Politics on the Playing Field: What Do Neymar and NaMo Have in Common?


Politics on the Playing Field: What Do Neymar and NaMo Have in Common?

Illustration: Ahmed Sikander

The moment Portugal’s Ricardo Quaresma scored one of his patently outrageous goals with the outside of his right boot against Iran, he raced back and forth from each post, away from the incoming embrace of each of his teammates, stoically resisting the urge to grin until his searching eyes found Cristiano Ronaldo. Finally, his face disintegrated into a speculative smile – a point where the celebration seemed to let go of its tense premise.

Comparing politics and sport can be tricky, given how the engine for one is the pursuit of excellence, while for the other, it is the pretence of some such standard. But though football may not always tread the narrow edge of political epigrams, it is nonetheless reflective of the times we live in, through its many symptomatic imitations of reality. The presence of Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, and Neymar at the World Cup – the three greatest players at the moment – is an ode to the exclusivity of their excellence, but in the context of a team sport it is also a nod to the way political epicentres have shifted, or rather shrunk into a single person, rather than a group or a party.

The last few years in world politics haven’t been too different from the mysticism surrounding the superstars of football. Enabled by their reckless magnetism, there has been an intoxicating rise of strongmen, who are better evaluated by the strength of their following, rather than their deeds. Worship of cults of personality haunt both worlds. The only difference is that in the case of politics, this following is acquired through clever manipulation, as compared to football, where it has to be earned.

For example, in the last four years, Narendra Modi has been the sole focus of all the Indian media’s energy, its scant criticisms, but especially its worship, giving us the impression that the country is run by the will of one man alone. Ludicrously, we have come to accept this, completely ignoring the ridiculous logistics behind the idea. Which is why disasters like demonetisation are legitimised, and the Prime Minister remodelled as a lone warrior, a genius who must also be protected. It’s a blind devotion and protective instinct Neymar has been trying to evoke with his theatrical dives.

The last three World Cup editions have been won by teams (Germany, Spain, Italy) that boasted talents all around the pitch, yet never allowed a single ego to overshadow the collective. Great players have always helmed teams, at times dragging them to unlikely triumphs. But never has devotion for players who have come to represent whole teams, been so abysmally misplaced – largely because this worship has been internalised, at times at the cost of the team.

In trying to find the path to glory in the footsteps of these icons, some neglected, yet innately gifted players have turned apprehensive of the very talents that have gotten them to the top.

If that doesn’t sound like the politics of Modi, Putin, Trump, Duterte, Jinping, and others, what does?

Similarly, the group stage of the World Cup saw the focus shifting exclusively between Ronaldo, Messi, and Neymar. To watch Portugal, means to watch Ronaldo, to watch Argentina means to watch Messi – you know where this is going. Who wouldn’t pine after the supermen of football?

But that yearning to witness the individual brilliance of these three has reduced the worth of their team’s blood, sweat, and effort. The World Cup feels restricted to an excel sheet of each one’s performance compared to the other. The questions surrounding the three swallowed infinite discussions, but more tragically, they lapped up the way the teams play on the ground as well. “Find Ronaldo/Messi/Neymar” seemed to be the mantra through the group stages – though the result has always looked sweetest when the teams have risen above the predictability of this Plan A. But Messi’s Argentina and Ronaldo’s Portugal didn’t and we have now entered the Round of 16 with these two biggies on their way back home.

Argentina have prospered when things haven’t necessarily flown through Messi. Their decisive winner against Nigeria came from a right-back’s cross, met at the other end by a centre-back charging up-field. A brand of football that Messi, from Barcelona’s tiki-taka school, hardly inspires. The winning goal wasn’t created by Messi, but despite him. Similarly, as long as Portugal and Brazil have tried to thread everything through the feet of Ronaldo and Neymar, they have looked unimaginative, unidimensional, and staid. Even the players around them seem convinced the three are owed in some way by the nation and team they represent, while it should be the other way round.

In trying to find the path to glory in the footsteps of these icons, some neglected, yet innately gifted players have turned apprehensive of the very talents that have gotten them to the top. As a result the football doesn’t flow, feels laborious, and more often than not, it fizzles out in predictive patterns. Even moments of reassurance like Quaresma’s goal, or Marcus Rojo’s winner, veer toward the condescending approval of that one figure in the team.

One may say a team needs a leader, but only in spirit, not rank, at least not on the inside. Otherwise what you get is the four years we have had, and the kind of imprudent, hierarchical footballing philosophy, that the likes of Philippe Coutinho (the best player of the tournament so far) will have to fight on the inside, to assert claim to a level-playing field.

Or, you could just get rid of that one massive ego, like Sweden have with Zlatan Ibrahimović, and reap the benefits.