Fairplay to flairplay - the neutrals' pick

Updated: 18 June 2012 15:38 IST

Either you like them or you don't. But sports fanatics are seldom ambivalent, whether it's a team they support or an individual. If you're cheering for your country [or adopted country], that's one thing. But it's the neutrals I identify with - their passion backed not by blind nationalism, but reason and an aesthetic appreciation of the sport.

Fairplay to flairplay - the neutrals' pick

Either you like them or you don't. But sports fanatics are seldom ambivalent, whether it's a team they support or an individual. If you're cheering for your country (or adopted country), that's one thing. But it's the neutrals I identify with - their passion backed not by blind nationalism, but reason and an aesthetic appreciation of the sport.

In cricket, unless you were around when Bradman's Invincibles were strutting their stuff, the discussions must necessarily revolve around the West Indians of the 1970s and 1980s, and the Australians of the late 1990s and 2000s. Unless you know someone who had his head cracked open by Andy Roberts or one of the others, chances are that you took to the Calypso Kings. They were likeable. They played hard, but fair. Not something many people felt about the Australians when they bossed the competition around. The Aussies worked their magic on the field, but very few really warmed to them.

As I now watch Spain at Euro 2012 (after having watched them at Euro 2008 as well as the 2010 World Cup), I feel there is a strong resemblance between the current world champion footballers and the Caribbean cricketers of that era. The Italian footballers are too cynical, the Germans too robotic (or until recently were), the Brazilians, well, too good maybe. But the Spaniards are a breed apart.

What is it about them? Well, for starters, they play a brand of football (adapted from Barcelona's tiki-taka) that looks like it's easy to pull off. Obviously it is difficult, bordering on impossible, but it seems like something a new coach of, say, the Indian football team might think the Indians can do. Puts one in mind of the West Indians' effortless flamboyance. Their bowlers, after all, were bowling what everyone else did, just better, and faster, and usually in a pack of four. And when it came to aping Viv Richards, well, if nothing else, you could stuff a large wad of gum in your mouth, pick up the swagger and say 'maan' with the right drawl. The same way getting an Andres Iniesta hairstyle doesn't take much.

Part of the similarity is in the accessibility of the style of play - not something you feel when you watch a Ronaldinho or a Lionel Messi. In tennis, you feel it when you watch Rafael Nadal, but probably not with Roger Federer at his peak - too perfect, wasn't he? Beyond our reach. Like the Australian cricketers of the past decade: infallible. If Hayden didn't get you, Ponting did, or one of the Waughs, or Martyn, or Gilchrist, or Lehmann, or Bevan, or... And, when they had the ball, if the pacemen didn't send you back, it got worse, because Warne was waiting patiently.

The other part, one that is often sacrificed at the altar of success, is fairplay. The West Indians knew what that meant. Even when the team was just starting to get on the downslide, remember Courtney Walsh refusing to 'mankad' Salim Jaffar with Pakistan needing two runs to win off the last ball in the 1987 World Cup? Pakistan won. West Indies crashed out. Walsh said afterwards, "We don't like sneaky backdoor victories." Cut to the present and Darren Sammy, though a few notches below the greats, is cut from the same cloth.

Then on to the football field: how many times in the last five-six years have you seen a Spanish defender put in a hard, unnecessary, card-worthy tackle on an opponent? Rarely, if ever.

Fairplay and 'flairplay': just as no cricket team can claim to possess the flair for the game that the old West Indies' team had, Spain's flair is quite unique. What is flair in football? Runs, dribbles, slaloms? Spain's flair is in their passing. Ever thought it possible?

That's the sort of thing that helps neutrals take to Spain, or West Indies, or, indeed, Nadal. And that's why, despite the long wait, some diehards like me are still waiting for West Indies to bounce back and return to where they once were. Spain is already up there, and looks good to stay there for a while to come. For West Indies, serious glory is miles away, but maybe, just maybe, if everything goes to plan, the World Twenty20 later this year could signal the start of good things. And unlike many other teams, they will find that most neutrals are rooting for them. They are the good guys after all.

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