Friday, June 23, 2006

Knights riding on dark horses

What can stars do? Nothing...but sit on their axis!
-Charlie Chaplin

With soccer fever flying high over the air-waves, its time the bird flu received some welcome relief. As support extends itself in the riot of colours for their favourite teams, soccer extravaganza has taken over all the world. So much so, that even in a cricket crazy country like India, the national team's Carribean tour has taken a back-seat. That's the power of the world's most popular sport.

Soccer fortunately gets more popular in certain regions of the world, with each passing World Cup, thanks to qualifying teams coming from under-developed countries. Being a part of this event does them a world of good. Similarly, at FIFA '06, emotional support rings high especially for countries like Trinidad and Tobago, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Togo, Angola et al. And with good reason.

Several amateur nations have caused major upsets in the last few decades. Senegal's trounced France 1-0 in 2002, Croatia rose to the top four teams in France '98, Cameroon had a rollercoaster ride to the quarterfinals in 1990, Algeria defeated West Germany in 1982...
All of the statistics only accentuate the presence of these under-dog teams at the international arena. This not only makes them a force to reckon with, but makes the biggies ensure a spirited performance against them.

Branco Milanovic, author of a study on soccer for Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, observes, "In the four latest World Cups, there were always at least two newcomers among the top eight national teams."

While countries like Togo, with a growth rate of 1% in 2005 and a GDP just under two billion dollars, bring their citizens international repute, where does India see itself? Currently in the race for economic dominance alongwith China, India is not far from becoming an Asian superpower, with its fertile manpower resources and booming economic growth. Will soccer be a part of the national agenda for a nation that finds its denizens go crazy in support for Samba boys?

A question worth pondering over is how dark horses for the World Cup have garnered support in a sport where Ronaldinho hogs cover pages of all World Cup specials. England, thanks to its widely telecasted English Premier Leagues remains the most hyped team so far and Beckham, the only player to have been in the news always for anything but his football playing prowess.

There's a thrill in cheering for under-dogs, always. Not only for soccer, but for every sport on this planet - the favourites are undoubtedly most written about, but when the under-rated team goes a step ahead and creates a major upset, that is when we have a match on our hands. The under-dog has the extra edge of improvisation and elevation, while the favourites always need to retain their pride. Over confidence, under-estimation are few vulnerable qualities which corrupt the favourites. On the other hand, a constant hunger of trying to level the favourites keeps the under-dogs mentally agile. The result can be quite a humdinger in such cases.

As far as a game like cricket is concerned, there's a reason why there is pride in cheering for India. Not because I'm an Indian myself, but because India has always been a dark horse in the race for glory. Unpredictably classy and failingly consistent, the dark-horses perform at the most unexpected and opportune moments. They have the capacity to sniff lethargy in the body language of the favourites; they capitalise on vanity from the opponents often leaving them completely flummoxed.

Building on the same hopes, India can also make a mark for itself provided there is the political will to upgrade the sport's presence. Its not just the infrastructure nor is it the absence of finances, but majorly the political will to place the sport(s) as a medium which can take the country places. And since India is an underdog, you never know - the next time you hear crackers burst in the neighbourhood, you won't think of an Indian cricket victory. Rather, you'd most probably say, "Bhaichung scored."