When England played Hungary in a football friendly last week, much of the talk centred on events off the field. One issue was David Beckham, and the plug being unceremoniously pulled on his dying career. The other was the speculation over the hostile reception England players would get at Wembley following their World Cup debacle. If that seemed odd to me, even more unusual was the statement of contrition from Steven Gerrard, the team captain.
“It’s easy to say ‘Oh yeah, we’re sorry’ to supporters but the supporters don’t want an apology in a press conference,” Gerrard said. “They want to see the team go out and show how sorry we are by turning things around and qualifying for the next tournament.”
Gerrard is a superstar in a team full of superstars, most of whom live in a world light years away from that inhabited by their fans, especially those who populate the terraces. His statement illustrates, though, his keen awareness of the traditional relationship between player and fan—where the first exists because of the second.
True hero: Bhaichung Bhutia remains humble despite his stardom. Hindustan Times
It’s a relationship undimmed by the increasing gap between their worlds, a gap widened, though not undermined, by TV revenues. Our film stars here go on about it—and they practise what they preach. All their hubris dissipates on the Friday their film releases; they descend to earth in mufti to check out audience reactions at their local theatre.
It’s a humility that, for reasons better explained in a sociology textbook, urban, middle-class Indians seem to lack. They can sleepwalk through a game, build a shoddy stadium or simply not turn up for the event, but whether cricket superstar, slothful administrator or pampered armchair sports fan, sorry seems to be the hardest word.
It’s easy to see why.
The relationship between the Indian fan and sportsman is a complex zero-sum game; it is not based on any economic investment, as it is in countries with more developed sporting cultures where the fan waves his flag and his wallet. The average fan’s major—often only—investment is the double-digit monthly subscription to the sports channels; it barely pinches his pocket or, indeed, tugs at the heartstrings. Yet it gives him the right to call the team his own, to be in agony and ecstasy as the situation merits, to throw—perhaps literally—the bouquets and brickbats.
The sentiment behind Gerrard’s words comes back to me every time I hear a discussion on the Commonwealth Games. Every column inch, every second of airtime is devoted to the monumental mess that is the construction process; few stories, if any, have focused on how the athletes are shaping up. This, at a time when sports other than cricket are growing in India, when our boxers, shooters, badminton and tennis players are working their way up the slippery slope largely through dint of their own effort. This is the time to build that relationship between fan and player, an investment whose returns we reap every time an Indian wins an Olympic medal or its equivalent. Yet, why bother with all that when pride and (reflected) glory can be had for free, as it was when Abhinav Bindra won the gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics or Viswanathan Anand another world title.
I once interviewed Bhaichung Bhutia, when he was at his peak and far and away India’s biggest football star. Okay, make that only football star, but he was big. I had never met him before, nor even spoken to him; he probably didn’t know of me. Yet, I didn’t need to go through a maze of agents or PR people; I dialled his mobile number, Bhaichung answered, I popped the question and he agreed to be interviewed—it was for a story on the man rather than the sportsman—at his Kolkata house.
“Come early, then you can see how I live, what I do,” he said. We duly reached early, the man was as good as his word and gave us access to his innermost circle. We sat in his living room talking to him, to his friends and his relatives who looked after him. I had got him a copy of The Boss, the biography of Alex Ferguson, and he spent time discussing what he liked and disliked about the Manchester United manager. In the evening, we rode in his car to the East Bengal ground, where a gaggle of fans waited for autographs, photo-ops, just a word from their hero. Bhaichung obliged, with his trademark shy smile, spoke in that Himalayan lilt, made sure everyone was happy. Then he turned around and apologized to us for keeping us waiting.
Did he learn that during his stint in England? It’s easy to think so but I believe he’s just retained something the rest of us—fans, writers, sportsmen—have lost. And we’re the poorer for it.
Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Cricinfo.
Write to Jayaditya at firstname.lastname@example.org