Genius is what genius does

NIRMAL SHEKAR

IT wasn't a major earthquake. No big war had broken out. It wasn't even a cataclysmic event - such as the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York last September 11 - that would change the course of history. Nor was it a sensational sporting triumph, such as India's 1983 World Cup cricket success, or, perhaps, a popular, widely celebrated moment of crowning glory such as the one enacted by the incomparable Pele and his men in Mexico in 1970.

It was merely a few words, a few words uttered by an Englishman in patented style, with an under-stated sense of excitement, on BBC sometime in the mid-1960s.

"Ah, genius! Sheer genius!"

Those were the words of John Arlott, the greatest of cricket commentators. He was describing a Gary Sobers innings during the course of a Test match in England.

And those words were to leave a lasting impression, for some vague, unfathomable reason in a youngster who was not yet 10. One of those words - GENIUS - to be precise.

In four decades since, as I have evolved as a person, so indeed has that word in my mind, taking on this connotation and that, in the light of varied experiences.

A few years on, in the late 1960s, reading J.B.Priestley's essay on Sobers - as great a piece of sporting literature as you can lay your eyes on, surpassed for sheer beauty and raw vitality only by the last chapter in the finest book ever written on sport, Norman Mailer's Fight - you found yourself exclaiming, almost breathless: Ah, genius! Sheer genius!

For a moment, you weren't sure if you said that of Sobers or the master essayist who had written about him. But it hardly mattered. The word still had the same magic ring to it.

Over the last three decades, even as the rose tinted glasses of the adolescent years were traded for reality-lenses, so to say, in professional cause as a sportswriter, one has time and again recalled those words of Arlott, coughed out by a misbehaving old speaker in an antiquated Murphy radio all those years ago.

Ah, genius! Sheer genius!

"Works of genius are the first things in the world,"wrote John Keats.

To me, in the world of sport, they are the first and the last things. And many things in between too.

But, then, for the most part, in sport as in life, genius and works of genius are the last things that will be understood clearly. In a world where television-inspired hyperbolists go to work in undue haste and with a misplaced glee, genius has been brought to the level of the pedestrian, it is almost as commonplace.

But that won't do, would it? For, if we were as liberal with the use of the word genius, as most sports commentators seem to be today - unlike Arlott who knew exactly where to use it and why - then Club Genius in sport will include a sizable chunk of men and women who are performing athletes while, in actual fact, it is so exclusive a club that only very few great sportsmen ever manage to knock on its doors and enter.

Reading something on a sports website the other day, something written in the context of the World Cup in Japan and Korea, I shook my head in utter disbelief. For, if you believed the writer, every second or third player who'd be showcasing his skills in Asia's first World Cup is a genius!

Then again, genius is what genius does; and we shall know soon, once the ball starts rolling in Japan and Korea. In Rivaldo and Ronaldo, David Beckham and Michael Owen, Raul Gonzalez and Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo and Gabriel Batistuta, this World Cup has any number of superstars with brilliant track records.

But genius? Maybe one of them is; maybe more of them are. Only the course of the events over the next four weeks will tell us who is who.

On the other hand, if you stuck to my strict definition of genius, you'd realise that the last time genius played a major role in a World Cup was in 1986 when Diego Armando Maradona's feet produced the sort of magic that Rudolph Nureyev's would on a different stage.

Romario in 1994 in the United States. Zidane in 1998 in France. Roberto Baggio here and there. Rivaldo now and again. Paolo Maldini in the rear. Gifted players, and all these have had their moments on a World Cup stage.

And one or more of them may actually knock on the doors of Club Genius over the four weeks. But they are not there yet and what is being emphasised here is the general tendency in the world of sport to make exaggerated statements vis a vis a good or great sportsman.

Every other good player these days is called great. Every other great player, a genius. As such, the essence of genius itself is devalued, setting off an alarming trend where effort is confused with genius, where rich talent, in itself, becomes a synonym for genius.

As the quadrennial summit in a game that has produced more geniuses than many others begins, it is perhaps appropriate that we should devote more attention to the phenomenon of genius.

The dictionary would see genius as a capacity for imaginative creation, original thought or invention. But in the field of sport, historically, the term genius has come to be rather more accommodating, accepting in its fold more than just the creative genius, the original inventive types.

Yet, the broader definition notwithstanding, acquired skills and their consistently successful employment on the field cannot be equated with genius. Thomas Alva Edison was far off the mark when he said that genius was 99 per cent perspiration and one per cent inspiration, especially when you view it in the context of sports.

A moment's inspiration in a sports career spanning several years can offer a sportsman a memorable brush with immortality and genius (example: Romario in the 1994 World Cup). But for someone to be called an outstanding genius in his sport, inspired and incandescent stuff has to come forth time and again (example: Pele).

"There are times when you want to wring his neck. He hangs on to the ball when other players have found better positions. Then, out of the blue he does something which wins the match. Then you know you are in the presence of someone special," said Pat Crerand of his Manchester United team-mate George Best in the late 1960s.

That - the something special he was talking about - is genius.

Consider this: A squat little man begins his journey from the half-way line. Every man, woman and child in the stadium train their eyes on the ball as time itself seems to come to a standstill.

Thick mop of wet black hair bouncing off his forehead, the man brushes aside huge English tacklers as if they were frail autumnal leaves and dances along through magic moments of sheer inspiration.

The race downfield accelerates as its nonchalant author feints a pivot to the right, surges ahead to the left, clears yet another hurdle and then, in a timeless moment, makes that giant among goalkeepers, Peter Shilton, look like a hapless amateur as he effortlessly flicks the ball into the goal.

It's an impossible goal. Yet, one that is made to look all so simple by the genius of the squat little man. A goal that is as enigmatic as the man himself, yet something that is as uncomplicated as the game itself.

It is one brilliant piece of action and a hundred perfect little parts fused into a matchless whole. It is a moment when the rarest of sporting dreams meets reality, shakes hands, and the two raise a toast to a merger.

Indeed, genius is what genius does. And genius is a Maradona creating a goal when there wasn't one in the match against England in 1986 (and to hell with all the nonsense that is still written in the English press about the earlier goal, the infamous Hand of God first goal in that match).

Genius is a Pele orchestrating a dazzling exhibition of daring soccer as Brazil beat Italy 4-1 in the 1970 World Cup final.

Genius is a Gordon Banks launching himself across the goal to tip over a Pele header for the "save of the century".

Genius is a Garrincha, physically challenged and mentally fragile, working up magic in the 1962 World Cup in Chile.

And genius is what the Beautiful Game desperately needs to showcase over these four weeks in Japan and Korea if this World Cup is to re-create anything of the magic that was witnessed in Mexico in 1970 - and in a small way in 1986, courtesy Maradona - and, for a brief while, in Spain in 1982 when Zico, Socrates and Co. orchestrated sublime sorcery on a football field.

After surviving the worst World Cup of all time - the 1990 edition in which Germany beat Argentina in the final - the game's fans were certainly rewarded in the following two editions, as Brazil edged Italy on penalties in the 1994 tournament in the United States and then Zinedine Zidane's talented, multi-ethnic team authored a famous victory at home in 1998.

Surely, both USA '94 and France '98 rose well above mediocrity as a few quality teams dished out top drawer stuff now and again. But, to the connoisseurs of the Beautiful Game there was still something missing - pure genius.

What we have not seen on a World Cup stage in a long time is individual genius of the sort represented by Maradona in 1986, the collective genius of the sort that Zico's men embodied in the 1982 tournament when they captured the imagination of the romantics with their to-hell-with-caution, free-flowing game which turned football into a timeless ballet.

Last year, after a horrendous run with the national team when Brazil lost to teams that it used to run up a tennis scoreline against in the past, the manager of the team Luiz Felipe Scolari hit out at his critics and said that a pragmatic approach guided by prudence was the need of the hour.

"Angels only exist in heaven," said Scolari. What he meant was, magicians did not exist on a football field. What he meant, too, was that you don't win football matches through sorcery. Instead, you did that through meticulous planning, hard work and perseverance.

If he sounded a bit like the roundheads who manage English soccer teams, then it goes to show how much the basic values guiding Brazilian soccer have changed over the years. Even in the land of Samba and buccaneering spirit on a soccer field, the cavaliers, it would appear, are all but dead.

Then again, the world has come a long way - and so has football - since the greatest of 'em all, Pele, said goodbye to the World Cup after the Golden Boys of Brazil orchestrated a magnificent victory in Mexico.

And it would be inappropriate to expect even a Brazilian team of today to play with the sort of freedom of spirit with which Pele and his men had us worship them 22 years ago.

For, historically, there are two kinds of football teams: ones with Pele, and ones without Pele. Just as there are two kinds of cricket teams: ones with Don Bradman and ones without.

Without a Pele, no Brazilian team, however great collectively, can scale the heights that the Team of '70 did in Mexico.

Yet, if Pele is incomparable, then it is not as if the Genius Club in soccer has a membership of one. Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff, Zico and Maradona, to name only four men (and only in the context of the World Cup since 1970), would surely be card holding members of that famous club.

Now, even as we look forward to the 17th edition of the great show - eight championships have been won by South American teams and eight by European sides - the intriguing question is this: will this one throw up an all-conquering superstar who with his heroics in Japan and Korea can elevate himself to the lofty pedestal occupied by Pele, Maradona, Beckenbauer and Cruyff?

If one man can leave an indelible mark on this World Cup as Maradona did in Mexico 16 years ago, who would it be?

With his great imagination and skills, would it be Rivaldo for Brazil? Or perhaps Luis Figo of Portugal - the man who can think on his feet better than any other footballer today - FIFA's World Player of the Year and European Player of the Year not long ago?

Then what of Gabriel Batistuta, the gifted forward who seems to have it in him to guide Argentina, to its third World Cup victory? Or maybe even David Beckham - dead ball specialist and a man who can send in devastating crosses - for England.

"Bend it like Beckham" is the talk of town in London these days. It is a movie about British-Asian women footballers which has broken ethnic boundaries and invaded drawing rooms in the Home Counties.

And if Beckham - whose fitness is still in question - can really bend it like the myth surrounding his heroics would have you believe, maybe the golden boy of English soccer can help return the World Cup to the country where the game was born.

For all that, the man who seems to have the greatest opportunity to join the Genius Club is Zidane. No matter his hugely influential role in France's success four years ago, there still seems to be something missing in his CV vis a vis his election to the elite club.

And if the gifted son of Algerian immigrants who first kicked ball in an underclass neighbourhood in Marseilles can help France retain the Cup, few would grudge him his place among the Gods of the game.