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By Sunil Gavaskar
This has been an incredible start to the Football World Cup indeed. Who would have imagined that the winners and runner-up of the last World Cup would be knocked out in the first round itself.
What it does show is the improved standard of the game all over the world and how even the best of teams with the cream of talent can come a cropper on the biggest stage of all. While France and Italy go back to their countries with their heads between their legs, England after a sluggish start have squeezed through into the round of 16 much to the relief of a nation which was on tenterhooks till then. They now play Germany which gives them the perfect opportunity to prove Franz Beckenbaur, the German legend, wrong in his assessment of the English team. Beckenbaur called the English team ‘lions in winter and lambs in spring’, perhaps alluding to the fact that at the start of the season in the cold of the winter air the English footballers are fresher and stronger but as the season wears on they lose their strength and become lambs as summer approaches. Luckily it is winter time in South Africa at the moment so the English won’t find the weather much different than at home and may yet produce the kind of football that they seem to do for their clubs in the English Premier League but somehow don’t always do so when they play for the country.
India’s cricketers also seem to be somewhat similar when they are playing the ICC World Twenty20 and except for the inaugural event in 2007 when there was no IPL, have not replicated their brilliant deeds in the Indian Premier League when they pull on the India Cap. Of course with the longer, 50 overs game it is different as we have just seen in the Asia Cup which India regained after a gap of 15 years or so. It is another feather in the cap of the skipper Dhoni who seems to be growing from strength to strength.
The similarity is not just confined to the players but also to the media. Just like cricket is India’s passion, so also is football in England and the players in the English Premier League are as big stars in England as India’s cricketers are in India. There is the same interest in the footballers in England as there is for cricketers in India and the public hardly seems tired trying to know more about them. This leads to a situation where whether there is a story or not, something has to be written or shown about these players on a daily basis. It is just a public demand scene and nobody can be blamed for it. Typically while there is lavish praise when the players do well there is also harsh criticism when they fail to live up to the public’s expectations. If the latter happens, then you can be certain that a split in the team will be pretty much a common theme and that is a good enough reason to blame the players even though the actual fact maybe that they were simply not good enough on the day. So John Terry who decided to speak his mind and mentioned that he was born to do so and speak on behalf of the players, was blamed for a split in the team the moment some players said that nobody was authorized to speak on their behalf. The media then strung him up calling him bitter since the coach had sacked him from the captaincy a few months earlier for his indiscretions and that he was looking to exact revenge on the coach. How that would help Terry personally nobody could explain but it was easier to pin the blame that way than to look for a logical reason for his remarks at the media conference.
As soon as it became apparent that it was Germany that England were to face, the papers stated calling it World War Three since England and Germany have fought two wars which also sucked in most of the world. Beckenbaur's comments are the best incentive the English team can have, for by beating the Germans, the legend will have to eat his own words. The other legend who is having a ball is the irrepressible Diego Maradona. The Argentina great is the manager of the team that looks as if it is peaking at the right time and with the FIFA player of the year, Lionel Messi in the team, the opportunities to score increase much more than for any other team. Maradona has said that he will dance naked if Argentina wins the world cup and knowing the man he will stick to his word. Of course with all the trouble that Argentina had in qualifying from South America for this world cup he probably feels that his team is not good enough to win and so a promise like that is pretty safe since he won’t have to carry it out.
If there has been some high class football and some great cricket by the Indians, the tennis also is not far behind. Roger Federer has had the scare of his life in the first round where he was almost knocked out but survived match point to get through to the next round. Grass is his patch and so it was a surprise to see him stretched by an unknown player but it is here that great players rise to the occasion and pull out that extra that separtes them from the rest. When the going gets tough, the tough get going and Federer had to bring out that little extra when he would have been thinking that it would be needed only in the latter half of the second week of the tournament. The Federer aura is slipping as can be seen by the fact that he gets beaten in the non-majors by some pretty ordinary players. When he lost in the quarter-finals of the French Open, it was the first time in 23 majors that he had five days off. It is a remarkable record and which is why he is reckoned as the greatest tennis player ever to have played the game with due respect to Rod Laver and Pete Sampras.