The Colombian Zuniga’s downing of football’s superstar Neymar that broke the latter’s vertebra took away bit of sheen from the “Beautiful Game”. The violence of this kind does not quite mix with sports, be it football or sport of any other kind. The Brazil game against Colombia was particularly rough with as many as 54 fouls whistled down and of them 31 were committed by the Brazilians. If this is reckoned as beautiful, one wouldn’t know what beautiful is. Then, of course, there is the curious instance of Luis Suarez of Uruguay sinking his rather weak teeth on the fleshy Italian Chiellini only to rue his act later. Photographs showed that he collapsed on the turf holding his teeth in what seemed to be acute pain. Reports say, Suarez is in the habit of biting his opposing numbers. This time, however he couldn’t get away – having been served with a 9-match ban.
Fouls are certainly committed in inadvertence but, as one noticed, players were being pulled away or being deliberately downed to prevent them from carrying on with the game. And this happened not once, or twice; it happened umpteen number of times in the games I happened to watch. To me, this does not appear like sport. One plays a game, after all, for pleasure and to extend pleasure to the spectators. It is neither a matter of life and death nor is it a matter of national survival. Then why go and do something like breaking somebody’s back – literally – or even have a go at somebody’s flesh.
True, Football and Hockey, Rugby, Ice Hockey, etc. are what are known as “contact sports” where players of two teams have to have physical contacts with each other. In Rugby and Ice Hockey players even wear protective gear to ward off injuries. After all, for retrieving the ball from the opposition and scoring goal is the objective. In the process players have to tackle those of the opposition and in doing so they could hurt each other. That would be incidental to the game. But what we saw in the World Cup matches was some deliberate contacts with the opposition player only to deprive him possession of the ball or to keep him away from it. In this act everything seemed to be fair including bringing him down or stepping on him with one’s nailed boots or, for that matter, kneeing him on the back. If one thinks of preventing the opposition from playing ball, in my opinion, why play the game at all? But then, even sports have become highly competitive and then there is a lot of money and prestige. It is virtually a soft kind of war, highly hyped up as it is.
I suppose, that is why some of the no-contact sports like cricket and tennis have been described as “Gentlemen’s Game”. Cricket used to be and continues to be gentlemanly. One sees these traits especially in test matches. A batsman or a bowler attains a milestone and he is congratulated by the members of the opposition or if a bowler takes more than five wickets in an innings he, instead of the captain, is made to lead the team back into the pavilion; there are hardly ever any protests against an umpire’s decision. There are many such healthy, gentlemanly conventions that are observed till today highlighting the spirit of sportsmanship. However, aberrations are creeping in and the healthy traditions are gradually yielding place to aggression, more so in the limited-overs matches. Expressions of extreme exuberance verging on being aggressive and intimidating after capturing a wicket have been noticed in numerous limited-overs international games. Showing the way to the pavilion haughtily to a batsman after capturing his wicket– a show of brazen immodesty – is certainly not gentlemanly.
During the Indian Premier League limited over cricket matches I noticed on any number of occasions bowlers aiming the ball in “death” overs close to the line that indicates a “wide” on the Off Side far away from the batsman. On the Leg Side such a ball would be a called a “wide” but not on the Off Side. There must be some reason for this what seems like a wacky rule but that is how it is. The bowlers’ intention is to keep the ball as far away from the batsman as possible so that it is beyond the latter’s reach. This practice is adopted more in matches that progress towards a close finish. If the bowler’s intention is not to allow the batsman to be able to even touch the ball, leave alone score runs off it, then I ask the same question again: why play the game at all? The bowlers could well claim to be bowling within the rules but not the spirit of the, supposedly, gentlemanly game.
Aggression is on occasions seen even in tennis which is also reckoned as a gentlemen’s game. One can often see rather assertive exuberance in players after winning a crucial game or a set. It wasn’t so earlier. With the onset of “boom boom”, serve and volley game, tennis seems to have lost that softness of yore. But, then today the game is played with intense passion after years of preparation of the mind and the body and huge investments in time effort and money. It is all reckoned as worth it as there is such a lot of money tagged on to professional tennis. And, yet I find Roger Federer not quite gelling with the crowd. He is different. A legendary tennis player, having been conferred with numerous awards– even off the tennis courts – for the qualities of his head and heart, his equanimity after a win is admirable. His exuberance after hitting a winner and scoring a point is always subdued, is never jarring or strident. Even after a win his elation and exultation are mostly composed and are to acknowledge the cheers and appreciation of spectators and also, probably, to internalise them – to allow them to seep within.
One supposes that is how a sportsman should conduct himself. But, that would be idealistic; all kinds assemble in the sporting arena contributing to the rough and tumble of competitive sports and that, perhaps, makes things more interesting in today’s world.