The ugly side of the beautiful game
In the street, a little boy comes face to face with a football for the first time. An inviting sphere lying still; tempting and mysterious. He goes towards it, attracted by an invisible force. He tries to control the ball, but it wriggles away like an eel. He perseveres. And as it is with all men who persevere after a while he succeeds in charming her. The ball is his friend now.
He plays for joy. He needs no spectators. Apart from the old lady who smiles as he bounces the ball on his forehead and swallows it inside his t-shirt. He plays because he has a ball and he has time. When he leaves other boys behind and rushes towards the goal he feels exhilarated and liberated. When he nutmegs the goalkeeper or dribbles the length of the field leaving others clutching empty air, he understands why the game he plays is called the beautiful game.
Then he turns professional.
Now, slowly he begins to realize the beautiful game is also a cruel mistress. Football fields around the world are littered with fallen angels. One doesn’t have to look far. Last year, Steven Gerrard, the favorite son of the Kop, the last loyalist in an age of mercenaries, fell from grace, and how. Well on their way to the title, Sakho, the awkward yet effective left full back sent towards him a simple pass, a pass that Gerrard could have easily controlled with both his feet tied and eyes blindfolded.
Gerrard, confident that the inside of his right foot would command the ball where to rest on the field went for the touch but all he grasped was empty air. Tall, furtive and gazelle-like, Demba Ba was on to the ball and away in a flash. Gerrard was up as soon as he went down. He chased the Senegalese, but it was futile. The ball was rolled in between Simon Mignolet's legs and it rested snugly in the back of the net.
Even heroes fall
From the cusp of victory to the depths of despair in a few seconds. The heroics were forgotten. The legend was turned into a laughing stock.
Maybe if the grass had been a little taller, or the spikes of his shoes were a little longer, he would have at least gotten a tackle in. But this is a game of fine margins, this is a cruel game. Years from now, when Gerrard is watching any football game anywhere, at Anfield or in a park, if he sees someone slip he too will slip into the abyss of memory.
There are others too who will smile ruefully if you describe football as 'The Beautiful Game’. Men who ruled the world a few years ago and now stand in ruins. Radamel Falcao was at one point of time the best striker in the world. Feared more than the drug lords of his country, he terrorized defences singlehandedly. Now he plays for the Manchester United U-21s, and can't even score there. Ask him if he thinks football is beautiful.
Yaya Toure, the midfield marauder who wants birthday cakes and midnight cuddles has suddenly turned into the very definition of average. His Chilean manager, the blue-eyed and extremely polite Manuel Pellegrini is befuddled at the capitulation of his star-studded side. There is already talk that he will soon be shown the door from where he walked in.
Burnley. All heart and very few bodies have fought valiantly this summer. But unlike the 300 men of Leonidas, the men of Sean Dyche will not be remembered even though they fought with similar grit and steel.
Petr Cech who would saunter into any team in the world smoking a cigar has been asked to abdicate his throne between the two posts. These days he sits and warms the Chelsea bench. Sometimes he writes a funny tweet or two.
No joy for them. No beauty.
Lastly, we come to the man who has done everything the right way, who has respected the game; in fact worshipped it. He has gone a season undefeated. While other managers were busy building teams, he built a club. And yet today, he finds himself in the witness stand he built, awaiting verdict. Ask Arsene Wenger if he thinks football is beautiful. The funny thing is, he will most probably say, 'Yes'.