One club, one man, one gift

It is somewhat incongruous that in an era of rampant commercialism, where every successive clothing deal pushes the envelope of vulgarity, a logo on a shirt should suggest, even if fleetingly, that sport has a heart, writes ROHIT BRIJNATH.

When football clubs, some of which are gleaming monuments to greed, bluster on about "citizenship" and "tolerance" and "a humanitarian message", almost automatically our cynicism meter starts humming.

When a tennis player smiles too easily on court, laughs, entertains, connects with the crowd, we nod appreciatively but are deeply suspicious of him, certain as we are that clowns don't make champions.

Sometimes the best thing in sport is to be wrong, to be surprised, and therefore to be refreshed.

It is somewhat incongruous that in an era of rampant commercialism, where every successive clothing deal pushes the envelope of vulgarity, a logo on a shirt should suggest, even if fleetingly, that sport has a heart. It is somewhat bizarre that a player, Marcos Baghdatis, who we'd never heard of before January, has beamed through backhands to remind us that the cheerful champion is not fiction.

Barcelona FC has never had a logo on their shirts. Ever. For over a century. Not that they are averse to profit for a TV company logo adorns the sleeve of their shirts, and other businesses like beer and banking are part of their sponsors portfolio.

Still, it was strange this blank space on the players' chests. Put Nike, or Reebok, or Samsung there and it would be worth $20 million to the club. At least. Other clubs do it. Every other club.

But here's what the Catalans do, they pay someone to use their logo. Did their administrators fail business school?

Barcelona has not merely got UNICEF stencilled on its shirts, it will pay the organisation roughly $2 million every year for five years, money that will go towards helping AIDS education for children in Swaziland.

It is easily the most astonishing act of the sporting year.

In fact, it is so stunning, and we're so jaded, that initially you're convinced there's an angle to it, some spin-off for the club we can't readily see, some commercial genius to it in the long run. Or maybe they're just holier than thou, trying to ascend the moral high ground in a sport where increasingly there is none.

If we're cynical, it's because almost daily we're battered by greed in sport. Recently, for instance, a former Ryder Cup official told a golf magazine that American golfers lost that event in 2004 because they were too spoilt. Among other things, he said just his clothing for the three-day event cost $10,000, he and his wife got presents every day, jewellery, a money clip encrusted with jewels, golf bags (he wasn't even playing). This was only part of it. His point was simple: commerce is overshadowing art in sport.

All we hear is of television rights worth a trillion dollars and clothing rights for the Indian team earning the BCCI a gazillion dollars (after a while the numbers become meaningless). What we hear is a lot of taking; what we don't hear is a lot of giving. Does the BCCI give anything to charity, and if not, why not? A board that gets rich because of the community ought to also return something to the community on a regular basis. It is true of all sport.

Barcelona may be sniggered at by some, but they may have embarrassed others. No one expects football leagues to turn into demonstrations of altruism, with clubs wearing CARE, Red Cross and Medecins Sans Frontiers on their shirts. But Barcelona has given clubs and institutions an idea, that the power they own can be used for broadcasting all manner of messages. As the Barcelona president Joan Laporta said: "Our message is that Barcelona is more than a club and a new global hope for vulnerable children."

Barcelona has broken new ground. Baghdatis is breaking some himself.

It's interesting that a photograph of the Cypriot's face scrunched into a scowl, or folded into a pout, is hard to find. The Cypriot enjoys tennis and he shows it. Hardly anyone else in sport seems to.

One of sport's presumptions is that jesters don't make great players. Henri Leconte and Derek Randall, for instance, come swiftly to mind. Champions are expected to look sterner than disobeyed headmasters or as grim as Clint Eastwood with a grudge. Laughter distracts and perhaps the instinctively theatrical Baghdatis will stiffen up in time. At present, he is ebullient proof that smiling and winning do not necessarily conflict.

The Cypriot, the biggest secret in sport since Mr Cricket, has travelled this year to the Australian Open final, Wimbledon semi-final, won his first tournament in China, and been such an affable presence that half the globe wants to adopt him.

He is a vivid presence in an often sepia circuit, and in a sport shorn of perspective, he is rapidly providing some. At the US Open, for instance, the crowd was inexcusably rude to every one of Agassi's opponents, yet amidst the emotion of the retirement it escaped sufficient comment. When Baghdatis played the American, on the first point he missed a first serve and was booed.

The Cypriot had every reason to complain; furthermore, he'd lost a five-set match he should have won and had reason to sulk. Instead, he said "that's life'', it "happens to everybody'', praised Agassi effusively, bowed and left.

Baghdatis appears to instinctively comprehend that tennis is an art to be seriously pursued yet it does not quite save lives. Most of all, there is something charmingly brave to a man who is willing to be himself in front of the world.

The richer sport gets, the closer the TV cameras come, the more frozen its performers become. Millions at stake somehow tightens the facial muscles and anyway too many sportsmen, golfers for instance, carry the look of fellas who've just had an attack of hemorrhoids. Cricketers can go entire days without cracking a smile. It is sometimes a universe of the doleful.

Understandably, with cameras so in-your-face they can tell the brand of fake eyelashes you're wearing, it's hard for players to be themselves, for every act is exaggerated. When Sharapova jumped up and down after winning the US Open, some believed this was just a 19-year-old expressing herself, while others insisted it was a model's choreographed performance. Sometimes, athletes are not be envied.

Acceptably, athletes entertain with their skills, but there is no law against being engaging, or connecting with fans. Athletes will say they're lucky to make a living doing what they do, but their faces and behaviour rarely reflects that. Baghdatis' does.

Like Barcelona, the Cypriot has done something extraordinary. He gives back.