Sunday, October 24, 2004

Old Trafford again

I have been a Manchester United fan for many years now.
Don't really know why...seriously, seeing that none of us who have spent our growing up years in India (or on Doordarshan) ever had any access to international football. Yes, the World Cups were telecast live 1982 final onwards and for a time — if my memory serves me right —they showed the Serie A extremely late at night. But apart from that, zilch.
Therefore, I think it had mainly to do with my flip through the pages of history as it were and hearing about Busby's babes and Bobby Charlton and George Best and such like stuff that got me hooked. Hooked enough to feel happy if United won and at best indifferent if they lost. Arsenal? Who knew they existed before Nick Hornby released Fever Pitch? Liverpool was there with Ian Rush up front and I remember a live telecast of a Champions League final between them and Juventus. Juventus quickly became my team then. They had Michel Platini for Chrissakes!
Anyway... to come to the point, through all my years of football watching, never have I felt remotely excited about European football. English football least of all. Italy was a favourite for some time after the Juventus Experience, but after that, nothing. Heck, I had discovered Latin football by then. And therefore, being employed with The Indian Express, it's always a most tiring exercise when the European season is in full flow (as it is 360 days a year). Because my editor and most other top men in the office thrive on European football.
I feigned excitement for some time, but gave up after that. I made my point to my editor. Was excused.
But nothing changed in office. It remains the same to this day, and as I write this, a couple of us are waiting for the Man U vs Arsenal match to get over. Why? Because we have to carry an eight column report afterwards.
Incidentally, it's being played out at Old Trafford, where the bit of action that came closest to matching the Latin excitement happened last summer. It was that wonderful bit of fisticuffing between Van Nistelrooy, Lauren, Vieira, Gary Neville, et al. I loved it. Except that the Brits, and the others who find their way to Britland, are far too delicate to really do it the way, say, a Venezuela vs Peru match might throw up.
Otherwise, I wait for a Premiership game — even one of United — about as much as I do for say the equestrian events during the Olympics.
Which brings us to an article my editor granted me permission to write when the office qwas going crazy with Euro 2004 earlier this year, and I sat in my corner with brows furrowed and the earphone from my walkman plugged deep into my ears.
Have nothing more to write (they are still 0-0 70 minutes into the game). So will publish this with the Euro 2004 story pasted below. Ignore the typos; not bothering to edit them out.

Shattering the Myth of the Premiership
It’s just not good enough and has been shown up, says Shamya Dasgupta. Are the TV channels listening?

ONE more big tournament gone and more evidence (glaring as a finger in the eye) that there is far more to European football than England and the Premiership. And that our (the public, the broadcasters) obsession with the Premiership stands in the way of our seeing the better football played elsewhere on the continent.
It implies two things: One, that the typical English footballer is less skilled than his Spanish or Italian (or, indeed, Portuguese or Czech) contemporary. Point proved by England’s record in international competitions. ‘‘38 years of hurt’’ was a much-seen banner at Euro, referring to the last time the national team won anything.
And two, that the foreign players who come to England to ply their trade find that while their skills are a cut above local fare, their talents diminish in comparison with other countries’ stars. For evidence, see Thierry Henry.
Till Wayne Rooney burst onto the scene, the biggest English names were Beckham and Owen, whose status today owes more to the British press working overtime than to actual on-field exploits. Which is why England’s performance in Euro 2004 as only a logical consequence of what they went to Portugal with.
To see just how good — or bad — the Premiership is, tune in, next month, to any of the matches from the Spanish Primera Liga. You will see more skills in 10 minutes there than in an entire Premiership match.
Compare a Manchester United-Liverpool game to one between Barcelona and Valencia (or even Bilbao v Sevilla). The first will be a feast of hard tackles, long balls, passes out to the wing for the return cross and a header home. The focus is on passion and physical strength. The other will have feature long-range shots, short passes, a skilled midfielder weaving his way through the opposition defence, step-overs, pirouettes, back-heels.
Which one would you choose?
The generalisation above of the Premiership omits, of course, the skills of individuals — Henry, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires, Dennis Bergkamp. The Arsenal trio and their support staff appear kings in front of the Wolves and Southampton defences, their skills stunning the opposition into submission. But take the game to them, as a few teams have done, and they can be sussed out.
It works the other way, too. Ever wondered why France, with teams in both the Champions League final (Monaco) and the UEFA Cup final (Marseilles), fared so poorly at Euro 2004? Because Jacques Santini picked a team made up almost entirely of players from the big clubs (Premiership, Serie A, Bundesliga) and omitting players from the domestic leaders. Of the 23 in the French squad, only seven played in the domestic league, of whom only Barthez was a starter.
Which is a bit like our channels showing the overhyped Premiership. The reason is, obviously, ad revenues and TV ratings. The Premiership simply attracts more viewers than any other league.
In the end, it’s all a bit cyclical really. If television were to go to South America and Africa, so would the Abramovichs of the world. Then, Ronaldo wouldn’t have to score his goals in the Bernabeu.
The problem’s with belling the cat. Till that happens, Henry will stay King.