‘O jogo bonito’ (The Beautiful Game), as Pele popularized football by, has a tremendously increasing following all around the world. In India, where cricket is traditionally the prime sport, football following is on the rise — especially with the English Premier League fan-base here, local leagues gaining more prominence and international events like the recently concluded FIFA World Cup.
It has the potential to be a great social leveler and unite people behind the spell-bound charm of their football heroes — like Mohammed Salah’s performances for Liverpool (an English club) getting wild support from all classes of people in Egypt, or the awesome Cristiano Ronaldo (known popularly as CR7) sending Real Madrid fans in a dilemma to support Portugal rather than Spain in international competitions, or the scintillating support shown by Indian fans at the behest of Sunil Chetri’s emotional appeal against Kenya. In other instances, the sublimely humble Ronaldinho cheering opposition skills, or the rock-solid Carlos Puyol cooling down tense situations reminds us of what football is supposed to be in how it unites people in the spirit of the game. For many, it is like a religion with moments of respect shown in this beautiful and passionate sport causing in people a lifelong association with the idea of football as something greater than oneself.
Like everything in life, it also has it’s dark side with numerous instances of discrimination and political motivations sliding into the game. Be it Georgio Katidis’ infamous Nazi salute which led to his life-long ban, Nicolas Anelka’s controversial Quenelle celebration, or the collective decision of Argentina to not play Israel in Jerusalem, or more recently in this ongoing FIFA World Cup, the gestures in celebration by Swiss footballers Zherdan Shaqiri and Granit Zhaka via displaying the Albanian Eagle against the Serbian team — there are many political angles at play which cannot be unnoticed.
Racial discrimination has also played it’s part in staining the game. Brings to mind incidents like Kevin- Prince Boateng’s walk off the football pitch due to racial chants, or Luis Suarez’s controversial racist remarks against Patrice Evra, or the highly decorated African footballer Samuel Eto’o who went public in his appeal against discrimination based on color. Brazilian star Marcelo had his own share of problems dealing with chants of ‘monkey’ going around him.
In India itself, there are instances of discrimination against people hailing from the north-east, based on their looks and stature. Even so, one of the torch-bearers of Indian football, Baichung Bhutia is hailed as one of the national greats.
It’s like the Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku shared in an article on how football has shaped his life — “When things were going well, I was reading newspapers articles and they were calling me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker. When things weren’t going well, they were calling me
Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker of Congolese descent.”
When irresponsible journalism paints people in different shades in such a manner, it leads to the feeling that such indecisiveness in opinion towards other human beings is somehow acceptable, which ends up adding a dark spot to this aspect of the game. Such impressionable people (and a huge population of ours falls into this category) vacillate — they cheer immigrants when they score goals for their country while they see them as social transgressors in other times. Think about France who took the World Cup in style, 20 years after their win on home soil — their success is a source of pride for immigrants and mixed-races. Of the 23 players in the French squad, around two-thirds are of Arab or African descent. Great things happen when you allow positivity to bloom. It is difficult to change collective perceptions but if I still would urge you to make this beautiful game free from such stains in your own mind.