Monday, August 07, 2006

The difficulty of being good July 30, 2006

There is a green playing field near my house where children can usually be found playing cricket. Over the past two months, however, they have quietly switched to football. Since I love football, I stop and linger and watch, hoping to see someone score a goal. But my neighbour says he misses the cricket, and blames this change on “insidious globalization”. He is referring, of course, to last month’s World Cup, which should have been a dazzling climax to Zinedine Zidane’s glorious career, but instead it left the memory of an angry moment and exposed the tragic flaw in a hero who carried the burden of a divided nation on his shoulders. Like a tragic hero, he went not to his coronation but to his disgrace.

Zidane symbolized peace and reconciliation in a troubled France where riots had erupted last year in dozens of cities. A shy, level-headed, family man, he was proof to millions of immigrant children in France that you could be brown and Muslim and African, and still be a success in the 21st century. Like Karna in the Mahabharata, Zidane had a “mystical talent”. He had the ability to accurately control the ball with any part of his boot, to make the ball hover between his ankles, which meant that it was impossible for his opponent to read where he was going to kick the ball.

The parallel with Karna doesn’t end there. It was Zidane’s last game as it was Karna’s last battle. The French assembled their team around Zidane; the Kauravas built their strategy around Karna. Zidane changed the tournament by defeating Brazil; Karna was capable of changing the course of the Kurukshetra war. The penalty shoot-out loomed before Zidane; the fight with Arjuna hung over Karna. Just as Materazzi tried to demoralize Zidane psychologically, so did Salya, Karna’s charioteer. (Yudhishthira had extracted a promise from Salya that instead of raising Karna’s morale, like a good charioteer, he would destroy it.) Zidane had a low flash point and the Italians knew it. So, they began to wind him up from the start of the match. And he threw it all away when he turned, walked back to Materazzi, and with all that unstoppable venom, hit him.

Most of us don’t swear at strangers on the street. So, why should sportsmen behave in this disgraceful way? Australian cricketers have turned sledging into an art form. The truth is that psychological warfare is an old ploy going back to the days of the Mahabharata. A professional must learn to deal with it. When Shane Warne tried this on Brian Lara, the latter scored 275. In reacting to Materazzi, Zidane broke a golden rule of a professional. He put his feelings ahead of his team. Terry Venables, the former English coach, used to tell his players, “If they spit on your face, turn around and walk away.” Gandhi taught the same to Satyagrahis during the Quit India Movement.

When you are so admired you begin to believe you are a god. It is as though the legend becomes too much for the man. Hubris takes over, and you are ready for a fall. It is one of one of life’s cruelties that the best must also fail. Yudhishthira too had to tell a lie. The Mahabharata teaches us how difficult it is to be good in this world, which I suppose, is an apt sub-title not only for the epic but also for our life on this earth.


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