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Soccer World Cup, sports broadcasting and the dream of a 9-year-old

MUMBAI: Sony Six and Sony Aath have finished televising the 2014 soccer World Cup, bringing us the popular sport’s most exciting and dramatic moments for a month.

For a country that has been struggling to find its feet in a sport that is played with passion and frenzy across the globe, there are images that will get stuck forever. Who can forget the sad old Brazilian fan who passed the replica World Cup trophy to a German girl? Not far away from him was a boy who was weeping relentlessly as he watched his team getting decimated by the Germans in the worst possible fashion.

Sad BrazilianDisturbing us also would be the image of Neymar whose World Cup dreams ended even before his team was vanquished as he lay on the ground writhing in pain after being kneed in the back by Colombia’s Juan Zuniga. Moments later, James Rodriguez, the new star from Colombia, would cry and bid farewell to the tournament after displaying skills and grit of the highest order. Another sight haunting us would be Uruguay striker Luis Suarez biting Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini on the left shoulder.

Then there were the ecstatic German players celebrating their World Cup win after 24 years. They marched their way into the history books to become the first European nation to triumph on South American soil. Amid this noise and rejoice stood the lonely and silent figure of Lionel Messi, lost in grief, perhaps weighing a cloud in his mind that he would never match up to the status of Diego Maradona.

Will India be inspired by these intense moments to create its own craft and new love for a sport that is more physically demanding and emotionally draining? Or will we continue to be a single-sport nation, revelling in cricket, in the deep commerce of the game which we have re-invented in the form of the Indian Premier League (IPL) and in our supremacy through the BCCI?

NeymarAs I kept watching the matches in the dead of the night with my wife and son for company, I felt sad that club football in West Bengal could not produce heroes to fill up a national team able to participate in the World Cup. I was moved when my seven-year-old son repeated what he had heard from me about Pele. “The Brazilian wizard was nine years old when he watched his father cry after Brazil lost the World Cup to Uruguay in the final in 1950. He promised his dad that he would win the World Cup for him.”

Far from winning, will India be able to take part in the World Cup during my son’s lifetime? Are we building systems in place to create a team that can put up a worthy contest?

Television stations, no doubt, are going to play a big role in popularising the sport. They have their own reasons to do this. The over-reliance on cricket has made acquisition of properties expensive, revenue has not matched the costs, and the earning potential of other sporting content is terribly depressed. Amid this intense cricket overkill, sports broadcasters in India are coughing up losses and the exploration is on to find high-growth properties outside the over-ploughed land.

WorldCup86Broadcasters have identified football as the second sport they have to work on to mop up audiences, advertisers and subscription revenues. Every network has a spread of football to keep the game on. Exercising its dominance in the league format of the game, Star India has the telecast rights to the English Premier League (EPL), Serie A (Italy) and La Liga (Spanish). Zee-owned Ten Sports boasts the Uefa Champions League, among other things. Sony Six, on the other hand, has consolidated international soccer through the Fifa rights. Even financially suffocated Neo Sports has the German Bundesliga, which comes up for grabs next year and will be crucial to the network’s existence as it finds itself stuffed out of cricket due to high acquisition costs.

Football could head into a three-player market, like cricket. With prices tending to rise, the fight among the broadcasters could get more intense. While Star and Zee have leagues which give them larger number of days to keep the cable TV and direct-to-home (DTH) networks busy, Sony Six has spurts of international soccer. At the fulcrum of the soccer broadcasting business is the scramble for collection of subscription revenues.

The game of soccer is itself going through a change. It is seeing more goals scored, young stars being born, and the gap being bridged between the top and the middle-rung soccer playing nations. No wonder that nations like Algeria, Ghana and Colombia played exciting football in this World Cup in Brazil.

WorldCup85In the spiritual home of football, two catastrophes took place that left me deeply anguished. The era of tiki-taka football came to an end as Spain exited from the battleground early in the tournament. The Spaniards had mastered the art of ball possession by short passing and movement to win the World Cup four years back, using the style to both attack and defend. But in 2014, wrinkles had developed in their game, and Xavi and Iniesta, who play like musicians, had grown old and looked tired to execute tiki-taka to perfection. In this age of attacking football and scheming defence, anything less than perfection can kill tiki-taka.

The humiliation was far worse in the case of Brazil. Sans Neymar, they seemed to have forgotten the game of football, suffering their worst defeat at the hands of Germany. After the 7–1 loss, they conceded three goals to the Dutch without scoring any. Historically known as artful dodgers, some of the players of today were shamed to have lost the ball to the opponents on many occasions when trying to dribble their way through.

Some feel that Brazilian soccer needs to be mended to bring it in strategic alignment with the European style. It is, after all, no coincidence that the European nations have triumphed to take home the last three World Cup trophies. Brazil’s recent soccer revival, after the slide since their last World Cup win in 2002, has centred around Neymar. But the reality today is that the nation no more produces creative attackers and, instead, has a flood of fullbacks.

By the time we move to the 2018 World Cup, Neymar’s game will have changed. Growing up in the home yard, he, like many other Brazilian footballers, did not have to shift country to play in European clubs for money. A booming Brazilian economy ensured that the local clubs paid their players well and Neymar stayed back to play the world’s favourite team game in his home soil. That would no more be true when he would wear jersey No. 10 in 2018 in Russia. In four years’ time, he would have played in Barcelona long enough to be exposed to the rough tactics, muscle power and defensive ploys of the Europeans. Messi, respected as the best footballer on the planet today, will have aged. And many will have hung up their boots.

WorldCup88The beautiful game will, however, continue to produce new heroes. Some of them were already visible in this World Cup, demonstrating their moments of brilliance. Even goalkeepers made their mark, and two that were joyful to watch were Keylor Navas of Costa Rica and Guillermo Ochoa of Mexico.

With lesser-known leagues also being lapped up, sports broadcasters are going to bring to India more tales of soccer from around the world. We will also have Indian leagues taking shape, one of which is the Indian Super League which is being tailored by IMG-Reliance and Star India. In fact, Star is planning to invest Rs 2,000 crore (Rs 20 billion) in the IPL-styled soccer league.

As I look at my son in sound sleep after the World Cup final, I relive the words Pele told to his father. Perhaps, in some corner of India, there is a nine-year-old boy who has just promised to his dad that he will bring the trophy to India. Till then we can thank our sports broadcasters to televise all the magical moments from the soccer field and hope that one day we will also be there.