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Club versus Country

Arvind Krishnaswamy ( is a lapsing sports enthusiast based in Mumbai.

In the tussle between club and country in football, the club comes out the winner.

The FIFA World Cup is no longer a platform to decide which country is the best footballing country in the world. Over the last few years it has been more a showcase for talent for the rich football clubs from Europe, South America, China, West Asia, India and Japan. The most attractive and malleable players are poached by the top European clubs, and the rest are distributed among the other clubs.

There are 736 players participating in the FIFA World Cup hosted by Russia this year. There are 32 coaches, and support staff amounting to another 400-odd men (almost all of them would be men). Every one of them is on parade and they are treated exactly like prized cattle or horseflesh, with a mixture of envy and contempt, by the owners; contempt because the owners can buy them, and envy because the “cattle” can do things that the owners cannot.

The players and coaches are the main objects of attention. A few players, like Cristiano Ronaldo of Real
Madrid and Portugal and Lionel Messi of Barcelona and Argentina, are either too well known or, like Óscar Tabárez of Uruguay, not available. Everyone else is fair game. Take the example of Julen
Lopetegui of Spain, the ex-coach of the Spanish football team. Two days before the World Cup began in Russia, he was sacked by Luis Rubiales, the president of the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) all because the president of Real Madrid, Florentino Pérez, had issued a statement saying that, post the World Cup, Lopetegui would be anointed as the next coach of Real Madrid. The relationships are interesting: Rubiales represents the entire country, Pérez represents the club, and Lopetegui is a willing pawn. Clearly, there is a tussle between club and country, with the club coming out the winner in the short run. Here are some weasel words from Pérez and Lopetegui:

There’s not a single argument that justifies why Julen Lopetegui will not be sitting in the Spain dugout tomorrow. [Pérez censuring the sacking of Lopetegui]

Yesterday was the worst day of my life since my mother died. But today is the happiest day of my life. [Lopetegui defending his move to Real Madrid]

Lopetegui was immediately replaced by Fernando Hierro, former Real Madrid and Spain captain and the sporting director of RFEF, who took charge of the national team two days before Spain’s opening game against Portugal in Sochi. This is a huge hurdle to cross for Spain, a bit like losing one of the prime ministerial candidates a couple of days before the elections.

Right now, this is seen as a major embarrassment for Pérez, who has put the interests of his own club ahead of the national team and badly misjudged the mood at the RFEF. However, if Real Madrid wins the league next year, all will be forgiven. For Pérez and Lopetegui, fame and a nice pay packet will assuage any feelings of national guilt.

Club versus country! This scenario is being played across the world in many forms. One is that of the imbroglio in Spain, of local club versus country. The second scenario is that of outside clubs versus countries like Brazil and Argentina, where the bulk of the players play for clubs in other countries. Brazil hasn’t won the World Cup since 2002, and Argentina since 1986.

In both scenarios, the loyalty of the player and the coach is agonisingly divided between club and country. For a club, the overwhelming need now is to make money. Billionaire owners want financial returns as much as they want fame. If a club builds a complex computer model to ensure success, the overwhelming parameter on which the model will be optimised will be money. This single-point optimising value makes it easier for the model to operate. Arsene Wenger stayed with Arsenal as manager for over 20 years because he was adept at bringing in the money. Even though his last English Premier League championship came in 2004, he held on till 2018 as, pound for pound, the Arsenal Football Club was the best money earner in the world.

However, an optimising model for a country is hard to build. There are too many parameters: football programmes for multiple age groups across the country; a sporting culture to be inculcated; establishing playgrounds and facilities and finding coaches across the land; and money and other incentives, both long term and short term. What is patriotic and what is not? Easy immigration? Qatar, for example, has provided citizenship to a number of outsiders.

Where success in football is concerned, the club is easier to optimise. There are fewer parameters to monitor, and the one overriding parameter for optimisation; hence, the success of clubs in attracting talent. Lionel Messi moved to Barcelona Football Club in Spain from his native Argentina before his teens and has been nurtured by Barcelona since then. The club has spent thousands of euros in grooming Messi and has reaped millions from the effort. The club paid for his hormone therapy, brought his parents over, gave him a home away from home, and essentially stood in as friend, philosopher and guide. So, if he has to strain and risk sinew and bone, who will he do it for? Club or country?

The clubs win hands down and, given their combined power, they have converted the World Cup into the biggest talent pageant in the world. Every player wants his performance to be the medium through which his agent will negotiate a bigger and better deal. For the younger players, it is their chance to shine. For the players from poor or poorer countries outside Europe, this is the opportunity that comes up once in four years. Colombia’s James Rodriguez played himself into the Real Madrid team after the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. For players from countries like Nigeria, Cameroon, Senegal, Egypt, etc, this is their one-way ticket to fame, fortune, and limited freedom. Their daily wage in Europe is likely to be higher than the annual average wage in their country. Thus, the World Cup, which was conceived like most other worldwide sporting events by France, as a platform to spread Liberté, égalité, Fraternité, has degenerated into a pageant show.

And, with the Indian Premier League teams aping the European clubs, the seeds of destruction of Test match cricket have been sown.



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