In yet another sign of our ever shrinking world, last month a legendary footballer from Portugal came over 9000 kilometres to Bangalore to launch a football academy for a French football club owned by a Sheikh in Qatar. Pauleta, also known to friends and family as Pedro Miguel Carreira Resendes, was here as Brand Ambassador for Paris St. Germain, having earned the right by scoring over 100 goals for the club in the 212 league appearances he made for them.
True to our Indian nature, we pulled out all the stops to ensure he was as comfortable as possible because god forbid what would happen if he complained about something. Every effort was also gamely put in by our team to plan his 20 hours in Bangalore best we could creating a strong schedule across multiple venues that would adequately showcase the work we had put in so far into the 'Dream Bigger' PSG camps. True to India's nature, we had a massive thunderstorm the morning of the event, resulting in the city being gridlocked courtesy of group of massive trees bowing down in mercy to the storm strategically over the very arterial roads we needed to take him on. In the car ahead, my phone was constantly ringing with the same query from my football coaches to school children to school management to the VIP in the car behind - 'How long till we reach?' Unable to confirm an answer as my re-route through the city had me and Pauleta being equal partners in examining the strange streets around us, I responded with the tried and tested response of - 'Shortly, we are on our way'. There were plenty of thoughts running through my mind at this time, most of which would certainly have me suspended from the school we were about to visit (any school for that matter), but my biggest worry as we were trapped in a box of metal sharing deep forlorn looks with other people in their boxes around us was how this Portuguese man who spoke no English would cope, after spending 150 minutes in a car through the worst by-roads Bangalore had to offer, with an event full of manic children halfway across the world.
I needn't have worried. You don't earn the title of footballing club legend by being afraid of a little traffic. We reached the school and Pauleta strode confidently to the football pitch with a broad smile as he looked at the enthusiastic kids who gathered around to catch a glimpse of him. He picked up a microphone as he looked across the field and announced 'I am humbled to be here. I grew up playing football on a field like this so lets play.' I guess he has a bit of India in him as he decided impromptu that running a training session was not good enough for him so he changed the schedule and created football match instead. Off went the boys to turn the four training zones into a field sized rectangle while Pauleta borrowed football boots to show off his skills in. On the side were formerly enthusiastic media members, dulled by the hours of waiting, into taking refuge under some meagre foliage by the pitch. The sight of Pauleta perked them up but their spirits were immediately dampened as he ran onto the football field further delaying their interaction with him. We channeled our inner diplomacy and managed to keep them engaged which was not hard considering they were all surprisingly friendly and fit.*
I must confess, while Pauleta showed us his Indian side I had a bit of French snootiness in me the previous few days. The concept of a brand ambassador did not strike me as a particularly appealing thing to do for a football legend. I wondered what his motivation for doing this role was and how impactful he really could be given that his career was now in the past. As he ran on to the pitch in his borrowed boots, I saw him stand a little straighter, his chest become a little broader and his smile grow a little wider as he shook hands with every child in the opposing team. I looked around at the hundreds of children staring at him and watched their faces slowly light up as well and thats when I knew. The one thing about children is that they will always tell you exactly how they feel. If you are talking to them and they do not like what you are saying, they will turn away without any regard for your feelings. Children can read people and can immediately tell if someone is faking it or not. Pedro does not, can not, fake his love for children. He feeds off their energy and it makes him stronger. He travels across the world to engage with children not because it gives him a livelihood but because it gives him life. And come to life he did. Pauleta played in Bangalore with the boys team, girls team, coaches, teachers and media members to give them an experience they would not forget. For someone who does not speak English he communicated effortlessly with every child or adult he came across with his smile, his eyes and his personality.
When he left that same evening I had a new appreciation for both the man and his role in serving a club and a sport that had done so much for him. This was his way of giving back because this is what he was best at. He has left a great impression upon us all as we build an Academy that makes us proud to be in the profession we are in. We have learnt that it does not matter what we do - how we do it is what counts. Today an 8 year old in Bangalore can learn football the same way a child in Paris learns it, thanks to a man in Qatar. The world may grow smaller each day, not because we can communicate easily but because we all share a common spirit.
Coverage from Economic Times, Deccan Herald and Times of India in order below
* I guess Arnab Goswami is not the poster boy for journalism after all.
The latest news has the Indian Super League kicking off in October for 3 months with the likes of Freddie Ljungberg, Robert Pires and Luis Garcia making headlines with their commitments. The ISL organizers have done a fantastic job roping in these former superstars, who while a little older, will still bring enough glamour to the event to draw in the crowds. Football in India is poised to take off dramatically and the timing of the ISL launch could not be better with the likes of PSG, Barcelona and Arsenal providing a grassroots impetus and the Under-17 World Cup to be hosted in India poised to be a watershed moment in the history of Indian football, with what promises to be a talented group of Indian youngsters participating.
There is a lot riding on the ISL in terms of football development in India. If successful, it could lay the platform for an Indian team participating in the FIFA World Cup by 2026 as the experience of playing on these teams will provide young talent with the mental, physical and tactical expertise to grow their skills in a systematic and sustainable way. Failure could doom football to fate that befalls hockey currently - a beloved sport that is destined for the niche now that multiple attempts to revive it have failed to enthuse the general public. Engaging this group, known as 'fan engagement' is a key consideration in the popularity of sport and they are as critical to the long-term success of a sport as engaging with athletes, sponsors or administrators. Counterintuitively, many people within this segment are also generally ignored by administrators, which seems strange considering that it should be obvious to any administrator to consider engaging the fans. To help our administrators, let us understand who these are fans really. There are 3 broad categories of fans who consume sport:
1. Die-hards: These fans consume the sport on a daily basis and are usually highly engaged with a specific team or individual athlete who they follow on a constant basis. A 'healthy obsession' as some believe it to be, these fans will make it through multiple obstacles to connect with their sport and can counted upon to support their game irrespective of the environmental or financial barriers. A good example, are Indian F1 enthusiasts who travel to Abu Dhabi and Singapore to view races, and for whom Delhi one weekend a year is a pilgrimage that no wedding date, birthday or vacation can come close to usurping. The sport has done a great job selling itself to these fans and it takes something pretty uniquely ignorant to alienate them to the point of disengagement.
2. Casual Fans: These fans understand the basics of the sport they are watching and are aware of the superstars but only watch the so-called important events. Tennis for example thrives upon such fans who consume majors such as Wimbledon while dispensing forehand advice to Roger Federer but would be hard-pressed to actually name all 4 tennis majors in the year. These fans are also known as bandwagon fans by the die-hards and over the last month they were easily spotted during the football World Cup. They are a crucial segment to the success of any sport as their support drives TV money, event attendance and media coverage. This is mainly because there is no distinction between the actual love of the game when it comes to the economics of sport that measures success based purely off numbers.
3. Fans by Association: The third group is not really a fan per se but still consumes a sport because, well, they have to. Mothers who take their 8 year olds to Test cricket game, girlfriends who stay up 3:00 am to watch football round-robin matches, sons who sit quietly through a 4 hour round of golf or husbands who watch synchronised swimming during the Olympics because 'it looks pretty'. They therefore end up watching a sport by association but this segment is also usually the future of any sport as they are most likely to start experiencing the innate excellence of the athletes participating as well as the drama and emotion of the competition they are watching. Given the right set of circumstances, these fans progress to become casual fans and then up the chain to die-hards over a period of year. Given the wrong set of circumstances they become critics of the sport and can eventually cause their counterparts to pursue past-times more amenable to domestic serenity.
In the past, Groups 2 and 3 here have not been appropriately provided enough incentive in India to convert up the fan value chain when it came to sports such as hockey, golf or badminton who have all tried their own leagues. My contention is that organisers have not been able to make much headway in the creating a memorable experience for those who actually attend games cutting across the three categories of fan bases we have just outlined.
When I say memorable experience, let me provide you with a benchmark that I would love the ISL to compare itself to. The Phoenix Open is a golf event played in Arizona, and they realised they would eventually lose their event to more marquee events on the golfing calendar if they did not do something to drive attendance. Lets remember this is golf - not the most TV friendly sport for any casual fan to watch and more difficult to watch in person since you watch a shot played every few minutes rather seconds as there is a gap between each set of players who reach a spot on the golf course. It takes less than a second for a golf swing - so 2 seconds of action* every 10 minutes is a pretty difficult barrier to overcome when targeting casual fans. So how did the guys at Phoenix shake things up? Well they took one entire golf hole and converted it into well, essentially a stadium by building stands around the entire golf hole - all 162 yards of it - and essentially created an amphitheatre in the middle of the course. Then, they allowed fans who made it inside to cheer while golfers were hitting instantly making it the loudest hole in golf. In addition, amongst other things they started outdoor concerts post the golf round with massive bands headlining the show. The result - blowing past golf records it has become one of the most attended sports events in the world with over 550,000 people attending last year over 4 days and over 180,000 attending just on Saturday alone. As someone, who has has the fortune of being there I can truly say it is one of the most remarkable sporting experiences one could have. There is another column of learnings from everything the Phoenix Open but I am convinced that by providing fans across the three categories, a defining experience that they can take home with them, the Phoenix Open not only saved itself but resurrected golf in southwest America.
The ISL needs to learn from that and want to aspire to engage those moms who bring their kids to watch football by getting the difficult things right - parking, security, access to seats, in-stadia replays, refreshments, half-time shows, toilets, souvenirs, post-game traffic and all the other things those easy to please die-hard fans see as minor road bumps on their journey to the view Pires and Ljungberg perform a step-over live. If the ISL can get groups of families, school kids, college friends, office colleagues, retirees to take a few hours out every month to experience something that they can go home and smile, brag, fight, and ultimately bond over then they will actually change the Indian footballing landscape. It has been done time and again across other sports and there is no reason believe it cannot be done now. There are plenty of ideas to improve the soft aspects of the in-game experience - hopefully someone will have the will to implement them.
* There are 2-3 players a group depending upon the day
A major newsworthy event outside of the Commonwealth Games happened in Indian sport this month and it took place in the sport of Basketball. China may have effectively destroyed most arguments that our economy would grow faster than theirs over the last 10 years, but we negated the pain of all those billions lost on a wonderful evening in Wuhan as India beating the hosts in basketball game 65-58!* As an Indian sports fan more used to seeing my teams losing to those we should beat, it was refreshing news to see us beat a team ranked 50 spots above us in the rankings, especially considering the sport.
You see, while basketball at its essence is a relatively simple game to learn - toss a ball through a hoop 10 feet high - it requires extreme physical ability to play at an exceptionally high level. The greatest players in basketball have been supreme athletes who would have physically dominated any sport they played. One look at Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant or Lebron James in either street clothes or their jerseys and you know that they have been built to play sport. It is no coincidence either that they all play basketball, a sport that undoubtedly favours physical dominance as the taller, stronger, faster you are the greater your chances of success as a professional basketballer are.
Unlike sports such as football, cricket, tennis where the greatest players such as Lionel Messi, Sachin Tendulkar or Roger Federer could easily disguise themselves as bankers or accountants (ok maybe not accountants) , great basketball players would look more at home in the Avatar future rather than the boring 21st century Earth, their physical prowess clearly apparent to every human, animal and alien life-form that dared cross their path. Keep that picture in mind now while you now assess the average Indian male who is approximately 5 feet 7 inches tall, with a well defined turnip-shaped shadow following him during his exhausting forays from the car park to his house or office. Finding 12 men therefore to represent our country in basketball, even though we have a fair few men to choose from, is no easy task and it is why we have been more successful in virtually every sport from hockey to boxing to shooting to golf than we have in basketball.
Now before you say, "Hang on we only beat China - we didn't beat the Americans" , please consider the greatest Chinese basketball player of all-time was a man named Yao Ming who stood 7 feet 6 inches tall and made 94 million dollars playing basketball before he retired when his body couldn't handle the rigours of basketball at the age of just 31. China has produced 5 NBA level players - the closest an Indian has got to the NBA in over half a century of its existence was actually last month when Sim Bhullar* was drafted by the Sacramento Kings to play in their Summer League. The Sacramento Kings also happen to be owned by an Indian, Vivek Ranadive, but I am no way suggesting that Mr. Ranadive influenced the stringent recruiting process by favouring a player of Indian origin.* Unfortunately, after Sim Bhullar scored just 2 points in 4 games, it is more likely we see Mr. Ranadive play an NBA game before Sim.
I therefore really think we should make a much bigger deal out of this achievement than we are. We need to make legends out of those 12 men, we need the media to tell us their individual stories, we need to have the game replayed every afternoon on television so that our children can be inspired by it, we need every basketball coach in the country to learn the X's and O's from that victory and we need every sports administrator to look at the tape and believe that their jobs are valuable to our country. We need to change our collective psyche from being surprised at victory to challenging ourselves to learn from it and to expect it. We have already overcome the odds in creating a basketball team that can play against some of the best in the world. Now, we need to develop players who believe they can beat the best in the world. Thanks to China we may have just found some of that belief.
* Not really, but lets dream for a moment.
** He is actually Canadian but we will still claim him.
*** Maybe just a little bit of influence.
Yes, Canada's population is only about the size of Orissa's (about 35 million or so) and it is tad bit colder which makes most sports, which are generally outdoor affairs, more difficult to master but in our success-starved cabinet of sporting accomplishments we need to celebrate every small victory we can! In fact, for a country that has justifiably made more news about the safety, or extreme lack of it, for its almost 600 million women, Indian women out-fought and out-muscled their counterparts from over 70 countries to win medals in weightlifting and judo.
In the women's 48 kg weightlifting category Sanjita Khumukcham lifted the Indian tricolor to gold by managing a combined 173 kg lift with Mirabai Chanu Saikhom winning silver with total of 170 kgs. Sushila Likmabam and Kalpana Thoudam both won medals in Judo and adding their names to short but impressive list of sportswomen India has produced over the years.
While we could lament at the lack of recognition the general public in India has regarding these sports or the impact women can make to it, I am more interested in marveling for a moment at the ability of a 48 kg person - male or female - to lift twice their body weight. I am not sure where this ranks in the scale of human achievements but as someone who attempts to workout on occasion I have rubbed shoulders with those who do so more regularly. I have seen these individuals stack up every weight they can on unfortunate bar and proceed to do a squat that is absolutely as difficult as it appears to be. The sweat-soaked, exhausted, unable to stand or sit, physical specimens look around and proudly say - 'twice my body weight!' Seems like what Sanjita did is fairly common then in gyms across India. That's almost true but not quite - In a squat, a person carries the weight on their shoulders whereas a weightlifter carries the weight above their head. This is a massive difference - during a squat a weight is placed on your shoulders and the person essentially performs a sit-up. The degree of difficulty in weightlifting, where one needs to pick that weight off the floor, up the length of your torso and then above your head, is exponentially more difficult. This is why fitness afficionados and gym instructors across the country are respectfully admiring Sanjita and Mirabai's feats with a true appreciation for degree of difficulty of their accomplishment.
It is unlikely, however, for these medals to inspire a raft of women's weightlifters in India or to provide these exceptional women with much long term financial security, impacts of medals which are more usually seen in a country like Canada, but the true essence of a champion is driven by the desire to succeed and be the best in their sport. Sanjita and Mirabai I suspect would gladly take the fame and riches more glamorous sports provide, but their desire to be the greatest in their sport cannot be fuelled by money but only by a passion for what they do. It is something we forget in India when we academically choose sports for our children. Instead of giving them a chance to be the best they can be, we shackle them with expectations for what the sport is supposed to deliver. I dont know the pleasure Sanjita derives from lifting massive steel plates above her head everyday of her life but in it she found her purpose and her calling. Today she has confirmation that those years of dedication, commitment and good old fashioned hard work were all worth it in the best way possible. That is the essence of sport and no matter what level you compete, the experience stays with you a lifetime. So while we might not have made it there ourselves, we should certainly share the pride and joy that our medallists feel.
Congratulations to all these Indian Champions at the Commonwealth Games 2014 who today have proof that they are best in the world at what they do.