The icon

Print edition : December 13, 2013

Brazil’s Pele, Argentina’s Diego Maradona (blue jersey) and India’s Sachin Tendulkar serve as alternative signifiers of the exalted cultural perceptions of nationhood in the absence of tall leaders. Photo: AFP

Brazil’s Pele. Photo: AFP

In India mass heroes are accorded demigod status. Here, fans offering prayers to Tendulkar outside the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai on November 15. Photo: PTI

This term with its quasi-religious connotation best describes the sphere of influence of Pele, Maradona and Tendulkar in the nations they have represented in sport.

WITH the retirement of Sachin Tendulkar from international cricket, it would be topical to examine his legacy not just as a cricketer but also as a global sporting celebrity. While Tendulkar is, of course, handicapped by the fact that he earned his laurels in a sport with limited global appeal, it would be reductionist to perceive him merely as a great cricketer. This article attempts to understand the socio-cultural phenomenon that Tendulkar has been in cricket-consuming India for most part of his international career and establishes a parallel with Pele and Diego Maradona, global football legends from two developing South American nations with a vast, stratified football-obsessed population.

Mortals or Messiahs?

Recently, Tendulkar played his last Ranji Trophy match for Mumbai in Lahli, a village in Haryana. Coverage of the match on the national news channels—one of the very rare occasions when 24/7 news channels covered a Ranji Trophy game—focussed on sound bites from the local population. Particularly poignant was what a villager told a national news channel: that he viewed Tendulkar as Lord Ram.

For those uninitiated in Hindu mythology, Ram is a reincarnation of Vishnu who lived the life of a perfect human mortal devoid of the flamboyance of a miracle-performing god. The gentleman in Lahli could very well have been influenced by media narratives about Tendulkar being a grounded family man despite being a supremely wealthy citizen in a massively stratified developing country—a throwback to his upbringing in a middle-class family. In the past, India’s electronic media have reported how photos of the Mumbai genius are being subjected to traditional Hindu worship across the country—one instance being after his match-winning knock of 98 off 75 deliveries against Pakistan in the 2003 ICC World Cup.

Tendulkar has pretty much embodied the mass public consumption of cricket in India which, in turn, has kept global cricket in the pink of health—the advertising revenue from the country has helped the sport to sustain itself globally over the previous decade and a half. Tendulkar’s excellence on the field for a little over two decades has represented the global aspirations of a gigantic middle-class population of a developing nation which left behind a rather insular “socialist” past and sped into a competitive, global era of economic inter-dependence in 1991.

Like the Indian genius, Maradona, too, had crowds swooning over him. It is well documented that he has a syncretic religion after him in Argentina which is modelled along the tenets of Catholicism. In Naples, southern Italy, “El Diego” is perceived as a co-patron saint of the city for his title-win-inspiring exploits for the city’s football club Napoli in the then most competitive league in the world, the Serie A, in 1986-87 and 1989-90.

Argentinean and Neapolitan media have, at various times, pointed out a parallel between the massive ups and downs of Maradona’s roller-coaster journey through life—beginning with the legend’s birth into the depths of poverty in a Buenos Aires shantytown much like the humble surroundings of Jesus Christ’s birth—and the Messiah-Crucifixion-Resurrection pattern of Jesus Christ’s life. Maradona’s own messianic moment came in the 1986 FIFA World Cup in Mexico, when as the national captain and the team’s master creator he orchestrated a memorable title triumph for Argentina. The country then had just clawed its way to democracy after the tyranny of the military junta regime; it had emerged from the humiliating defeat in the Falklands War of 1982 scathed by the military government’s warmongering chauvinism and its people were yearning for global recognition on the basis of economic growth. Sporting excellence in 1986 offered a perfect opportunity for them to actualise their economic aspirations.

European football was, in the later part of 1980s, in the midst of an emerging global media revolution just as cricket in India was in the later part of the 1990s. The sporting peaks of Maradona and Tendulkar, therefore, were beamed into the living rooms and bedrooms of millions of fans through sports networks and the electronic news media in Argentina, Italy and India made a killing by programming based on the pocket-sized geniuses.

The Pele factor

Tendulkar’s largely non-controversial personality is, of course, a far cry from Maradona’s life. The Mumbai maestro is, in this aspect, more reminiscent of the Brazilian legend Pele, who was voted the best footballer of the 20th century by a FIFA-commissioned panel of experts though the Brazilian finished second to Maradona in the people’s poll for the Player of the Century.

Pele’s off-field discipline, focus, hunger for silverware and personal milestones and longevity and all-round technical mastery created a regal halo around him in the late 1950s and 1960s in Brazil—a nation enjoying years of high growth rate accompanied by democracy, high-speed urbanisation and supercharged about its impending rise as an emerging economic power.

The sentimental favourite of the Brazilian public, though, was Pele’s magical teammate, Garrincha, the winger with his stepovers, dribbles and nutmegs, to whom the economically deprived Brazilian football fans turned for expression of happiness and self-identity with the full knowledge that Pele, the other God—albeit a less mortal one—was always around to offer the national team a centre of structure and stability.

In terms of cultural and sociological impact, the rather small world of cricket (in contrast to the global giant, namely football) has, in all its history, not known as influential an individual as Tendulkar—W.G. Grace, Sir Donald Bradman, Sir Frank Worrell and Imran Khan included—and probably will never witness anyone as big as the Little Master. Pele and Maradona—heroes of multitudes belonging to large, divisive and stratified democracies—provide the most appropriate frame of reference to understand Tendulkar’s special relationship with the Indian public.

Former South African fast bowler Allan Donald, a formidable rival of Tendulkar from his mid-1990s peak, recently said that Tendulkar is cricket’s version of a Maradona and Pele joined at the hips. As always, Donald’s delivery was lightening quick and straight. On the field, the Indian batsman was more a Maradona who carried ordinary Indian batting line-ups of the 1990s on his shoulders with his on-field work ethic, sporting intelligence and the unique amalgamation of the art and science of his vocation. Off the field, he has exclusively done a Pele, going out of his way to project himself as a model citizen and role model.

A legitimate question could be posed here as to whether this article is an attempt to straightjacket global sporting celebrities such as Pele, Maradona and Tendulkar into the theoretical binary of developing society versus the industrialised West.

Quasi-religious connotation

The answer to this question can be found in the development of the field of study of sporting celebrity over the past decade or so by sports sociologists of the Anglo-American academia. Sports sociologists have realised the restrictive scope of secular terms such as stars, superstars and heroes often used in an industrialised Western context to define the concept of sporting celebrity; they have come to terms with the fact that mass-consumed team sport can take on entirely different dimensions in developing nations with massive populations supposedly on the threshold of an economic miracle.

Therefore, sports sociologists have borrowed a term with a quasi-religious connotation—icon—in their attempt to understand the sphere of influence of Pele, Maradona and Tendulkar in the societies of the nations they have represented in sport. Ironically, the framework is borrowed from an academic anthology edited by Adrian Kear and Deborah Lynn Steinberg on the death of Lady Diana titled Mourning Diana: Nation, Culture and the Performance of Grief. According to Kear and Steinberg, icons comprise quintessential, often quasi-religious, representations of culture and their iconicity is determined not by their status alone but the levels of subjective identification to which they are open and the degree to which their depiction transcends and outgrows its origins.

Subjective identification with a host of culturally relevant national signifiers—of which religion is an important element—is an integral element of nationalism. Historian Carlton Hayes has defined nationalism as “a condition of mind in which devotion to the ideal or to the fact of one’s national state is superior to all other loyalties and of which pride in one’s nationality and belief in its intrinsic excellence and its mission are integral parts”.

In modern developing democracies, where indifferent, inaccessible political elites have foreclosed the possibility of masses having any subjective identification with national leaders who have emerged as world statesmen, sporting stars connected to the public who have been global achievers have stepped in as legitimate surrogates. Lady Diana—a national symbol—can claim the cultural space of iconicity in an industrialised Western nation and therefore there is no vacuum into which a David Beckham can step in. On the contrary, in Brazil, Argentina and India of the last four decades, Pele, Maradona and Tendulkar have served as alternative signifiers of the exalted cultural perceptions of nationhood in the absence of tall national leaders of the 1940s and 1950s such as Getulio Vargas, Juan Peron and Jawaharlal Nehru.

Post-retirement, therefore, Tendulkar’s career template could well be different from that of earlier cricket superstars of India, who have either become media pundits or got into cricket administration and coaching. Pele and Maradona have, in their post-retirement avatars, donned political hats; the Brazilian’s was a representative role as Extraordinary Minister of Sports in a neoliberal ministry appointed by President Fernando Cardoso and the Argentinean’s was a pan-Latin American left-wing ideological crusade against American dominance inspired by Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez.

In the years to come, it would be interesting to observe whether Tendulkar takes a cue from the football legends and expands the scope and nature of his current political engagement as a Rajya Sabha MP.

(Abilash Nalapat is a former sports journalist and a researcher on sport with international academic publications. The book A Companion to Sport: Companions in Cultural Studies , recently published by Wiley Blackwell, features a chapter co-authored by him titled, “Sport, Spectacle and the Political Economy of Mega Events: The Case of the Indian Premier League”.)