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Friday, Jun 14, 2002

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`My name is Pele'

Timeri N. Murari

YOU can well understand why the ancient Romans offered their citizens bread and circuses. They were a welcome distraction from troubled times and good entertainment always calms unhappy and angry citizens.

We need the distraction of entertainment, whether it is music, books, theatre, cinema or, the universal drug — television. After the recent eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between the two smallest nuclear powers, India and Pakistan, the world is gradually returning to normal. So are we all. The Pakistani President, Gen Pervez Musharraf, after shooting from the hip and threatening to nuke us, appears to have calmed down, after the Americans leaned heavily on him. While our bunch, shooting off their mouths, have grown thankfully quiet and contemplative.

We can all now be distracted by the World Cup and hope we will see the final match before any further disasters strike. Football certainly is the opiate of many nations. Unlike cricket, hockey or tennis, football is played and watched by nearly every country. Winning a World Cup cannot only soothe a nation's ego but save its leaders from overthrow and assassinations.

Just look what happened in Russia! They were beaten by a small nation and the next thing we know, half of Moscow appeared to be up in flames. The Russians have no experience with riots, unlike us Indians. When we riot, our cops vanish or join the rioters. In Russia, they were totally unaware that their citizens had the capacity to riot over a football match. So, being Russians, they waded in with batons and cannons and punished their citizens by stopping the big screen broadcast.

If only the riot had happened in Korea or Japan, it would have been fun, as both nations were absolutely prepared for riots. Months ago, I watched their demonstration at riot control on television and was very impressed with their efficiency in stomping it out. Both nations, however, were expecting to deal with British thugs, and not Russian ones.

At the moment, the French are too stunned by their ignominious defeat to start a riot. But, knowing the French, I am sure it will come. Right now, they are drowning their sorrows in cheap red wine. Here they were, World Cup holders with, supposedly, the best team in the world, and they could not even score a goal. Minor nations Senegal and Denmark demolished them. The French did not have Zidane playing for them in the first two games because of a thigh injury and he was the man, an Algerian, they booed right through their own World Cup victory. They deserved to lose. I did hope that Argentina, tipped as a hot favourite for the cup, would manage at least to get to the last 16. According to newspaper reports, the Argentineans are desperate for a silver lining in their very dark economic cloud. They have been through an economic hell, theirs banks closed so customers could not draw any money, the exchange rate went berserk and the country had to beg for loans from World Banks and IMF to keep afloat.

I have always believed that a nation's leaders, including our own, would not know how to balance a cheque-book, let alone run a country's economy. A win for Argentina would at least have tranquilised the Argentineans a bit and given everyone hopes. According to a recent poll, 98 per cent of Argentineans believed their team would win the World Cup. Sadly, they got nowhere near the Cup, and I would hate to be in Buenos Aires now that they have been eliminated.

Of course, it would be great to see an Asian or African nation win the World Cup. It will give us Third-Worlders something to cheer about and encourage other nations to take up this sport. Japan and Korea have slipped through to the last 16, and so has Senegal. For all three, this was their first World Cup appearance and they have proved they are as good as the footballing giants. Another surprise has been the US, the most non-footballing nation in the world. They are creeping up the ladder as their women's team won the Women's World Cup a couple of years back.

I was living in New York when football was first introduced to the US. Pele had been signed up to promote the game and play for the New York Cosmos. They had a press conference in the Giants Stadium and I was one of a dozen reporters. I had seen Pele play `live' at the Mexico World Cup and thought him the greatest footballer. There he was, across the room. He caught my eye and came over to me. He smiled, stuck out his hand and said: "My name is Pele."

I doubt you will find such humility in any of the footballers playing today. They depend on weird haircuts to make their mark. And none of them, in my opinion, will be greater than Pele.

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