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Location: Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, United States

"It little profits that an idle king, By this still hearth, among these barren crags, Match'd with an ag├Ęd wife, I mete and dole Unequal laws unto a savage race, That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me."

Saturday, July 15, 2006

The scandal in Serie A

The verdict is out! The four clubs which were implicated in the match-fixing scandal have all been meted out harsh punishments.

Juventus have been relegated to Serie B. The Bianconeri have been stripped of their league titles of this season and the last. They will start Serie B with minus 30 points. The Italian Serie B has 22 teams, which play 42 games across the season. Only the top three teams win promotion to the Serie A. This year, Atalanta (81), Catania (78) and Torino (76) have been promoted to the Serie A. If the trend were to continue in the coming season, the old lady of Turin will have to secure at least 110 points to be assured of getting back to the top flight. 110 points out of 126? Simple. Win 35 games. Draw 5. Keep praying! Juve are out of the Champions League for the next two seasons, at least! How are they going to manage this if there is going to be a player clear-out?

AC Milan is the only club of the four that has not been relegated. However, the Rossoneri will start with a 15-point penalty. They have been booted out of the coming season's Champions League. And this penalty might mean that it will be a tough fight for them to get there next season too. However, if they perform just as well as the did in the last season, their chances are bright. Milan ended with 88 points, to fourth-placed Fiorentina's 74. In Italy, the top two teams get a direct entry, and the next two will have to play a qualifying round. The advantage they have enjoyed this season is just as much as the penalty. In any case, Milan will play in the UEFA Cup, though it is not as money-spinning as the Champions League. Have we seen the last of the impeccable Paolo Maldini in Europe's biggest club competition?

Fiorentina and Lazio have also been relegated. Further they been handed out 12- and 7-point deductions respectively.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Those two moments

The World Cup is over. Life returns to normalcy; the Italians return home to a glorious welcome; men return to work, and TV remotes to women. Comparing one tournament to another doesn't really take us anywhere. The World Cup is a self-contained event, and to derive pleasure from it, it is better to look at it in isolation, and enjoy the great moments that it has produced. New heroes, new villains, new records...

There were two important moments in this World Cup, two "points of inflection", to derive a term from mathematics. One was noticeable, the other, I assume. And both these moments happened in the second round. The first was Franck Ribery's brilliant run past Iker Casillas to score France's equalizer. This came after David Villa had struck a penalty to put the Spaniards in front. France was in poor form till then, and had barely managed to scrape through to the knock-out phase. That goal galvanised the Gauls, and it took them all the way to Berlin.

The other important moment was dubious penalty decision that went in favour of the Italians against Guus Hiddink's Australia. The Azzuri, who generally find themselves at the wrong end of such decisions, grabbed this lifeline with both hands. Totti stepped in to convert, and Italy hasn't looked back since that moment.

It was a moment of truth for the Italians. Faced with an uncertain future back home, tagged as under-achievers, and with very little self-belief, this team could have faltered at the very first hurdle. Yet, like a batsman who knows that he is in for a big hundred when a close lbw decision is not given or a straightforward catch is grassed at the outset, this Italian side surmounted every single test from then on to keep their date with Dame Fortune.

Winners, losers et al

Zidane was awarded the Golden Ball. I would have thought Cannavaro was the more impressive of the two. This decision also outlines the general inequity in the game. That those who play in attacking positions are in the money and in the spotlight always. I can't remember any defender winning the FIFA World Footballer of the Year award. Paolo Maldini came second sometime in the mid-90s.

Ivory Coast were the most unlucky of all the sides that bowed out after the first round. They played such excellent football that had they been placed in any other group, they would have progressed to the knock-out phase. Ghana played exciting football, beating the Czechs against all odds, but were unlucky to walk right into Brazil.

The match of the tournament was Germany v/s Italy. It was worthy of a final. The final itself was quite competitive.

Italy walked away with the trophy, deserved winners. But the real winners are the people of Germany, who have, by all accounts, made this World Cup "a time to make friends". Thank you, Deutschland!

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Lessons from Lineker

One of my favourite footballers is Gary Lineker. I don't remember watching him much; I was 3 when he won the Golden Boot in Mexico 1986. And my memories of him from Italia '90 are also vague.

Lineker, who presents football games on TV these days, has many claims to fame. He belongs to a select group of footballers who have scored 10 or more goals in World Cup finals. He captained the English side for two years, won the Copa del Ray and the Cup Winners' Cup playing for Barcelona, and is also England's second highest scorer in international games.

But the one record that sets this favourite son of Leicester apart from other great players is this: he has never received a yellow card in his entire playing career (and no red cards either). Not a single booking in such an illustrious career. This record he shares with very few others (Wikipedia names only 3 others), and he is the only practitioner of the modern game to hold this distinction.

That is not say that footballers should take to the game with the sole intent of being labeled "Mr. Nice Guy". Not being booked at all, or being booked sparingly during a top-flight career spanning a decade or two speaks highly of the discipline which these footballers bring to the field.

One can easily turn Machiavellian and retort that it is only what is achieved on the field that counts, and not how. Future generations might remember Lineker the Golden Boot winner, while relegating his disciplinary record to a piece of trivia. But nothing can erase the fact that Lineker, while being just as competitive as anybody else, also brought a humane touch to football. Indeed, we call football the beautiful game. We talk of "joga bonito"; we give our competitions taglines such as "a time to make friends". Why? To headbutt opponents?

Should Zinedine Zidane's act of crashing into Marco Materazzi disturb the pedestal he was standing upon? That is something for posterity to decide. My guess is that we will remember him as one of football's all-time greats, but (just like we have done for his fellow countryman Eric Cantona) we will also reserve a footnote for his disgraceful, even shameful exit from the final.

A better stage could not have been presented to the Frenchman. Had France won, he would have held aloft the same trophy he helped win eight years ago. Even as a losing finalist, he could have held his head high, could have heard a few words of consolation from the great Franz Beckenbauer, and could have thanked the whole world for cheering him on.

But that head, that famous shaven head, that struck twice in St Denis in 1998, it only struck a poor (provocative?) Italian defender, and has been missing from public view ever since. Before the final began, a friend has set his IM status message to "employez la guillotine". It is sad that the guillotine fell on -- rather, was self-inflicted upon by -- France's favourite son. Monsieur Zidane, surely you could have had a better farewell!

They say that it only takes a moment of madness to bring down years of hard work. In Zidane's case, "bring down" might be an exaggeration, but no one can gainsay that his reputation has not been dented. Zidane lost not just his head, not just the World Cup, but also his status as an ambassador for the game.

Meanwhile, Gary Winston Lineker watches on...

... glorious night!



P.S.: Finally, it had to be someone from Sicily who finished the French off! Thank you, Grosso! Viva Italia!

This is the night...

In less than 8 hours from now, the final of the FIFA World Cup 2006 would have kicked off. France and Italy will clash to take the top honours in this most prestigious of competitions. An estimated audience of over one billion will watch the game live on TV. This is in addition to the many thousands who would throng town squares across the world.

France and Italy were both unfancied at the start of the World Cup. Whereas punters' favourties like Brazil, Argentina and England were knocked out at the last-eight stage, hosts Germany were beaten by Italy in a tense semifinal -- a clash worthy of the final itself.

Thw two finalists both play the 4-5-1 system. However, the styles are quite different. Italy, surprisingly, play the more attacking type of football. With full-backs who can be effective in the wings, and with Totti, a natural striker, who plays in the midfield, and Pirlo who can send searching balls upfield, and Gattuso who will throw himself around to win balls, this is a team that, unlike previous Italian squads, spells aggression.

France can attack at will, however, they cannot wish away the fact that they are the oldest team in this World Cup finals. Can Zidane last the whole 90 minutes? Can Thuram push himself to add protection to Barthez's goal? We shall know before the night is over.

Many feel that the game might not have many goals, as both teams would not hesitate to retreat into their shells at will. The goalkeepers have an important role to play. Gianluigi Buffon is arguably the best shot-stopper in the game. Barthez can be good on his day, and messy at other times, so Domenech would be looking up to the stars to lend help to the man with a shaven pate. However, Buffon will have to face Henry, one of the best forwards in the world. If Henry gets into his touch, this would be a great contest between striker and goalie. Barthez can be pull off some really good acrobatic saves, and the Italians would not find him a pushover. Toni, Gilardino, Del Piero, and Inzaghi will have to work their way to glory.

Both sets of defenders are excellent. The Italians would have felt sore at missing their star defender, Alessandro Nesta, but Materazzi who stepped in for the Milan centre-back has been just as effective. The Italians would want to exploit Abidal, as did the Portuguese with great success.

Zidane v/s Gattuso could be battle to watch. If Gattuso, a midfielder in the mould of Roy Keane, can terrify the French midfield as he has done to the other teams in the competition, the World Cup should be well on its way to Rome. Zidane would be wary of this threat, and this master craftsman could show his artistry to outwit him. The other interesting battle would be between Totti and Pirlo, and Makelele and Vieira. The Italians should ideally mark Malouda and Ribery as weak-links in the Blues' midfield.

In all, this should be a game which will shower victory on which coach -- Lippi or Domenech -- gets the tactics right.

Some stats

Juventus FC, now in the centre of the betting and match-fixing scandal in Italy, has the largest number of players in the final. Buffon, Cannavaro, Zambrotta, Camoranesi, Del Piero, Vieira, Thuram and Trezeguet are all part of the first team at the Old Lady of Turin. Besides, Zidane and Henry have also played for the North Italian club. AC Milan and Lyon are also well-represented.

Italy have won with ease alternate games. They won against Ghana, Czech Republic and Ukraine with a two-goal margin or better. Games 2, 4 and 6 were not as easy. The USA fought and won a point; Australia were done in by a poor refereeing mistake; and the Germans weren't conquered until late into extra time. Tonight, Italy play their seventh game.

France have won their last two games with a one-goal margin, and both these goals came from set pieces. Incidentally, Zidane has scored or set up the last three goals for the French.

The verdict

Does the French team possess the staying power? Especially after such tough, exerting games against Brazil and Portugal. I think not. There could be very few goals tonight. And I'm betting on the Azzuri to win it. Maybe on penalties, who knows?

The game should be a treat for the neutral football fan. But hey, there is nothing as a neutral football fan. And if you are undecided yet, back the Italians. They DESERVE to win this!

Saturday, July 08, 2006

The Battle Cry

I was discussing with a friend about how powerful movies can influence viewer thinking. The Godfather came up as one of the prime examples. It brought gangster-ism into popular culture. Books have been written about it, a slew of fantastic movies on similar lines sprang up in a short period. It made "mafia" a household term.

The word mafia is quite interesting. Many contend that it didn't exist in Italian until the 1850s. The Wikipedia article suggests the word should have been derived from the Sicilian adjective "mafioso" or "mafiusi", which has its origins in Arabic, the connotation being "a bully, arrogant but also fearless, enterprising, and proud". The word came to be associated with the secret criminal organization / society in the 1863 play about criminal gangs in the Palermo prison, I mafiusi di la Vicaria (The Beautiful People of Vicaria). The first official occurrence of the word was in 1865, in a report by a prosecutor, a certain Gualtiero

Opinion, however, is divided on whether tha above captures the real origin of the word. For example, some claim that mafia is a corruption of the Italian for "my family" -- mia familia. This is a plausible case of apocope, where some sounds in a term get lost in time, thus producing a new word. Mia familia explains in part the nature of the organization's structure.

Others give a different twist to it. They suggest that in olden days, when Sicily was under the grip of the French, a soldier dishonoured a young girl. In order to rouse the men of Sicily against the French, the girl's mother ran along the streets shouting "ma fia" (my daughter). Those who proffer this explanation give it a historical twist by linking it to the 1282 uprising of the Sicilians against the French.

Some others give another origin, and this has also to do with the French. As the Sicilians considered the French their mortal enemies, they formed a criminal organization, and named it "Morte Alla Francia Italia Anela", which means "Death to France, is Italy's cry". In time, the organization was referred to by the acronym, and hence MAFIA. This explanation makes the origin sound quite intelligent, but not really spontaneous. It is possible, of course, but I'm doubtful of its veracity.

Centuries ago, the Sicilians rose against the French. Given the odds, they may not have been successful, but they fought with their lives on the line. They had only one intention -- to defeat France.

Tomorrow, Cannavaro's men will take to the field against the French. This is a different battleground, but the stakes are just as high in this the Battle of Berlin. As in the case of the mafiosi, it is honour which is on the line. May the cry which emanated from the hills of Sicily in those hours of desperation feed the Azzuri with the strength to defeat their once-mortal-enemies. God bless. Arrivederci.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Forza Italia!

Yes! Yes! Yes! The Azzuri are in the final after another 12-year wait!

I was predicting a 3-1 victory for the Italians. It ended 2-0. My prediction defied logic; however I'm not claiming that I got the result (and the goal difference) right. I rooted for an Italian victory, simply because they are my favourite team. As they have been since 1990!

The main reason was that this Italian side was unlike any Italian side since the one which set Italia '90 on fire, Salvatore Schillaci being the prima donna then. Since then, the Azzuri started losing their sheen, a World Cup final defeat to Brazil on penalties, a quarterfinal exit in 1998 (again on penalties) against France, another defeat to France in the Euro 2000 final (France came from behind to pull off a dramatic win in extra time) and a similar yet more ignominious defeat to Guus Hiddink's South Korea in the second round in 2002.

A squad which boasted of some of the best strikers in the world -- Alessandro del Piero, Christian Vieri, Roberto Baggio, to name a few -- resorted to playing the familiar "Let's settle for 1-0" game. Yes, defence has always been their strength, what with giants like Maldini, Nesta, Cannavaro, Baresi and a host of defenders of the who's who kind playing in front of excellent goalies like Pagliuca, Perruzzi and Buffon. And there were excellent midfielders too. And yet Italy had to do without any major trophy.

Cut to 2006. And there is a huge scandal facing Italian football. Clubs are threatened with a year's suspension. The Azzuri have a decent squad, and on an excellent run too. But no one takes them seriously. Weren't there some who expressed doubts if Italy could at all get to the next round?

The Times captures the scenario perfectly, in an article by one of their football correspondents. The scandal back home and the uncertainty about their future has created a kind of "ghetto mentality" in Marcello Lippi's men. The correspondent points to the celebrations on the bench every time Italy scores a goal. This mentality has pushed the players to go every possible step, chase every ball and outrun every opponent. After all, what good is any steel if it doesn't pass the test of fire?

True, the draw against the Americans raised questions. And the game against Australia... everyone will keep talking about it, more vehemently if the Italians win their next encounter in Berlin, this Sunday. But let us not take anything away from them. This World Cup has given undue attention to Ronaldo, Ballack and the sorry English side. The unsung heroes are Cannavaro, Pirlo, Gattuso, Matterazzi and company. They deserve not to lose.

One of Portugal or France will stand in the way of the Italians on Sunday. As for tonight's game, I think Portugal will nick it. Surely the man of the tournament thus far is Luis Felipe Scolari. And with the return of Deco, who will orchestrate the Portuguese midfield, and also given their attacking, physical and racy playing style, the Iberians have the edge. And this comes from a Francophile!

Monday, July 03, 2006

GoPagal tag

Vatsan has tagged me, and this time, you, I and everyone else stand to gain a free air ticket. Just answer a simple question, tag four others and submit it on Pagalguy, and voila, your free air ticket is flying your way. The question is:

Q) On which GoAir Sector would you like to win a free air ticket?
A) Chennai - Delhi (cos it's the longest, right?)

The rules state that I must copy the entire junk they have put up, but since I'm not winning anything, why care? Go ahead, why say "No" to linklove?

I tag Vinayak, Sekhar, Aparna and Thennavan.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Male-storm and mayhem

One of most shocking news items that the media has been hyping up this past week has been the Sabarimala episode, where it has lately been "discovered" that a woman entered the sanctum sanctorum, thus causing a loss of divinity in Lord Ayyappa's most sacred abode. I'm jotting down some observations on this.

1. The Kannada actress who has confessed that she touched the idol of the deity claims to have been pushed in by the crowd. I find this not credible. I have been to Sabarimala a few times. The innermost prakaaram has a very small entrance, not very high. Even the pujaris enter with caution. Second, there is a gap of at least 20 feet where the crowd -- the first-est row -- is cut off. Such a statement would have had takers if this had happened in say, Tirupati, where the prakaaram is cut off only by a human chain, and there is no entry door.

2. I fail to understand the "loss of divinity" angle. Who is man to define limits to the power of God? The same Mr. Panikkar drew much ire in Tamil Nadu when it was rumoured that he suggested that the idol of Lord Muruga at Palani be removed and a replica made of some other material be installed instead. The act was done, only to be reverted very soon. Playing foul with God?

3. The Government in Kerala stokes religious tensions from time to time by appointing women in administrative positions in Sabarimala. Why would anyone want to do so given that it can be unpalatable for many? Why not appoint men, at least in such positions?

4. The media has been hyping up the whole thing, and has given a most unwarranted feminist twist to the story. Sagarika Ghose asked on CNN-IBN, "Should faith be restricted to men alone?" Ms Ghose needs to undergo a course which teaches respect for traditions. I do not intend to begin another flame-war, but do men ever repent, "Oh, what treachery! Can we not bear babies too?" Yes, Ma'm, everyone is equal in the eyes of God, but let us also learn to realise that if a tradition has been put in place, it exists for some reason. Of course, Indian society has done with away quite a few "evil" practices, sati, for example. The customs and practices surrounding faith are better left alone. Especially in a state like Kerala where such customs are followed rather fanatically.

5. One of the guests on the same CNN-IBN show radiated ignorance by claiming that the reason women were not allowed in Sabarimala was that they cannot make the arduous journey. Pray tell me, how is a woman of 60 better placed than a 25-year old to handle the ardour?

6. Another angle thrown in by some self-confessed experts is that Sabarimala was a Buddhist monastery, which was later converted into a Hindu shrine, hence the restriction for women. These armchair theorists hold the same view about every single Hindu holy shrine. The Wikipedia article on Tirumala (Tirupati) states:

While some scholars accept the antiquity of the shrine they believe that the image of Venkateswara was not originally that of Vishnu but of a Buddhist deity, perhaps bodhisattva avalokiteswara. The region of Andhra in which Tirupati is located in was already known for the existence of ancient Buddhist sites of the Satavahana era, namely Nagarjunakonda and Amravati, thus scholars suggest that the ancient site of Tirupati was probably a Buddhist site prior to its transformation into a Hindu one after Buddhism saw its decline in the face of Guptan Hindu Rennaissance. Even up to the time of Ramanuja, the famous Vaishnava scholar of the 12th century, the identity of the deity was still disputed until Ramanuja confirmed it to be Vishnu.
There are also some who hold the view that Mecca is a Hindu shrine, which I find to be equally ridiculous. The study of history with the sole aim of disturbing social harmony is detestable.

It is the hobby of some to breathe new life into controversies surrounding religion and faith. They do not understand (or they understand it too well) that religion whips up people's emotions. And the newsmen simple love it, they have a field day!

I'm reminded of the following lines from Leon Uris' Exodus:

Ari Ben Canaan put the Bible down. "The gentleman of Whitehall had better study their claims further. I say the same thing to the Foreign Minister that a great man said to another oppressor three thousand years ago -- LET MY PEOPLE GO."
Leave my faith alone!

Saturday, July 01, 2006

No more samba

Thierry Henry and France proved too hot for Brazil, as les Bleus put an end the samba magic out of the World Cup. To be honest, there was no magic on show anywhere, so the first really good team Brazil met proved to be their nemesis.

For those of us who (defying all logic) predicted that the Brazilians would walk away with the World Cup, there is still some hope. Deco was born in Brazil. Luis Felipe Scolari is a Brazilian. So, we might still end up having a couple of Brazilians keeping up their date with glory!

Radio commentary

The only quarterfinal match I got to watch on TV was the clash between Italy and Ukraine. The other games I missed, being away from home. However when on the road, I discovered that FM Rainbow offers live commentary of the football matches. They pick up live feeds from BBC Radio Five Sport. The commentary is of the first order, almost like you are able to visualise the action. Despite the fact that they sounded partisan during the England-Portugal game, I recommend it. It is definitely a few notches better than the commentary on ESPNStar.