Why some sportsmen are more equal than others

Tennis great Roger Federer is more of a surreal hero for many of us on the other side of the rich man's sport.

 |  5-minute read |   26-05-2018
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Roger Federer, dressed in pristine white, hitting a forehand pass on Centre Court at Wimbledon is a symbol of perfection. Watching him play is like witnessing poetry in motion.

But just like he described the unexpected success of his 20th Grand Slam in January this year — "surreal" — Federer too is a surreal hero for many of us on the other side of the rich man's sport. 

Considering that Federer is the second-most marketable personality of all time (right after Mandela), it is hard to believe that half of our population doesn't even know him. For most people in developing economies, Federer is like a myth, something out of their reach.

Even if they come across his name, they never consider him as their hero. How many times the great man has visited Mozambique or Zambia, but children there can hardly aspire to be like him. Yes, they may learn from his humility and grace, but considering a television set is out of their reach, watching him play at Wimbledon is akin to financing a trip to the moon.

fed_052618050007.jpgSurreal hero: Roger Federer, the tennis great won his 20th Grand Slam title in Melbourne this January. [Credit: Reuters photo]

Federer’s greatest gift is his perfection. At the same time his greatest flaw is that he is almost infallible. When a young and carefree Rafael Nadal defeated Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final in front of a conventional crowd, he actually did his great nemesis a huge favour. For the first time Federer appeared human. People could suddenly associate with the great man and, of course, the tennis world saw the onset of a great rivalry. If there were no Nadal, Federer’s grand slam tally would have spiralled to 30. But an age-long dominance would have cut down his popularity considerably.

Federer hardly questions the linesman’s call and like his idol, Bjorn Borg, is shy to voice his opinion in the court. Very rarely would you hear him scream Chum Jetze (come on) in Swiss-German. Federer’s demeanour is something to be admired.

His elegance is heightened by his designer outfits, Rolex watches and Nike shoes. He is just perfect. But at the end of the day, Federer represents a superhero — someone you can't aspire to be. An elites-only dream.

But if Federer is the rich man's hero, footballer Mohamed Salah is the dream that even the poor village boys hope to live someday. When Salah plays for Liverpool, the entire Nagrig comes together. People living in poverty forget their daily woes watching their hero play.

What's more, in the recent Egyptian election half of the country voted for Salah as president. Salah gives a sense of pride to every Egyptian, Arab or Muslim alike. When Liverpool faces Real Madrid in the Champions League final, the entire Egypt (who hardly cared for European football) would be rooting for their favorite Mo.

salah_052618050419.jpgVoters' choice: In March, voters crossed out the names of the two presidential candidates on the ballot and instead wrote down Liverpool hero Mo Salah's in Egypt's 2018 election. 

If you ask any football critic who was the greatest Brazillian footballer they would say Pele. But any passionate fan would say Garrincha. Garrincha, the wizard of dribbling was a "cripple", a street child, a drunkard but also a genius. The little bird, as he was fondly called for his tiny frame, conjured up images of freedom for people across the globe. It was as if they were all sharing Garrincha's dream of coming out of poverty and showcasing his talent in front of the rest of the world. He was an undisputed hero, as was Diego Maradona.

Maradona is perhaps the most influential sportsmen of all time. When he dribbled past five to score against England in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal, an entire Buenos Aries and Bangladesh celebrated together. If for an Argentine fan it was the delight of beating England in the backdrop of Falkland war, for a Bangladeshi, it was redemption for the oppression suffered 50 years back.

When Maradona used his hand to guide the ball past Shilton, England cried foul, but the rest simply enjoyed watching the dumbfounded Brits even as Ali Bin Nasser awarded the goal. It was an act of defiance that made the game all the more exciting.

Similarly, years later when Sourav Ganguly waved his shirt at Lord's balcony, conventional critics were displeased, but from Ganguly’s point of view it was a statement. "Just because you invented the game and colonised us, we are not going to follow the "rules" set by you. We will make our own rules because we are equals.”

Maradona was hardly the ideal gentleman. He was red-carded twice in World Cup matches and even sent back home in 1994 after testing positive for a banned drug. Maradona was prone to making outrageous comments that sometimes made no sense. In the 1990 semi-final against Italy, he urged the Naples crowd to cheer for Argentina. Maradona played for Napoli but more than that he declared that the wealthier sections of northern Italy had been always depriving the southern part of the country of their share of wealth. Never too shy to proclaim himself, Maradona was furious when FIFA jointly awarded Pele as the greatest footballer of the 20th century, although he was the fans' choice.

The follies, self-love and stupid comments only added to Maradona’s charm. He proved that he was as much a human as the rest of us — a human prone to making mistakes. And that's why Maradona, the undisputed soccer king, was the hero of the masses.

Also read: A New Yorker explains why no city should be called strong in the wake of an attack


Upamanyu Sengupta Upamanyu Sengupta

He is a student.

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