Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Henry's Goal: Hand of God - II ??

France’s qualification for the 2010 World Cup is turning out to be the biggest controversy in football since Diego Maradona’s infamous ‘hand of God’ goal against England. While in the 1986 World Cup Maradona himself had punched the ball into the goal, Thierry Henry handled the ball en route to his teammate scoring the all-important goal against Ireland to ensure qualification. The Irish have demanded a replay. On his part, Henry has admitted he handled the ball but said it was the referee’s job to spot it. Can a sportsperson be truly pleased with success achieved through underhand means? Even though he has apologised for hurting people, he has made his position clear. It is the referee’s job, he says, to notice fouls. He doesn’t think the referee did anything wrong in letting the goal stand.

However, the fact remains that Henry clearly controlled the ball with his hand. Handling the ball outside of a specific set of circumstances on a football field is a strict no-no and in most cases it is enough to get the offending player sent off, and his team punished via a penalty, or at the very least a free kick awarded to the other side. That the referee failed to notice Henry’s transgression is not a defence of the action itself, or of Henry’s disgraceful behaviour afterwards, which has resulted in such a mighty scandal that France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has had to apologise on Henry’s behalf.

This isn’t the first time something like this has happened on a football field, of course. Diego Maradona famously credited the ‘Hand of God’ in his blatant and unfortunately successful attempt at cheating his way past England in the 1986 World Cup. That set a bad precedent. Now, it seems, footballers are eager to test the limit of the rules and go beyond it, just as long as they don’t get caught. And if they do, well, they can always blame the poor referee for not catching the foul play and brazen it out like Henry did. But if bad sportsmanship gets rewarded, as with Maradona, there is an incentive for others to behave badly. An example ought to be made of Henry to discourage such behaviour in future and bring ethics back into a sport that sorely needs it.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Bal Thackeray, the Shiv Sena chief, recently took a swipe at Sachin Tendulkar for saying that Mumbai belongs to India. By doing so, the Sena chief has grossly underestimated the cricket star’s iconic status. Political parties across the country have been quick to condemn Thackeray for his editorial, which not only uses cricketing metaphors to suggest that Sachin has been “run out”, but also issues a not-so-veiled threat to the star cricketer to stop him from batting against the Marathi manoos. Such utterances do not have a place in a democracy.

The Thackerays (inclusive of Shiv Sena and MNS) have been allowed to get away far too often with their 'Sons of Soil' or 'Marathi Manoos' agenda. How many times have we seen them threaten people, including celebrities, be it a Sachin Tendulkar or an Amitabh Bachchan, to appease Marathi pride. More often than not, Bal Thackeray’s targets have toed the Sena line out of fear. The Sena chief’s latest outburst – which he calls a “friendly” warning – against Sachin represents an opportunity for the Maharashtra government and mainstream political parties to unite and isolate Thackeray.

Bal Thackeray statements need to be seen in the light of the Sena’s struggle to hold on to its core constituency. Ever since his nephew Raj left the Shiv Sena to form MNS, a rival outfit, the Sena has been fast losing ground. In both the Lok Sabha and state assembly polls held earlier this year, Raj Thackeray’s MNS has seriously dented the support base of its mother organisation. The MNS has done so by stridently championing Marathi chauvinism. Its latest tactic was the attack on an MLA inside the state assembly for taking the oath of office in Hindi. A marginalised Bal Thackeray has sought to hit back by taking on India’s biggest living icon.

This game of competitive chauvinism cannot be allowed to go on. Both the Shiv Sena and MNS have struck at the very root of the idea of India and its federal character. Sachin had stated the obvious when he said that he was proud to be a Maharashtrian but he was an Indian first. For Thackeray to take umbrage at this statement shows the poverty of his politics and ideology. But then to go further and issue a warning to Sachin is clearly not on. Just as the Maharashtra assembly acted promptly to suspend the MNS legislators for taking the law into their own hands, it should also be made clear to Thackeray that he cannot write and say things that are against the Constitution and could incite violence.

These politicians should realise that Maharashtra faces a lot many problems that need immidiate attention. The state houses large numbers of poor people in the country. A majority of the state’s population is dependent on agriculture, and this sector has suffered with falling crop yields and a poor irrigation infrastructure. The result is a dependence on rainfall, and high fluctuations in output. The state has the highest numbers of farmer suicides in the country. While agriculture is suffering, the situation in urban areas is no better with crumbling basic infrastructure.

Recently, members of the MNS have reached the threshold by slapping an elected representative in the state assembly. But even that story died soon. Soon they’ll increase the heat further, and again start hurting innocent people, crossing the limits of civilised behaviour. Is that Marathi culture? MNS may have brought forward the Marathi cause but by going against almost everyone non-Marathi, it has demonstrated how little it understands the state’s dependence on the central government. Maharashtra needs central support to complete critical irrigation projects, which will cost thousands of crores of rupees. Our best shot at progress as a nation is if all states work together with a common agenda, instead of pulling in different directions. Also, by indulging in violent fights with other political parties, the MNS displays an unwillingness to get along with other interest groups. Such an attitude is impractical in a country like India. If MNS members can’t listen to people, who will listen to them? By claiming Mumbai for Marathis and calling everyone else an outsider, MNS is only harming Marathis in the long term. In today’s world, progress depends on interdependence. If global agricultural companies are incentivised and welcomed to base themselves in Maharashtra, it can dramatically alter the standard of living for Marathi farmers. Kicking everyone else out won’t. A lack of understanding of the modern world also casts doubt over MNS’s ability to actually deliver on the issues it has raised. In that respect, the recent comments by Sachin Tendulkar are commendable. It’s in India’s interest that the Thackerys, Bal and Raj, both be stumped.