Two more cricket bastions threatened

The footballers of Australia and Trinidad and Tobago helped their nations to qualify for World Cup 2006 and in doing so attached cultural and nationalistic price tags to a sport that has not been as respected as the white-flannelled game.

N. U. ABILASH

Australia's best-known footballer, Liverpool winger Harry Kewell, has had to live in the shadow of Shane Warne and co. for some time. Entry to the 2006 World Cup will change the equation as the country celebrates its football success for the first time in 30 years.-AP

CRITIQUES of what constitutes respect in a class-ridden society come from various quarters. In the erudite corner, there is C. L. R. James's famous line, "Respect is not an ideal, it is just an armour," in his influential book on cricket Beyond a Boundary published in the 1960s. The street equivalent of James is the delightful inversion `Restpeca' coined by television personality, actor, stand-up comedian and vulgarist Ali G in the film Ali G in Da House. The footballers of Australia and Trinidad and Tobago — who have perennially had to live in the civilizational, cultural and nationalistic shadow of all what cricket stands for in their nations — recently decided to script their own sporting critique. They helped their nations to qualify for the showpiece event of the most popular game in the world and in doing so attached cultural and nationalistic price tags to a sport that has not been as respected as the white-flannelled game.

It is not just by a figure of speech that football is the beautiful game. The recent sporting buzz in Sydney, Melbourne and Port of Spain — the home cities of Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne and Brian Lara who are currently engaged in a lop-sided Test series — has not been provided by these sporting giants but by Harry Kewell, Mark Schwarzer, Mark Viduka, Dwight Yorke and co. The scenario replicates the one in 1997 and 1998 when the record of `Reggae Boyz' — the Warren Barrett-led Jamaican football team that qualified for the World Cup in France — displaced the performances of a Jamaican sporting great, Courtney Walsh, and of his regional and national cricket teams from media headlines and public conversations. (Football has been the number one sport in Jamaica ever since.) Brian Lara's unforgettable knock of 153 not out to give his side a Test victory against a formidable Australian team in Barbados in 1998 was voted a distant second to the Jamaican team's solitary win in the World Cup against then lowly Japan by the West Indian media, even the Trinidad one.

Though the `Warriors' of Trinidad and Tobago are unlikely to emulate their Caribbean neighbours in Germany next summer, the Australian `Socceroos' are very likely to upset World Cup regulars from Europe, Latin America and Central America. But, whatever be their achievements in the most watched global sporting event, the momentum given to the sport by the success in the World Cup Qualifiers is unlikely to recede. And that is bad news for cricket administrators in the modern age where sport is a multi-billion dollar industry with internal rivalry between sporting disciplines ever on the increase. With cricket trailing football in England and South Africa (in spite of the Ashes win and the non-qualification of `Bafana Bafana' for Germany 2006) and behind rugby in New Zealand for quite some decades, the fall of the two traditional bastions will have long-standing implications for the game.

The appointment of Dutchman Guus Hiddink (left, hugging captain Mark Viduka after Australia clinched the berth to Germany) helped to integrate Australian football with the cosmopolitanism of the world game.-AP

But, Football Federation Australia and Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation, the governing bodies of football in the two countries, will certainly not have the `cricket factor' on their minds in the hour of glory. SBS TV, the government-owned terrestrial broadcaster in Australia, recorded viewing figures of 3.4 million at the Telstra Stadium in Sydney, where Australia defeated Uruguay 4-2 in the penalty shoot-out in the second leg of the play-off match. The height of action from the Ashes, which was also broadcast by the SBS, was 2 million viewers during the fourth day of the second Test at Edgbaston, a figure which equalled the one recorded by the first leg of the play-off match in Uruguay a few days earlier, at the end of which Australia was down by a goal.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics had released figures in 2003, the year that the Australian football team defeated England in a friendly game at Upton Park, that more than 1.2 million Australian males over 14 played football while the corresponding figure for cricket was only one million plus. The Bureau also came up with the finding that football had displaced cricket as the most popular sport in the five-to-12 age group.

As for Trinidad, it is a far cry from the country C. L. R. James was writing about in 1963 when he wrote, "Recreation meant cricket, for in those days, except for infrequent athletic sports meetings, cricket was the only game". The scenes of national jubilation in Port of Spain and other places after the two-leg play-off win against Bahrain (which was sealed in the Middle East nation) and the near blackout of the Australia-West Indies series (and Lara nearing the record of Test cricket's highest aggregate run scorer) on the Trinidad media and television put into perspective the changed power relations between football and cricket in the Caribbean nation. The Trinidad and Tobago Express wrote thus: "Even if he were to cross Allan Border's mark of Test runs and Sunil Gavaskar's milestone of centuries, Lara would have to take second place to the achievements of his friend Dwight Yorke and other members of the `Warriors' in the pantheon of Trinidadian sporting success."

Pipping Lara to the post ... Trinidad and Tobago's first entry to the World Cup has taken the spotlight away from the country's biggest sporting icon. Trinidadian media has hailed the event as the biggest sporting achievement of the country. Here, people take to the streets of downtown Port-of-Spain after their country defeated host Bahrain 1-0 in the second leg of the qualifier.-AP

The larger issue of social respect has been conflated with a smaller one of nomenclature in the "coming to age" of Australian football. The late Johnny Warren, Australia's best football player who represented his country in the 1974 World Cup in Germany (interestingly, the only previous instance of Australia having qualified for the World Cup), led a campaign to change the name of the sport from soccer to football in the country.

Warren was convinced that a change of name would give the sport the much-deserved respect. "Football is a beautiful game, and soccer is an ugly word," he wrote in his autobiography. "Football is a universal language. Anywhere you go in the world, you don't have to speak, just kick, dribble and pass and it is understood except here where it is demeaned as wogball."

In 2003, the Australian governing body of the sport re-christened itself from Soccer Australia to Football Federation Australia. The same year, in February, came Australia's epochal success masterminded by a scintillating performance by Liverpool winger and midfielder Harry Kewell against David Beckham's men, which included Michael Owen and a 17-year-old debutant called Wayne Rooney. The then Australian manager Frank Farina called it the "moment of awakening of Australian football" and the Australian media compared it to the Ashes drubbing given by Joe Darling's team to the English visitors of 1901-02, the very first series against the `Old Enemy' after the creation of the modern Australian Federation.

The recent appointment of Dutchman Guus Hiddink, an overachiever with South Korea in World Cup 2002, as the national manager also helped in integrating Australian football with the cosmopolitanism of the world game. Hiddink took the Netherlands to the World Cup semifinal in 1998 by employing two wingers (he was unlucky to lose to Brazil in the shootout) and four years later surprised the world along with South Korea by using tactical masterstrokes such as employing a flat back line and two attacking wingers and bringing about a cultural shift in the Korean players' mindset from hierarchical Confucianism to liberalism.

The super manager, who also works for Dutch champion club PSV Eindhoven currently, helped Australia beat Uruguay in the tough two-legged tie spread across four days in two ends of the world with some astounding tactical switches wherein he played some players out of position and changed Australia's usually attacking game to a defensive, counterattacking one. It was `Vintage Hiddink' when Harry Kewell was kept on the bench for the first 35 minutes of the second leg and was brought on as a substitute for defender Tony Popovic. Within two minutes, the Liverpool winger and midfielder had set up fellow midfielder Marco Bresciano for Australia's equaliser, which took the game to the shoot-out where Middlesbrough goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer created Australian history by saving two penalties.

The Trinidadian qualification, the first time in the country's history, was not just about former Manchester United star Dwight Yorke achieving parity with friend and Trinidadian icon Lara but also about the cultural assertion of football, for long given the short shrift by cricket in coloured and black middle class clubs such as Maple and Shanon, which had both cricket and football teams. As opposed to Australia, which has players such as Kewell, Schwarzer, Viduka, Tim Cahill, Bresciano, John Aloisi, Popovic and Lucas Neill, in the top echelons of English and European leagues, Trinidad players, except Yorke, play in the lower tiers of English and European clubs. Even Yorke does not play in the Premiership this season. At the end of last season, he moved from Blackburn Rovers to, lo and behold, Sydney United in the Australian A League.

It is not just Yorke's Sydney connection that binds the Trinidadian and Australian success stories. An accomplished Dutchman took the `Warriors' — Leo Beenhakker, who managed his country in the 1990 World Cup — to the World Cup final. And, of course, three sporting giants in Hobart, on the eve of a Test match, were closely monitoring events in Sydney and Manama. It is universally acknowledged that Brian Lara is a friend of Dwight Yorke. One does not know how well Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath get on with Kewell and Viduka.