Australia's silence over soccer and sledging

ROHIT BRIJNATH

IT is that season when Australia, particularly Melbourne, has switched off from the world. Their isolation as an island has gone beyond the geographical into the sporting. If you do not have an opinion on footy (Australian Rules Football), then, mate, please put down that beer and please leave the bar, a demand not necessarily delivered in such inoffensive English.

Somewhere in Sydney, Steve Waugh is attempting to suture his wounded career, but he could have well retired and become a Buddhist monk for all we know. In Melbourne, the world's best spinner, Muralitharan, has come visiting and not even a "CHUCKING" headline is (fortunately) to be seen. In America, the NBA playoffs have begun, but the closest we get to Kobe here is possibly a steak.

In Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa conversation dances between Ronaldo's knee, Beckham's foot and Nakata's hair colour. We are presuming this, of course, because most of it does not merit more than a paragraph.

Do not these fellows know a World Cup, the World Cup, is around the corner. In Brazil, they probably have a four-yearly clock that counts down the minutes, with prospective brides being told that all weddings must be deferred to next year (first the World Cup must finish, then if Brazil loses it means an extended mourning, if they win all honeymoons are superfluous). Here, it is not even on the calendar. Is it on television, well no one's advertising the fact.

It is almost as if Australia is not at the Cup thus it does not exist (hey, in India we've never been there, nor will be for this century, yet even Tendulkar occasionally makes way for Zidane). That eventually, as a sporting event, it will dwarf even their Sydney 2000 Olympics is neither here nor there. That Australian soccer, struggling to emphasise itself as a mainstream sport, would benefit from enhanced coverage, is beside the point.

In Europe, they must be bemused by Australia (and America's) claims of being sporting superpowers. Incredibile, you can hear the Italians cry, how come if they've never even been in a World Cup semi-final. US baseball may be advertised as the World Series, but as a Spaniard may query, "Senior, which world is that exactly?" For the real world, status is measured on a different scale: to be precise, the FIFA rankings.

Of course, I should not be surprised. After all, when Australia failed, months ago, to qualify for the World Cup, their coach actually kept his job, a most alarming expression of sporting naivete. Elsewhere, of course, failure to qualify equals decapitation. None upheld this spirit as purely as Paraguay, who sacked their coach despite qualification, and predictably have since struggled.

But perhaps most illuminating was an experience with a young Australian boy, who happened to be visiting when I was watching a re-run of Escape to Victory, an outrageously silly film whose singular appeal lay in Ardiles flicking the ball over his own head, and a bicycle kick by you-know-who.

However, impossibly, incredibly, the young Australian did-not-know-who. When I pointed to Pele's face on the screen, his reply was," Who's he"?, which in some countries is enough to be locked in a grim tower, no trial required. His further comment, after I identified Pele, was, "I think I've heard of him," upon which I left the room for fear of doing him bodily harm.

Australia's footballing future, we shall have to say, is not particularly bright.

Soccer aside, there has been a disquieting quiet here over the ICCs new dictate regarding sledging, something, one presumed, would spark at least a comment, or a barb, given that the Aussies are neither hesitant with opinions nor impoverished of vocabulary when on the field.

A few weeks ago, Shane Warne caused some eyebrows to arch with an admission (he gets only some marks for honesty) that he would sledge an opponent over even a personal issue (the context being a footy player who was involved with a teammate's player's wife, and whether he would raise the subject on the field. "Yes", he said).

Now he could be penalised for it, under the new laws that encompass sledging, obscenities and racial/ethnic slurs. It is a sensible rule, but adds a further burden of subjectivity upon the umpire.

However, Srinivas Venkataraghavan, whom I spoke to, says he believes the ICC (no doubt having digested the bitterness in South Africa) does not want the match referee to be both "prosecutor and judge", and thus handed the responsibility for reporting the players to the umpire.

While some might interpret these laws as the players' failure to police themselves, from England, the ICC's Dave Richardson tells me that is hardly the case. "Generally behaviour is pretty good, it's just that we've never defined where the players stood."

Still, it promises to be a tricky business. A field of saints, as pure as their white trousers, would leave cricket sterile. As Venkat explains: "Tolerance is important, aggro should be there, but it shouldn't go beyond a limit". What and where that limit is will predictably arouse controversy, for there is a fine line between wanton provocation and genuine aggressiveness.

Venkat welcomes the law, yet accedes that this will be one "more burden", yet another judgment call, and like his ilk is chary of the influence television will wield. As it is lbw decisions are chewed on at leisure by some feeble commentators. Once again, he says it depends on "how often (television) producers choose to show replays". For instance, he says, a player could be "mouthing off at another player, but I may not see it, but the camera could pick it up and they could keep replaying it". (No doubt the latest addition to commentary boxes will be professional lip-readers!)

Regardless, rules like these are a reflection of the times, and sub-continental nations, particularly, will be pleased by the racial/ethnic slur component, for not all cricketers, as in life in general, are convincingly colour-blind. Of course, Western umpires might, like the ATP chair umpires, demand a handbook that has printed in it, phonetically as well, a list of swear words in Afrikaans, Strine (Australian English which can be incomprehensible) and an entire spectrum of sub-continental languages (though if the opposition can't understand you the effect is lost).

Presumably, the introduction of a cricketing card system (yellow for warning, red and it's bye-bye Glenn McGrath) was not deemed suitable. Anything soccer, you see, is of no value Down Under.