. Didi MaBa just wants to run for elections. The Left parties – wait, do they still exist?

Already the next Prime Minister of India

The common thread running through all the bits and pieces of information I am getting is not regarding RaGa, ArKe or Didi. It is almost exclusively about NaMo. But before I get to that, a little bit of football.

When I started watching football, it took me a while to start supporting Chelsea. Everyone around me was either a Manchester United fan or an Arsenal fan. The Arsenal fans were mostly proud of the whole ‘youth development’ ideal that the club apparently stood for. All good. The Manchester United fans on the other hand were mostly proud of their trophy collection and were generally branded as glory hunters. I get it. Every fan wants the sport team he supports to win trophies on a regular basis. It is a very natural state of mind.

But what was different with United fans was the unquestioned glorification of the club and everything associated with it. Most of the fans were convinced that Manchester United was the only true club in England. They would quote the rich history associated with the club and also point to the massive trophy collection. They would also point to one Sir Alex Ferguson as a ruthless winner who would stop at nothing to win trophies – and all the fans were proud of his long tenure at the club. But it didn’t stop there. United was considered to be a team that was beyond criticism. Going a step further, no other team was considered to be a valid team to support. If you were new to football and were still looking for a team to choose to root for, you would be made to believe that you had no choice. You would be made to believe that Man United were the only team worth supporting and it was some kind of a default choice.

United was also the club which had the largest fan base (and still does) in India and Asia. There were definitely reasonable United fans here and there that I have gotten to know over the years but for the most part most of them were just plain cocky about it. They just refused to even entertain the idea that the club was anything less than just the best damn club on the planet. There would never be any admittance of any imperfections in any of the club’s aspects. Nobody could level any amount of criticism without getting a good amount of backlash from its supporters. Moreover, supporters of all other clubs were looked down upon as if they did not deserve to be a fan.

All this inevitably led to a lot of distaste among a lot of fans who supported other clubs – including myself. So much so, that there was a fair amount of hate brewing against United. These people were our friends who we got drunk with and whom I am still in touch with. But the dislike and hate that was brewing was directed more at the club than at the supporters. Sure the schadenfreude that we experienced whenever we saw United lose grew exponentially. But the important thing to note was the strict polarization that Manchester United’s image had created. You either fully embraced it and considered it to be the flawless club ever, or you considered that to be the most vile, cocky, exaggerated, pretentious, falsely publicized, all powerful, corrupt sports organization in the world. There was almost nothing in between. And all this was a creation not of the club. (I am sure the club wouldn’t have wanted it this way). But this big divide was really a creation of the supporters.

The Panacea all Indians have been waiting for

And now I see the same exact thing happening with NaMo in India. He is considered untouchable and beyond criticism from the eyes of his supporters. There is so much pro-Modi rhetoric that there seemed to be little that he could not accomplish. He is treated as the solution to all problems. There is not a single ounce of criticism that can be thrown at him without ten counter responses coming from his supporters. (In the eyes of the supporters, they feel they are right because they are offering the statistically proven, reasonable response to a guy who is just making wild accusations against Modi). He is considered to have zero imperfections and his supporters quote the ‘development’ that has taken place in Gujarat over the course of more than a decade as proof of his awesomeness. And just like United fans sing the ‘Glory Glory Man United’ chant, there is now also a NaMo NaMo (and many more apparently) chant/song that all the Modi supporters consider their war cry. There is even a Modi-Brigade that you can join by giving a missed call or something.

All this isolation from criticism, unquestioned glorification of his past achievements and a level of expectations never before associated with an Indian politician have inevitably generated a strong anti-Modi fan base – just like it happened with United. Endless arguments and debates – both online and offline, opinion pieces from every Tom, Dick, Harry and his brother-in-law, articles listing statistics that prove the point each side of the argument is trying to make (never mind that they contradict themselves) – all have contributed heavily to the strong polarization of the Modi image.

The Rise of the Indian Youth or the beginning of a new Hitler Youth – depending on whom you ask

 

You are either a strong supporter and think he is the panacea all Indians have been waiting for, or you think he is the nightmare scenario waiting to happen where he ends up becoming India’s Hitler creating a Hitler Youth organization equivalent and there will be a genocide in his first month in office. The stronger the isolation and glorification, higher is the criticism and hate. Higher the criticism and hate, more is the isolation and glorification. It is like a feedback loop which just feeds one off the other but they both grow in size and content. And just like United, all this is a making of the supporters. Modi for one would have never wanted this divide. Part of it, admittedly, can be attributed to the hate against the UPA Govt and our current impotent PM. But most of the responsibility of this rests on the supporters.

I suppose there is a cut off point beyond which there would be no significant growth of pro-Modi or anti-Modi rhetoric. Perhaps that point will be reached after he is elected PM. Or Not. I for one can only hope that his supporters and haters can get to a more reasonable level of opinion. The worst outcome of this would be an American styled Democrat-Republican divide.

If you have not been able to figure out yet, this post is nothing more than an observation. It is not a criticism, support or judgment of anyone involved – from the politicians to the avid supporters and haters. It is merely a perspective which I have been looking through for a while. A lot of Modi and Man United supporters will inevitably disagree with me and some will even offer detailed explanations of their disagreement which are supposed to be interpreted as their idea of reason. First of all, do check out this thing called the Backfire Effect. Secondly, if you have you gone as far as trying to dispute what I have pointed out, you have already proven my point. So just calm the fuck down and think about it for a while.

When did an Indian Politician ever become so cool that he had his own Merchandise?

In all seriousness, I personally want to see Modi in the PM office and am really curious what this guy is all about. And at this point, I offer no response to speculation or the possibility of a genocide happening in India as a result of his election. But really, considering his competition is a circus clown in a politician’s disguise…..

…well you get it.