Lies and statistics

Robert Pires trains with FC Goa team-mates during the recent ISL season. Pires played an absolute crucial if hardly ethical role in Arsenal's remarkable, unbeaten championship season of 2003-04.-K. MURALI KUMAR

What do statistics tell you about a player such as David Beckham: do they tell you the truth? There is no denying the fact that Beckham has won 115 caps for England. It was pointed out that when he won the 110th, he overhauled the record (109) of Bobby Moore, the England captain who was voted the best player of the 1966 World Cup. By Brian Glanville.

A very old saying, variously attributed to Mark Twain, the American humorist, and Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, reminds us that “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” And in football now, at least at its greater heights, we are being swamped by statistics, in a manner reminiscent of American baseball, where “stats” are of the very essence. But how much in a football contest do they mean?

I am especially aware of the questions when I read of the experience of Robert Pires, in the newly launched Indian Super League. In the dressing room corridor he was reportedly attacked by the official of the opposing side. A match, which in parenthesis, was watched by the astonishing number of 75million television viewers, surely and easily a global record. But Pires played an absolute crucial if hardly ethical role in Arsenal’s remarkable, unbeaten championship season of 2003-04. A run which the following season they extended only to come to grief in what would have extended the sequence to 49 games when they were controversially beaten at Manchester United. Frustrated by feeble refereeing by the official, who now surprisingly presides over the Premiership referees as a whole, Mike Riley.

Yet the so called unbeaten run was made possible only by Pires’ dive at Highbury in an early season home match against Portsmouth. An opposition which was leading deservedly by a goal when Pires palpably threw himself in the box, gaining Arsenal a spurious penalty from which they scored, and to the fury of the then manager Harry Redknapp of Pompey, hung on to draw the game. All the statistics in the world cannot hide the fact that the alleged record was blemished.

As for Pires, who I am sure is speaking good English while playing in India, the word was, when I was working on the official history of Arsenal, that when I was told by the club to interview him at the London Colney training ground, he would conduct his interview only in French. That was no problem for me, but when I told Pires’ prolific compatriot Thierry Henry about it when subsequently interviewing him for the book, he roared with laughter.

Meanwhile, I greatly hope that at long last professional football will not only take off in India, but will produce Indian players the equivalent of their renowned cricketers and excellent hockey players. The fact that it has yet to happen has always baffled me. In the Olympic tournaments of 1948 and 1956, in London and Melbourne, Indian teams gave a spirited account of themselves. And before the Second World War, tours of India by the so called Middlesex Wanderers were a colossal success.

A team composed of players from leading amateur clubs, brought enterprisingly together by the two Alaway brothers, their matches against Indian oppositions were watched by as many as a massive 100,000 fans.

Is there a danger, statistical or otherwise, that the exciting new Indian pro League could become what the American pro Leagues once were when they began in the late 1960s, a kind of ‘Elephant’s Graveyard’? Meaning a League where, so to speak, once acclaimed stars came to die. The likes of Pires, Alessandro Del Piero and Nicolas Anelka have, in the old adage, a great future behind them. In those early professional league days in the USA, there was a big gap between such veteran players and the college kids who proliferated at American universities usually on so called athletics scholarships, but missed the vital early teenaged years as fulltime professionals. The essential problem was that a college degree of some sort was essential in the job market. To take the plunge into nascent professional football risked unemployment in the future. Not least because the money then was minimal.

All that has now changed. Promising young footballers, knowing they can now achieve a living wage and more with the various American professional clubs, are now largely eschewing the backwater of college football and joining those clubs. USA’s results in the recent World Cups, though it’s true that many of their players however qualified by birth or ancestry are now playing in the German Bundesliga, have transformed the USA international team and vastly raised the standard of play in the senior American league itself.

But what do statistics tell you about a player such as David Beckham: do they tell you the truth? There is no denying the fact that Beckham has won 115 caps for England. It was pointed out that when he won the 110th, he overhauled the record (109) of Bobby Moore, the England captain who was voted the best player of the 1966 World Cup, which England won, and arguably an even finer player when he skippered them in the Mexican tournament, four years later. This, despite being wrongly arrested over the disappearance — alleged — of a bracelet from a shop in Bogota’s Tequendama Hotel and put under house arrest in the Colombian capital while the England party flew on to Guadalajara, their Mexican headquarters.

When Moore arrived there, and I was there myself as a reporter, it was as though nothing untoward had happened. And Beckham? In the 1998 World Cup in France he “distinguished” himself by lashing out, from a prone position on the ground, against Argentine Diego Simeone: now the acclaimed manager of Atletico Madrid, getting himself sent off and condemning England’s gallant 10 men to a remarkable resistance, foiled only on penalties after extra-time.

While Beckham became an abused figure in the English game, he fought his way back into favour and the caps kept coming in abundance.

This despite the fact that though possessed of an explosive right foot, as an outside right he had neither the pace nor the skills to elude the opposing full back and get to the by line as a classical winger could and should. Instead like some field gun, he would be firing shells from afar. But Fabio Capello, as team manager, time and again put him on the field as a late substitute, sometimes playing mere minutes: though each time receiving another international cap. This season there has been much statistical fuss about Wayne Rooney achieving a plenitude of England goals. No one mentions Nat Lofthouse: 30 goals in 34 games.