Byline by M J Akbar:How big is Togo?
How big is Togo? How small is Togo? How big is India? How small is the Indian? How petty is the mind that manages Indian sports? How minuscule is the pride that a nation should have in its sports team?
How complacent are we Indians — or for that matter, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, Nepalese, the wretched non-performers of South Asia — that we permit our sports czars to crush our national pride so that they may pick up the travel allowance perks of officialdom? How humiliating that young men of Kolkata pray for the success of Brazil (or possibly, after Crespo, Messi and a goal against Serbia and Montenegro that will remain imperishable in my memory, Argentina) in the World Cup because the Indian football team is a pathetic joke that would not find a place in the dustbin of MAD magazine.
It was not always so. In the 1950s, India was a pre-eminent side in Asia, in the hunt for medals at the Asian Games or even the Olympics. Chuni Goswami can tell you the story over a glass of something soothing at his club in Kolkata. But while other nations in Asia and Africa (which did not exist on the sports map of the world) put sweat into their skills and passion into their dreams, we Indians slid into a swamp.
Who is responsible for this degeneration? The easy answer? Politicians. We all love to blame them. It is true that some politicians have presided over failure and collapse of sport with the aplomb of the indifferent. But that is only part of the answer. It was not a politician who ruined Indian hockey. There is no reason why politicians should not be as fond of a sport as doctors, lawyers. Politicians also have the acquired or natural talent for dealing with people, and sport is nothing if it is not public. The problem is that Indian sport is ruled by a range of non-professionals who could not run to save their lives, and who believe that sport should serve them rather than the other way around. Sport is the means to their presence in media space, a bridge on which their vanity can sprint to and fro.
This is a particularly Indian disease. The only disease more fatal to sports is possibly the Pakistani version, where generals suddenly mature into experts on squash or volleyball the moment the pips come off the shoulder. The syndrome is similar, for both use power to extend their clutch over sport. Since no Pakistani civilian is in power, although some are in office, it is inevitable that the outreach quota should be filled by generals.
What is the difficult answer? That we, the people, who love sports and love our country, and thirst to see our national team win a match or two in the World Cup finals, let our self-appointed masters get away with this crime. Why do we permit our institutions to be purchased by non-professionals? Why is there no public demonstration of anger? Tony Blair may have been one of Britain’s most successful Prime Ministers, but when he is eased, or hopefully pushed, out of 10 Downing Street, the one job he will never get is management of England’s football fortunes.
All right: admitted that big or small is not necessarily a reflection of ability. China has always been big. It has become strong, in the modern age, only now. The British ruled 300 million Indians with something like 50,000 civilians and soldiers most of the time. We Indians are welcome to congratulate ourselves on the statistic that one British civil servant was generally considered sufficient to rule half of Sudan, but that would reduce bathos to pathos. Babur had less than 10,000 men by the time he defeated the Rajput-Afghan confederacy at Kanhua to establish his empire. It is not numbers, but quality that matters, and quality can be fashioned out of a few just as easily as it can be fashioned out of the many.
Poverty is a valid reason for failure. But India has run out of excuses. There is enough wealth to create world class teams in any sport. How small is Togo’s economy? Its growth rate in 2005 was 1% and its GDP just under two billion dollars. Ivory Coast had the same non-growth rate, and a GDP of $16.5 billion. Paraguay’s economy grew at 2.7% and had a GDP of $7.2 billion. Ghana was in single figures as well, with a GDP of $9.4 billion and a growth rate of 4.3%. Don’t doubt these statistics. They are from the CIA’s World Factbook. One squeak and you could end up in Guantanamo Bay.
Compare with booming bursting buzzing blazing buoyant India. India is on the cover of the international voice of capitalism, the Economist, ready to levitate towards the stratosphere. India’s GDP is $720 billion, its purchasing power parity over three trillion dollars, its growth rate 7.6% and its population over one billion. The population of the other countries would lie unnoticed in an Indian district, and the Togoans could be fitted comfortably into a satellite town of Delhi.
How about a football match between Togo and India?
All that India cannot do is find electricity for dazzling Delhi, water for any Indian or eleven young men in the national colours who can defeat Togo. It’s not the money, stupid. It’s the will. Without the will there will never come the power. Why has Indian cricket escaped the curse of the Indian crab? The Indian crab, as is well known, is not only unable to scale any height, but is at its best when dragging down another crab on its way up. The answer is not nuclear science. Indian cricket has managed to privatise its economy, while other sports still live in a mixed economy. State patronage is minimal but comes at a heavy price. Indian cricket can sniff at the state, and possibly lend a bankrupt state government some cash provided the interest is good and the Reserve Bank of India can guarantee the loan. Cricket is fuelled by advertising, and has become a huge industry in its own right. Advertising needs icons and icons are bred by success. This chicken comes before the nest egg. The success does not have to be huge, as Sania Mirza has discovered, to the intense joy of her bank. Indian cricket entered a new economic zone when it brought home the World Cup from England nearly two decades ago. A starving generation found its heroes. Kapil Dev did not even need to speak English to become rich; Palmolive was certain that even those who did not know English liked to shave. A Test cricketer now counts his annual income in crores. Rahul Dravid’s personal annual earnings would match the spending of all the big football teams of the Kolkata league put together.
Indian football can get its act together, but the first step will have to be drastic: the actors who strut the stage must give way to professionals. Amateur hour is over. The world has moved on, as has the World Cup. Nothing is out of reach, but you do need the will to reach it.
Will anything change?
Let us pray.