Second Coming: Will football find a new emperor?
[Second Coming is a regular column during the 2014 football world cup dedicated to my late brother]
Cakravartin (Prakrit for Chakravarthy, the universal emperor) as a political idea in the Buddhist scriptures is a matter of considerable debate among historians, especially about its origins. While some historians argue that the concept of Cakravartin predates Asoka the great and therefore may have inspired him to imperial power, whereas others subscribe to a converse theory of his power as an emperor inspiring Buddhist intellectuals to invent the idea of Cakravartin. It is a typical philosophical argument of egg and hen.
The point to be noted here is that Cakravartin had its origins in Prakrit and not in Sanskrit, unlike most other political philosophies of that era in Jambudvipa (India of the past, for the uninitiated). Sanskrit, with all its inherent dogmas and elevated philosophical pretensions, perhaps couldn’t have reconciled to the concept of an individual king being so powerful as to alter the destiny of a civilization. Brahminical entropy was based on the balance of collective responsibility of a society and one man could not be allowed to rise up to such a pedestal, for it would create chaos.
Fortunately or unfortunately, at many points in human history one man has had such profound influence that he has altered the course of civilizations. Many centuries after Asoka, when one man went on an impossible democratic journey, the same collective leadership doctrine was invoked again and again, but Narendra Bhai Damodardas Modi singlehandedly won India in 2014. Perhaps 2014 is such a year in the brief post-modern history of mankind when men shall conquer their spheres hitherto believed to be unconquerable.
The world of team sports too is an arena where emphasis is laid upon the team rather than an individual. As football evolved into a professional, multi-million dollar sport, coaching methodologies and footballing philosophies too evolved into well-oiled machines running on multiple axles. It was simply unaffordable to leave the game at the mercy of an individual genius. Thus Europe, the real market of post-modern football as a game, developed systems that were impeccably preordained to utilize all the pieces on a chessboard optimally. As a rule, these systems delivered best results when deployed with an emphasis on defence in order to prevent your opponent from scoring. Europe changed the very basic tenet of football as a game of scoring goals to a game of preventing goals. As more and more Latin American footballers started to ply their trade in Europe, they began to accept these systems and started adapting to a defensive mind-set.
Rarely an individual magician would arise suddenly in South America and would briefly alter the rules of the game, but he would be invariably incorporated into the systems eventually. Diego Maradona was one such genius who conquered the world of football in 1986 breaking all the rules of the game (literally even scoring a “hand of God” goal). Since then, “systems” have held sway at every world cup and we have seen fewer and fewer goals being scored in each of the quadrennial event. Everything seems to be changing for the good though in 2014.
The world cup in Brazil this year is easily the best in many decades, for we haven’t seen such an open play in ages. This is attacking football at its best. It’s raining goals in Brazil this summer and the way things are going one mustn’t be surprised if this tournament produces the highest ever goal tally, surpassing the previous best of 171. This is what Latin America does to even the most defensive minded European coaches, the atmosphere simply electrifies you to score goals and more goals.
Another unique feature of this world cup is the stamp of one man’s genius on the football pitch. Finally Lionel Andres Messi seems to be moving out of the shadow of Diego Armando Maradona and is finding his own place among the pantheons of football Gods. Yes, he is currently tied up with Neymar of Brazil and Muller of Germany at 4 goals as the top goal scorer of the tournament so far, but the truth is that each and every goal he has scored till now is an act of genius. That 90th minute strike against a 11 man defence of Iran is something so spectacularly impossible that even God’s must be wondering how could he have done it. Or that free kick against Nigeria which curled into the goal, leaving even the Nigerian goalkeeper mesmerized. And that second goal against Bosnia preceded by magical one touch juggling with Higuain. All these are just wet dreams of other footballers on the world stage, but Messi makes it all look so easy that commentators and sports writers the world over have set different standards for him from the rest of the pack.
This doesn’t mean Argentina are the best team in the world cup, far from it. The Albiceleste are yet to really fire on all cylinders in attack as Higuain and Aguero have both disappointed hugely, while Di Maria as the attacking midfielder hasn’t yet found his best form. Even in defence, Sabella’s team is very jittery against pace and has typical aerial weaknesses. The one man apart from Messi who has had a great impact on this world cup is Javier Mascherano; he wins balls in the midfield, he sweeps, he holds and even has great tackles. Mascherano is at the heart of the Argentinian midfield and possibly one of the best Libero the game has seen since Franz Beckenbaur. Tactically there is one major loophole with Sabella’s boys. They simply aren’t compact enough and spread out too wide due to gaps in the midfield.
[Image Courtesy: BBC]
These gaps will be exploited by stronger teams as the tournament progresses and Sabella needs to plug them as soon as possible. This is where one is left to wonder if it was such a good decision by the coach to leave out such cerebral midfielders as Javier Pastore or Estabian Cambiasso or even an aging Juan Riquelme who may have all provided great stability and vision to the Argentine midfield. But then Sabella was always clear about what he wanted in 2014. He wanted a team built around the genius of Messi, so a Pastore or a Requelme, let alone a Tevez, would not suit that setup and would have only hampered Messi’s footballing style.
What matters is that Messi is delivering what he had promised as almost every Argentinian goal so far, save one, has come from his boots. This, mind you, despite 3 men constantly marking him in each game. What is also important to Albiceleste’s progress towards the Maracana on July 13th is the fact that they have a relatively easier path till at least the Semi-Finals in the form of Switzerland and possibly Belgium in their next two games. If the Argentinian attack of Messi, Di Maria, Higuain and Levezzi/Aguero really get going in the knockout stage then this team is virtually unbeatable. Watch out for the unheralded Levezzi as he has the potential to play the perfect foil for Messi in the coming days.
What Messi is doing to Argentina, Neymar is doing to Brazil in this world cup. It is indeed heading towards a mouth-watering final between these two Latin American giants. With each passing game, one gets the feeling that this Brazilian side has great potential if it can switch gears. Undoubtedly Brazilians aren’t yet in top gear and something seems to be holding them back from exploding. Maybe they are saving their best for the last. It would indeed be a pleasure to watch the Selecao in full flow enacting Joga bonito in the Maracana on the 13th of July.
Brazil’s weakness is similar to that of Argentina. Their midfield isn’t clicking the way it should, which is creating gaping holes in front of the back four. Also, maybe, just maybe, Marcello and Alvez on the wings are a tad bit slow in getting back to their defensive duties which may get punished by tougher opponents like say Columbia in the Quarter Finals or Germany in the Semis. Paulinho in the midfield has been lacklustre and Fernandinho looked like a better bet when he came in the second half against Cameroon. But really, the biggest worry for Scholari’s team is that beyond Neymar, the frontline is not as lethal as one would expect from a world cup winning side. Fred and Oscar must both click big time if Brazil wants to win this world cup, especially as Neymar has a reputation of choking against big teams (an accusation that cannot be levelled against Messi).
This truly is a South American world cup, what with 5 Latin American teams along with 3 from North and Central America having qualified for the knockout stages, while only 6 European sides have made it beyond the group stages. Defensive minded giants like Italy and England have both gone back home, while even powerhouses like world champion’s Spain and Portugal are out of the world cup. Although the challenge from Europe is still substantial in the form of Germany, Netherlands and France, one does get a feeling that this is going to be a South American championship. Brazil and Argentina facing each other in the Maracana would be a dream final indeed, especially for all the football romantics. Messi who was seen to be more Catalan than Argentinian by the fans of his home country seems to have finally been embraced by a Maradona crazy nation. They even have a song for the final wherein they put Messi along with Maradona as the new emperor of football. Here is a rough translation of that song which is reverberating all around Argentina;
Brazil, tell me how it feels
To have daddy in your home
I swear that even as the years go by
We’ll never forget
How Diego dribbled
And Cani[ggia] stuck the needle in
You’ve been crying since Italy until today
You’ll see Messi
Bring the cup back to us
Maradona is greater than Pelé.