What makes a nation embrace a game? Why are some countries fanatic about football, and others such as India obsessed with cricket? When does a sport become a part of national identity?
Logic would dictate that history—and geography—have something to do with it. Canadians are passionate about ice hockey because, for one thing (“duh”, as kids would say), their country has ice. Africans are runners par excellence because, according to one study, they exhibit “greater fatigue resistance, lower lactate accumulation, and higher oxidative enzyme activity”, which is another way of saying that their bodies have adapted evolutionarily to running long distances.
Magic in his feet: Legendary footballer Edson Arantes do Nascimento – Pele -- coined the term ‘the beautiful game’ to describe football. David Grav / Reuters
Russians have traditionally dominated gymnastics because the fine balance (forgive the pun) between rigid discipline and flexibility has been married into their national character since the time of the czars. The Communist government funded the sport; gymnastic coaches analysed the physiology and anatomy of potential gymnastic champions and honed such bodies and skills; hours of practice with the ballet bar gave its gymnasts a natural grace; the emotional upheaval latent in the Russian personality gave its gymnasts an expressive urgency and edge relative to their more vapidly cheerful counterparts in the West. Naturally, Russia ruled gymnastics. Until recently.
As we speak, the rules of many games are being rewritten. History is being overturned. Russia is waning in the gymnastic arena as other countries such as China, Italy and America are chomping at the bit. Now that Viswanathan Anand is the chess champion of the world, Indian interest in the ancient Indian game of shatranj is picking up and could spawn many future Indian champions, giving the Russians and the ’stans (Kazakh, Uzbekh...) a run for their checkmates. After World War II, Japan, which had very little history with baseball, embraced the sport in a massive way and could dominate the game in the near future. And sometimes, as the movie Invictus poignantly pointed out, a single man like Nelson Mandela can turn middling rugby players into world champions in one season. Games change.
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For the next month, about half of the women on Planet Earth will lose their men to what Brazilians call joga bonito, or “the beautiful game”. It was the greatest footballer of all time, Edson Arantes do Nascimento, also called Pelé, who popularized this expression when he titled his autobiography, Pelé: My Life and the Beautiful Game.
Frankly, for a watching woman who isn’t particularly inclined towards spectator sports, football doesn’t look particularly beautiful. Rugged, yes. Sexy, yes. Exciting, yes. But beautiful? No. Swimming is beautiful, as is gymnastics. Charged with testosterone to the point where cricket seems effeminate in contrast, football remains, and essentially is, a man’s game.
Women’s football exists. Canada, for instance, has a thriving women’s tackle football team, the Calgary Rage. One of the things coach Barry Hunter has to contend with is that his star receiver, a uterine cancer survivor named Donna Vaugeois, smiles too much on the field. There’s no smiling in football, growls coach Hunter, underscoring how a women’s team differs from a male one.
Male football players do smile. The dishy ones such as Ivory Coast’s Didier Drogba, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, Brazil’s Kaká and Pato, Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o, Ghana’s Sulley Muntari, Italy’s Gianluigi Buffon, America’s Landon Donovan, Serbia’s Dejan Stankovic, England’s Carlton Cole, and Germany’s Michael Ballack have all smiled for renowned photographer Annie Leibovitz’s camera wearing nothing except their country’s flag as underwear. The photos made the cover of Vanity Fair magazine’s June issue.
In the accompanying article, journalist A.A. Gill quotes Bill Shankly, arguably the greatest football manager in the history of the game. “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death,” said Shankly, adding with typical Scottish understatement, “I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”
So will football take off in India? Most countries have two or three sports that end up as national obsessions. Australia has rugby, cricket and football; America has baseball, American football and basketball; England has rugby, football and cricket; China has badminton, table tennis and basketball; Sri Lanka has volleyball in addition to cricket; sumo wrestling has great cultural resonance in Japan but baseball is more popular. India’s national sport—field hockey—is a mere speck under the juggernaut of cricket. As India evolves and its economy grows, will the country be able to sustain a second sport and if so, what might that be?
Chess would be the game in which India has made the greatest strides, thanks to Anand. Badminton too, thanks to young talents such as Saina Nehwal, can take India to the world stage. Pankaj Advani and Abhinav Bindra are at the top of their game in their respective sports. But chess, snooker, badminton and shooting lack the necessary parameters of becoming a national sport.
For any game to raise a nation into collective obsession, it has to be a team sport played in large arenas with enough noise and brawn to attract crowds, and it must be said, sponsors. For India, field hockey, football and basketball are candidates. Will India revive its interest in field hockey and go back to its glory days with the game? Will it take up football, which, even on the artificial surface, would seem like a natural fit, requiring little equipment beyond a ball? Or will India choose something drastically different and take up basketball as its second national sport?
It’s your goal to figure that one out.
Shoba Narayan likes watching basketball and football but not cricket. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org