Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A Tale of Two Nationalities

Sunday, July-29 was a golden-lettered day. India, a country with the second (or is it the third?) largest Muslim population (and not a single Al-Qaeda member as US President George Bush put it), finally breathed a sigh of relief when its first global terrorism suspect, Dr. Haneef Mohammed, was proved innocent. The Australian police had kept him in unlawful custody, and subsequently canceled his visa, on what turned out to be rather flimsy charges of assistance in terrorism activities halfway around the globe in Glasgow, Scotland. If lending a SIM card to your cousins could create so much havoc, then I guess all of us can sometimes in our lives be in for a lot worse. I know very little about a lot of my personal and professional contacts - what lawful or unlawful activities they are up to, and how in a roundabout unknown way, I possibly might be helping them.

I am not here to protect or defend Dr. Haneef, I am sure there are bigger and better legal luminaries who are much more capable of deciding the merit of the case than I am. What I am more worried about is if the same would have happened in India, Dr. Haneef had absolutely no hope in hell. However much you would like to think of the Hindu-Buddhist Karma theory as a weak passive belief, the treatment of some innocent Poor (with a capital P) in this country's administrative-judicial system makes you thank your lucky stars that you were not born poor. Mohammad Afzal was privileged that he got embroiled in a case which the legendary Ram Jethmalani felt fit to fight. Otherwise, there are so many rotting their lives in the over-crowded, dingy prisons of this country, that it makes you numb, only to kill remorse.

I do not think the Indian diplomatic channels pursued the case sufficiently, at least not with as much brouhaha as Australia might have done if the same would have happened to their national in India. The real noise came from the Indian news media, and thank God they found a genuine cause to pursue. More interesting was the reaction of the Australian PM, John Howard. His police force had admitted their mistake (which again in an Indian case would have been impossible, they would have simply shot Dr. Haneef and planted a chit on him). Howard refused to oblige, in an arrogance which first-world diplomacy prides itself in. Moreover, it seems Dr. Haneef has surely lost his work visa and job at Queensland because of the controversy.

Australia is a country to admire, if for nothing else their tremendous sporting record (the highest per-capita Olympic medals won). They also have a population less than Delhi, so are extremely open to skilled immigration. Yet, I do not think one can just go and melt there, like say most do in Singapore, or people from Bihar and UP in Delhi (to the CM Sheila Dikshit's immense discomfort). In my view, the Aussies can be quite racist, at times their sporting prowess comes at the expense of some serious intellect, and they surely do not take defeat well. Any wonder as to between two ultra-competitive all-time greats, Ponting and Federer, the latter is liked so much more.

The one sport where the Aussies have struggled is the global sport, football. Even the world's most happening continent, Asia, has not really made a mark at the World stage in the game. Africa has thrown up talent (Drogba at Chelsea), or surprise packages (Cameroon). Asia's success is possibly restricted to the semi-final appearance of South Korea in 2002 (when they rode on some amazing physical fitness and home support to go so far), or to North Korea's upset of Italy three decades back.

To improve upon their footballing standing, Australia joined the AFC in 2005, and immediately qualified for their first World Cup appearance in 32 years. The famous Aussie grit came to the fore in an amazing come-from-behind victory over Asian rivals, Japan. Even in defeat to the eventual champions Italy, they were not disgraced and went off in a bloody controversial match.

In the AFC Asian Cup 2007, co-hosted by four South-East Asian countries - Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia - the Aussies came in as tournament favourites. However, the beautiful game is one which makes an ass of reputations. The Economist had famously stated, that with the ignoble exception of Musollini's Italy in the 1930s, no country has managed to manufacture footballing success. The contrast is possibly with a dope-ridden USSR and East Germany constantly out-doing everyone else at the Olympics. The FIFA World Cups have been largely dominated by the talented Brazilians, while England and Spain, with one of the best domestic league structures in the world, have struggled to make any sort of impact (as the Hindustan Times pointed out, 1966 is as much of a mill-stone around the neck for English football as 1983 is for Indian cricket).

In the Asian Cup, the Aussies were knocked out in the preliminary rounds. The hosts, especially Vietnam, had a couple of surprising results, but in the end parity was restored when the traditional powers Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia reached the semis. The jack-in-the-box was Iraq, a country struggling for survival, forget playing football. The team did not even train together. However, they knocked out Vietnam in the quarters, and then got over South Korea in penalties during the semis (avenging their neighbours and traditional foes Iran).

I did not catch the pulsating final against Saudi Arabia because Dravid's boys, and the Little Master, decided to push for a rare overseas victory and a 38th Test century at that very moment. Yet, I still managed to somehow catch the fag-end of the match, when the Iraqi captain Younis Mahmoud decided to score the decisive goal in the 71st minute. The Iraqis held on, to score a stunning and memorable maiden triumph in the regional tournament.

Sports is a strange theater, where as a fan, you put so much of your self at stake for something on which you have no control. I can imagine the support for athletes representing the national team, but why does McLaren, Liverpool, or Federer take so much of our time and energy. The passions run even higher in football, as the difference between the behaviour of the English cricket and football supporters indicates.

However, in terms of nationalistic pride and fervour, the Iraqi victory ranks right up there. George Bush decided to push an imperfect dictatorship into total chaos (is the world a safer place after the invasion?). My hearty congratulations to all those proud footballers, for bringing some joy and cheer to their much-suffering brethren. That is the power of sports I guess!


svety said...

"Sports is a strange theater, where as a fan, you put so much of your self at stake for something on which you have no control."


Amit Bajaj said...

Pretty good read and Svety's WOW for that line, i second...but i felt the plot got lost somewhere in between, when the WOWs took over.