Why Belgium will miss Radja Nainggolan’s versatility in Russia

Radja Nainggolan is the stereotypical modern-day football player. He speaks his mind, is covered in tattoos, flaunts a ‘mohawk’, and has been involved in a controversy or two. A player who isn’t afraid to stand up for what he believes in, be it regarding his position in the Belgium national team or turning down lucrative offers from the English Premier League for the lovely ‘sunny weather in Rome.’

This piece was first published in Firstpost

On the pitch he is equally animated; a beast who roams from box to box waiting to pounce on any opportunity the opposition team offers him – a quality that has seen him become a indispensable member of a Roma squad that reached the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League this year. Yet, of all the above mentioned details, Belgium coach Roberto Martinez chose to see one – his affinity for controversies – when he omitted the midfielder from the Belgium squad for Russia 2018.

“I don’t think Radja is a player to be used in a small role in any group,” said Martinez. “We all know he has a very important role at club level and I don’t feel that we can give him that.” A clear indication that Martinez didn’t see Nainggolan starting for the Red Devils in the World Cup.

File image of Radja Nainggolan. Reuters

The World Cup Qualifications had seen Nainggolan’s role in the team diminishing. He made just two appearances in qualifying and has never been truly accepted in the international fold since Martinez’s appointment as manager in 2016. The final nail in the coffin came when the Roma midfielder posted a video of him drinking and smoking during a New Year’s party, which caused a public outrage.

The manager is right to omit a player who could disrupt the team spirit as it comes with a risk of losing squad depth in what is arguably the most important tournament for Belgium’s ‘golden generation’.

In the provisional 28-member squad selected, Martinez has named five central midfielders: Manchester City star Kevin De Bruyne, Manchester United’s Maroune Fellaini, Monaco’s Youri Tielemans, former Zenit Petersburg star Alex Witsel and Tottenham’s Mousa Dembele.

While all are capable midfield marshalls, capable of thwarting attacks that come their way, it is clear that the creative duties will largely be headed by De Bruyne, who has had a stellar league campaign. But the City midfielder has already made 54 appearances for his club and country this season, making him prone to injuries.

Young Tielemans, who struggled to establish himself in his first season at Monaco, is the only player who can deputise for De Bruyne in the team. Which is where the decision to leave out Nainggolan becomes a little difficult to comprehend because, unlike a France team that can cope with with absence of Karim Benzema due to the abundance of quality striking options available, Belgium is short of quality central midfielders in the mould of the Roma midfielder.

Nainggolan was a star for Roma this season. He played a more advanced role for the Italian club, taking up the role of a No 10. While he might not have impressed as much as De Bruyne did as central midfield playmaker, he offered a different set of skills, cutting out the influence of deep-lying midfielders by pressing them incessantly. Not to forget his ability to strike goals from distance.

A midfielder for all formations

Belgium are likely to play either the 3-4-3 formation, which they relied on during the qualification stages, or a more defensively resolute 3-5-2. Both rely heavily on de Bruyne pulling the strings from the midfield and therefore raises questions on the lack of a proper deputy.

The 3-4-3 is Martinez’s favoured structure with two among Yannick Carrasco, Thomas Meunier and Nicer Chadli donning the roles of wing-backs. KDB takes up one of the central midfield roles while the other vacant spot in the midfield is usually assigned to one among Witsel, Fellaini and Dembele.

Barring de Bruyne, there is a shortage of creativity in the midfield options available for Martinez, especially considering the below-average season Tielemans has had. Nainggolan offers a balance which no other midfielder in the squad offers.

The 3-4-3 worked to great effect in the record-setting qualification campaign but Belgium hardly had quality opposition in the group, with the likes of Greece, Gibraltar, Estonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina offering very little in attack. The formation though can be exploited by top sides, especially if one of the central midfielder is an advanced playmaker. Chelsea, who play 3-4-3 in the Premier League, struggled this season against high-pressing teams with the central-midfield pairing of Cesc Fabregas and N’Golo Kante for this very reason, and Belgium will be vary of exposing their central midfielders to direct pressure.

They played a 3-5-2 against Mexico in a recent friendly, perhaps a sign of things to come in the World Cup. In both formations, a more defensively sound Nainggolan offers a good alternative to de Bruyne in central midfield, especially if the latter is having a bad day or being used in a more advanced role. In a 3-5-2, both the players could have started behind an attacking pair of Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku. That would have provided plenty of balance to the Red Devils’ midfield.

Antonio Conte, who brought back the three-man defence back in fashion with his success at Chelsea, pursued Nainggolan’s signature in both his seasons at Chelsea – a testimony to the Belgian’s suitability to the role.

But say what we may, Nainggolan will not be travelling with the Red Devils to Russia, and announced his retirement from the national team through an emotional post on Instagram. For a 30-year-old footballer who wears his heart on his sleeves, a rejection from football’s grandest stage was just too hard to deal with.

As for Martinez, the test begins now, having made a call that could come back to haunt him if the Belgium team fails to deliver in the World Cup.

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Video: India’s captain Rani Rampal on growing up in Haryana and winning Asia Cup

Pune: It is no easy task being the national team captain at the age of 22. But Rani Rampal, captain of the country’s women’s hockey team, doesn’t seem to be intimidated by the task.

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“2018 is a very important year for us because the Commonwealth Games, World Cup and the Asian Games are there. All three are major tournaments and come only once in four years, so even the players are keenly waiting for these events,” she says at the sidelines of the National Five-a-Side Senior National Championship 2017​ in Pune.

This is the captain of a team that defied the odds to win the Asian Cup less than a month back. One would think she can afford a smile and bask in the glory a little bit. But Rani is back to doing what she loves doing most: Playing hockey. Only this time, a radical five-a-side mixed team format — where men and women play together in one team. “When you play with your male counterparts, you play hard and you improve your strength,” reasons Rani.

This article was first published in Firstpost

Perhaps her hard approach comes from her upbringing and a desperate need to be successful. “I want to work hard and help my family settle. I want to improve their condition and I can only do that by putting hard work into my hockey,” she says.

Growing up was tough for Rani who comes from a poor background. Her father was a horse-cart driver in Shahabad Markanda, a small town in the Kurukshetra district of Haryana. But money was only a part of the problem. “When I told my family that I wanted to play, my relatives and neighbours got to know (about my interest), and they said to my parents that I’ll bring a bad name to the house if they send me outside the house. I was too young to mentally handle all these,” remembers Rani.

While she admits economically it was a challenge to stick to hockey, she is quick to point out how senior players in the team and her coaches were a constant source of support. “It was very difficult financially to afford kits and shoes. But my seniors and my coach helped me a lot,” she says.

The tough hockey education made Rani competitive at a very young age. Perhaps, it is this quality, a never-say-die spirit coupled with the exuberance of the youth, that convinced the Hockey India decision-makers to bestow the captainship on her in 2017.

The forward played a key role as a leader and a player in India’s Asian Cup victory, but Rani doesn’t want her team to get too carried away. “Till now we’ve just competed in the Asian level. If we have to compete in the world level then we have to put more hard work into our game and show more focus. We will do all these in the forthcoming national camps,” asserts Rani.

The Indian team will face tougher challenges in the upcoming season. But under coach Harendra Singh and Rani’s stewardship, the teams looks best equipped to weather the storm.

On the calm shores, a surfing revolution brews

At the first glance, all is calm at the Sasihithlu beach in Western Mangaluru. A local band is singing their rendition of the Pink Floyd classic ‘Wish you were here’, as the crowd, divided into music lovers and food enthusiasts, go about doing their things, oblivious to the gravity of the event that brought them to together-the Indian Open of Surfing 2017.

While the organisers call it ‘baby steps for the future’, there is optimism within the camp that the event will springboard India’s entry into the elite leagues. “I am hoping to find a sponsor to ensure I get the support, technically and financially, to improve my surfing,” says India’s youngest national surfing champion Aneesha Nayak, who like most others in the tournament, is hoping to secure sponsorship deals, while also winning the rights to represent the nation in World Championships.

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The second edition of the Indian Open of Surfing has attracted a host of sponsors, with Karnataka government contributing almost Rs 60 lakh, but most lifestyle brands and sporting goods manufacturers are still shying away from sponsoring athletes due to their lack of ‘marketability’.

“The surfers, barring the elite few, haven’t found individual sponsors yet,” said Ram Mohan Paranjpe, Vice President of the Sporting Federation of India. “But surfing presents an opportunity that most other sports don’t. The surfers like to make a statement both in and out of the water. The athletes have an appeal, a fearlessness about them, a charisma… something brands like to associate with. All they need is some exposure,” adds Ram, who is also a Go-Pro sponsored surfing photographer.

More than a sport

For a sport that is relatively new-popular oral accounts suggest Jack Hebner a.k.a the Surfing Swami introduced it in the Indian coasts in early 2000s-surfing and its off-shoot Stand Up Paddle (SUP) event, have seen a meteoric rise in popularity and tournaments today fetch more than 100 participants, mostly from the South Indian coast line of Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.

But a surfing festival is beyond sports for a lot of people involved. The fest is a gathering of people who come to celebrate freedom in all forms. The Indian Open venue is a vibrant space, swarmed by mural artists, skateboarders, slack-liners and ‘Indi’ musicians, and these components have become as much a part of the fest’s attraction as the surfers are.

Samar Farooqui on the slackline.

Though Ram believes they are just an attraction to increase the foot-fall of the event, his mentor, the Surfing Swami, sees more.

“If you look at the origin of these games, they have roots in surfing. Back in my day, we did not have skateboarding or snowboarding but I used to ski. And I can tell you the techniques used were very similar,” says Swami.

Surfing is perhaps one of the few sports where the competition against is oneself and how well you can manoeuvre your body to the nature’s demands. “When you are in the water, nothing matters. You want to be alone, focused on riding the right wave. It is very much an individual sport. So in the evenings we have a bit of fun, listen to music and bond over,” says Janis, a surfer from Golden Beach Australia, currently helping his surfing friends set up a school in Tamil Nadu.

And slackliner Samar Farooqui, who travelled from Mumbai to take part in the festival, agrees with the surfers. “Essentially, all these sports are about balancing your body and mind. When you are on the board it is about adjusting your body to ride the wave. Similarly, on the line, we balance our body weight,” points out Farooqui, who also believes ‘non mainstream’ sports such as surfing or skateboarding, need to co-exist in a country like India to attract the audience.

Breaking hierarchies

While surfing is still far away from reaching the popularity levels of cricket or football, the sport has, in its small tenure, aided in shattering stereotypes and breaching class hierarchies.

“When I started, nobody in my family or neighbourhood wanted me to surf,” says multiple-time national SUP champion Tanvi Jagadish. “How could a girl be in shorts? How could a girl afford to be dark-skinned? I had to hide my surfing for a long time from my parents but today I’ve inspired many to pick up the sport,” adds the 17-year-old, with a beaming smile.

Janis, in his time in India setting up a surf school, has seen many celebrities and well-to-do ‘city folks’ hit the beach to learn surfing from the fisherfolks who have already mastered the art. “That is the best part of nature. On the wave, nobody cares if you are rich or poor. It’s just you and the wave,” he said, while acknowledging that the relationship was symbiotic, with the local lads now understanding the importance of education after meeting the celebrities.

While the socio-economic status of the nation might prevent millions from taking up what is still an expensive sport, according to Swami, India undoubtedly has the potential to produce ‘around thousand world class surfers’. “I’ve lived in Bali (Indonesia) and the majority of the population there are Indian immigrants from the yesteryear. If you see them surf, you will understand that it’s in the Indian genes to be successful in the water. I agree a lot of people in this country won’t be able to afford a board or time, but we are definitely capable of having some top talent,” says the surfing hermit, whose association with the country goes back to 1976 when he first travelled to India in the late Hippie era.

A breakthrough year

The 2017 edition of the Indian Open comes at a time when India has started making huge inroads in the world of surfing. In November 2016, Tanvi Jagadish and Sekar Patchai took part in the International Surfing Association’s SUP and Paddle board events. Tanvi, just 17 years old, also won the Bronze medal at the West Marine Carolina Club Stand Up Paddle Board race. Upcoming surfers like Aneesha Nayak and Sinchana Gowda have shown enough to suggest that the future of surfing in India is in great hands.

Surfing as a business enterprise has also seen drastic improvements with the surfing schools such as the Mangalore-based Mantra Surf Club, launching their own apparel brands. Mantra’s Thunder Monkey inspired the vibrant monkeys of Uttar Pradesh who sound like a thunder according to Surfing Swami, who aims to compete with international brands such as Quicksilver by offering similar quality clothing at affordable rates.

According to the officials of the Surfing Federation of India (SFI), the entry of new investors in the surfing scene and the improved support from state governments could help India host a World Championship as soon as in 2018.

The inflow of money will also help the federation send the upcoming surfers on exposure trips, which according Tanvi, will be necessary if Indians are hoping to make it to the big league. “It was very cold when I went to the USA. And I was not used to wearing so much protective suit. I struggled with my paddling,” said the SUP champion on her trip to USA in April.

In Maldives and Andamans, India has accessible and affordable locations to train their athletes and the SFI is already looking into these options to enhance the already impressive athletes. With Surfing being included in the 2020 Olympics and SUP to very likely feature in the 2024 Games, now is the time for India to sow the seeds for a fruitful tomorrow.

Arata Izumi wants NEROCA FC to ‘enjoy the moment’

In early January, when players were securing lucrative deals with top I-League clubs, Japanese-born Indian midfielder Arata Izumi made a somewhat bewildering announcement – that he will be joining I-League second division new-comers, NEROCA FC.

Neroca players celebrate their win against Lonestar

The decision was not for the lack of suitors. After all, Izumi, a box-to-box midfielder with an eye for goal, was in the prime of his career. “It will be a great challenge for me because the club is like a dream (for everyone from the state of Manipur). They (the club) are trying to make things happen for the people the club represents. I like how they think about football. I like their attachment with the people,” he said, in a conversation with Sportstar then.

On Monday, NEROCA FC (short for North Eastern Re-Organising Cultural Association) clinched the I-League second division crown, beating Lonestar Kashmir FC 4-1 in Srinagar to become the first team from Manipur to reach the top flight of Indian football. For Izumi, it is a reward for his faith in a system that is fuelled by the football loving people of the North Eastern state.

“Individually for me, I’m happy that I could complete my job. But more than what I did or achieved, I’m really happy for the people of Manipur, the NEROCA players, coaching staff and the management. Their passion led us to this success, so I am really happy,” said Izumi in a telephonic conversation from New Delhi, where the team will be halting for the day before going to Imphal on Wednesday.

With talks going on about a possible football league makeover, it still remains a doubt whether the current I-League will be the country’s top division next season. But Izumi does not want to ponder about it, at least not now. “The management must be thinking about it but no one knows the future of Indian football at this moment. So we should just enjoy the moment. This is a fifty year old club (NEROCA was founded in 1965) and hence this a historic moment for the club and Manipur. The fact that the club won the title will give a lot of hope and motivation to the young people from the state,” he added.

In a season where Indian football managers have shown their ability to compete with the very best, Manipur-born Gift Raikhan’s success with NEROCA FC is the perfect sequel to Khalid Jamil’s success with Aizawl FC. Izumi, who knew Raikhan from their Pune FC days, says the coach’s man-management skills were crucial in the team’s title run.

“He (Raikhan) is learning of course. But if you ask (Antonio) Habas, he will also say he is learning. In fact, if someone says I know everything, I will say the coach is not good. The best part about him (Raikhan) is that he doesn’t have that ego. He is always talking with the players and we try to do everything together. His man-management skills are very good and is testimony to the quality of coaches these days,” said Izumi, who has also played under Jamil for Mumbai FC.

Izumi has been securing his coaching licences simultaneously, and will be applying for an ‘A’ license in the coming months. But the player wants to keep hitting the field and said his future at NEROCA will depend on many factors.

“I can’t really talk about my coaching future now but I want to keep playing for some more years. So it really depends on who takes me (laughs). That is how it is in professional football,” concluded the midfielder.

Head to Head: Dhoni v McCullum

Former Chennai Super Kings team-mates M. S. Dhoni and Brendon McCullum have a lot of things in common. Both started their international cricket as wicket-keepers but are, arguably, more known for their exploits with the bat. Both are phenomenal athletes who redefined batting with their hard hitting and exceptional running between the wickets.

And perhaps most importantly, the two are fearless leaders who changed the face of their respective national teams with an attacking, positive approach to cricket.

Yet neither of the cricketing revolutionaries will be captaining their sides when Rising Pune Supergiant (RPS) hosts Gujarat Lions in a potential play-off berth clincher. That doesn’t, however, take away the importance of both the stars. While RPS might boast of having Ajinkya Rahane, Rahul Tripathi and Australian Steve Smith in its ranks, it is still dependent on Dhoni to finish-off matches as was evident in the team’s last-ball win against Sunrisers Hyderabad (SRH).

Similarly, Gujarat has an interesting set of batsmen in its repertoire, but is still dependent on Bas running riots in the early overs and disrupting the balance of play.

Hence it is not surprising that teams’ form, much like the two stars’ this IPL season, has been inconsistent. RPS, with 10 points from nine matches, is currently fourth in the table while Gujarat with six, is two places below. Hence the pressure will be on Suresh Raina-led visiting team to snatch a win a stay in the hunt for a semi-final slot.

Pune, however, can’t afford to relax, with Kings XI Punjab, currently fifth on the table with 8 points, boasting a superior net run-rate.

Prior to his match-winning 34-ball 61 against SRH, Dhoni had scored just 61 runs from 73 balls in the entire tournament. Similarly, McCullum has shown glimpses of his destructive best – his quick-fire 72 off 44 balls going in vain against Royal Challengers Bangalore – but has struggled to find consistency. But big players know the perfect time to switch to another gear and Monday’s match in Pune, with play-off hopes still hanging in the balance, would be a befitting occasion for both the legends to spark up the cricket field one more time.

Expect fireworks!

What is a ‘tactical masterclass’?

I recently asked on Facebook how people like to define ‘trolls’ and ‘trolling’. I was surprised that everyone had different interpretations of the word, ranging from anyone who disagrees with you online to fake profiles that resort to online abuse. My reaction to the Sunday night’s social media reaction to Jose Mourinho’s ‘tactical masterclass’ against Chelsea bears distinct similarity with my doubts on trolling – how do you define a ‘tactical masterclass’?

I had discussed about this in Jorge Sampaoli’s masterclass vitory for his Sevilla side against Real Madrid and I’m forced to come back to the question again after United’s victory and the subsequent social media tirade.

But first, let’s talk about what Mourinho got right yesterday. And as much as I wouldn’t like to admit it, he did get a lot of things right. Benching top-scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic was a brave move (blah I said he should do this some 5 months back) and utilising Marcus Rashford’s pace to play behind the relatively-slow Chelsea back-line was a smart move. Ashley Young and Jesse Lingard made a quick dynamic front-three which the make-shift Chelsea defence struggled to cope with (again I said it). Ander Herrera produced a typical dogged display to keep the ‘Hazard’ (see what I did there?) in his pockets but it beats me why Eden was not advised to take up a wider role and draw the Spaniard away from central midfield.

Maybe Antonio Conte hasn’t still realized a player needs to make around 5-6 fouls to earn his first yellow card in the match. Very few leagues in the world would have allowed Herrera to keep kicking at people’s heels throughout the match.

But apart from these strong individual displays, United and Jose Mourinho did not do anything that suggested any tactical brilliance. That Chelsea defence is susceptible to high-intensity pressing was shown to us by Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham way back in November when Chelsea was playing its best football under Conte. Then, and against Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, Chelsea was bailed out by some individual brilliance. Not to forget that Conte was playing with his favoured XI.

While Thibaut Courtois’s freakish ankle injury during a commercial commitment must have pissed off Conte, it was Marcos Alonso’s absence that hurt him the most on Sunday. The Italian had two ready-made replacements in Nathan Ake and Kenedy but opted to start Kurt Zouma, who has played very little time in a back-three, and push Cesar Azpi to the left wing-back position. The move back-fired the Spaniard offering very little in attack and the lack of symmetry in the shape meant Victor Mosses’ attack was stifled as well. Zouma looked clue-less in the defence and struggled as a RightBack when Chelsea switched to 4 in the back to accommodate Cesc Fabregas in the second half.

On a day of poor performances from the entire Chelsea squad, Diego Costa’s and Nemanja Matic’s incompetency stood-out the most. The Chelsea striker missed opportunities to hold up the ball, was terrible with his passes (Chelsea didn’t complete a single pass in United’s penalty box) and looked like he was just interested in a brawl with Rojo and Bailly. The Serbian midfielder meanwhile played a match that made Paul Pogba’s 100 million tag justifiable (almost).

 

This was more of Chelsea’s undoing itself than a Manchester United tactical masterclass, much like Sevilla’s victory over Real Madrid.  Chelsea had a very poor game and once again showed it has its rivals to thank for the relatively trouble-free stay at the helm of the Premier League so far. The opposition teams haven’t really put up a string of good performances and the Blues have somehow managed to survive at the top with its super-thin squad. Conte’s 3-4-3 will not work without proper wing-backs (like on Monday) and this team has forgotten how to play a 4-3-3 or a 4-4-2 because of its unparalled success with the current system.

Where Mourinho was perhaps different from Klopp or Pochettino is that he convinced his team to forget their natural abilities and flair to win the match. Even though Liverpool and Spurs pressed Chelsea with great intent, they could not sustain that throughout the match, because it was trying to attack Chelsea at every given opportunity, which finally played into the hands of the Blues. Mourinho meanwhile, didn’t press with his entire team. He wanted to win the midfield, not go all-out and attack when in possession like Spurs. And in classic Mourinho style, he hand-picked the players to execute his plan – Herrera to take out Hazard, a dynamic front-three to run past the slow Chelsea defence and Rojo/Bailly to irritate Costa. The rest of the team were just happy to just sit back and ensure Chelsea never got into the match.

This is the very ‘anti football’ that made Mourinho what he is – a winner. A team like Manchester United is bound have some of the best athletes in the world and Mou has the ability in him to convince talented players to give up what they love doing to execute his plan.  This is where a Stoke City or West Brom struggles – the quality of the players doing the dirty jobs for United (or Chelsea, Real, Inter before this) are different. He is all-about man management and getting what he wants out of the players. Not a Carlo Ancelotti who takes pride in forging a team that best utilizes the talent of all its players. While this wins you matches, curbing the natural abilities of these super human footballers to do one particular thing in the football field does not deserve to be called a tactical masterclass. And it is something that is bound to backfire in the long run (ever wondered why footballers start revolting in his third year at every club?).

If football is a way expression, Mourinho is its antithesis. I agree there is something romantic about a Barcelona-schooled manager coming up with anecdote to the ‘pure football’ the Catalans proudly preach. You need a Heath Ledger Joker to make the story of Gotham city and batman great.

Don’t get me wrong. Manchester United was the better side and deserved to win the match. But does it deserve to be called a ‘tactical masterclass’ in the mould of Marcelo Bielsa, Pep Guardiola or even the forgotten Brendan Rodgers? Let me not answer that. I’ll instead put a different question forward – do we ever call a Sam Allardyce or a Tony Pulis victory over the big teams a tactical masterclass? Or was the United victory called a tactical masterclass simply because it was Mourinho?

A Real Head-Ache – Time for Madrid to dismantle the BBC?

Three points clear from Barcelona at the helm of the La Liga and well positioned for a semi-final slot in the Champions League after an impressive away-performance at Bayern Munich. You would be forgiven for thinking all is well at Real Madrid.

Yet with summer inching closer, a squad overhaul is the most talked about subject in the stands of Santiago Bernabeu, especially with fans expressing their discontent with the expensively forged front-trio of three-time Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo, once-upon-a-time highest transfer fee holder Gareth Bale and French forward Karim Benzema. The BBC, as they are popularly called, has frequently been blamed by the Spanish media for Real’s unconvincing attacking displays this season and Madrid might look to shake-up the attack torejuvenate the squad.

Bale, albeit while missed three months of action through injury, has endured his worst season since joining Real with nine goals in all competitions, while Ronaldo, with 19 in the league, is on course for his worst domestic tally since 2010.

Benzema, meanwhile, has also been far less prolific in domestic matches this year but is the team’s top scorer in the Champions League with five goals to four from Ronaldo and two from Bale.

With the likes of Spanish youngsters Alvaro Morata and Marco Asensio warming the bench in hope of a more regular role, we asses what Real’s board should do to the fluttering BBC this summer.

Karim Benzema

There are few natural centre-forwards in the same league as Karim Benzema. While the French striker has struggled this season with injuries, he still remains a vital cog in the attack with his ability to link-up well with Ronaldo in the left side. While Benzema is definitely on the decline he has a lot to offer and Madrid will be vary of selling its striker, especially considering what Gonzalo Higuain has gone on to achieve after being shipped off.

The problem with Madrid is the presence of Spanish striker Morata in the bench. Alvaro, a Madrid academy product, was bought back from Juventus last summer after his stellar performances for the Old Lady of Turin. But his comeback hasn’t exactly been rosy, with the Spanish first-choice striker playing second fiddle to Benzema at the club. The media has been ruthless with its crucification of Benzema, often accusing coach Zinedine Zidane of showing French bias, and the Real board will be under pressure to come to resolution of this problem. But the problem could be solved if Antonio Conte and Chelsea come in for the Spanish striker. Conte was the manager who signed Morata for Juve and the striker recently expressed his desire to team up with the Italian coach again. While the move would not be popular in Spain, Zidane might be able to use the money and the free slot to lure teenage striking sensation Kylian Mbappe from AS Monaco FC.

Verdict: Keep. At least for a year to smoothen the transition for Mbappe. There are few strikers with the same quality as Benzema in the market and it will also be difficult for Real to fetch a decent transfer fee for the axed Frenchman.

Gareth Bale

When on form, there are very few players who can match the panache Bale brings to the football field. The problem, though, is that the Welsh forward has had an injury-marred career at Madrid so far. Bale has struggled to hit the purple patch and the fans are growing more frustrated with his contribution in the attacking.

In Isco and Asensio, Madrid already has potential replacements if Bale is shipped off, and the time might be right for Madrid to let go of Bale. Though interest from Premier League sides such as Manchester United and Chelsea have faded since last summer, Bale will still be a welcome figure in England if he decides to make the move.

Real Madrid could also use the Morata deal as bait for Chelsea to let go of its talisman forward Eden Hazard, who is apparently the prime target for Zidane this summer. The Belgian forward has expressed his admiration for Zidane and might fancy a Los Blancos shirt though he has publicly denied any such interests. Hazard, far less injury prone than Bale, will bring consistency to the Madrid side and has also the potential to be the marquee signing the fans want to see.

Verdict: Sell. Premier League experience means Bale will fetch decent money, if not the full 77 million pounds Madrid paid to Tottenham in 2013. Asensio already looks world class and Madrid has Isco to fill the void if need be. Add Hazard to the line-up and it would a major enhancement to the 2016-17 squad.

Cristiano Ronaldo

Ronaldo is 32 but why would you still want to sell a forward who has scored 100 European goals? The Portuguese was Madrid’s most decisive player against Bayern and proved his doubters wrong once again when he scored his 99th and 100th goals in European competition on Wednesday night in Real’s 2-1 win against Bayern.

There is no doubt Ronaldo is declining. His physical gifts, such as tremendous acceleration and powerful standing long jump, are not as they once were. He has scored, by his extra-ordinary standards, just 19 league goals this season.  Also not to forget, these were Ronaldo’s first goals in the Champions League in 197 days, the first time he found the net in Europe since scoring against Borussia Dortmund in the group stages back in September.

But a diminished Ronaldo is still better than almost everyone else and there are very few footballers in the world who can potentially replace him. Unfortunately for Real, three such candidates play for its fiercest rivals Atletico Madrid (Antoine Griezmann) and Barcelona (Neymar, Lionel Messi).

Not to forget his off the field impact. He is according, to Forbes, the footballer with the biggest brand value and Real Madrid merchandise sales will take a big blow if he leaves the team.

Verdict: Keep. Hazard brings guile and industry to a side but he isn’t anywhere as ruthless as Ronaldo in front of the goal. With no potential replacements available, Real would be unwise to let go of its Portuguese forward, even for a record-defying transfer amount.

Plotting the storm: The story behind India Baja 2017

“Not one recce,” Raj Kapoor, one of the architects of India Baja 2017, assures us. “We do something like 25 recces. If the route is 650 km long then every metre is mapped. Each driver has a route map which tells him metre-by-metre what to expect… where is the turn, what is the marker on the left, are there special features like trees around the region… Each and everything on the 650 km stretch is marked graphically and if you take the scroll notebook for the bike riders and open it, it will go close to about 50 feet.”

The story of India Baja, the nation’s first Dakar Challenge (the winner in the two-wheeler segment here automatically qualifies for the 2018 Dakar Rally in Peru), is about meticulous planning, years of fine-tuning and the sheer will of a bunch of enthusiasts that wants to mark India — a country still coming to terms with the potential of motorsports — on the world motorsport map.

“The India Baja is kind of a marker,” says Raj. “In terms of credibility, in terms of difficulty quotient, in terms of organisational excellence and global operating procedures, getting a Dakar Challenge is as good as it can get.”

The origin

It was a quiet period for rally in the country in the late 1990s, after the Himalayan Rally, an iconic event held in the Himalayan region between 1980 and 1990, and the subsequent Mountain Challenge had died down. “There was a lull and hence there was a desire to own the motorsport intellectual property, and the Raid de Himalaya was born in 1999,” recollects Raj, who had won the Gypsy Class and finished second overall in the inaugural edition of the Raid de Himalaya. (The event, incidentally, is the world’s highest rally-raid.) After the success of the event, Raj got together with Jayesh Desai, who was part of the organising team of the Raid de Himalaya, and founded the Northern motorsport.

The Northern motorsport started an autocross event under its banner in 2001 and later launched the Desert Storm Rally in 2003. “We started the Desert Storm and slowly built it up into the longest rally in India. And once we reached there, the next logical milestone was to try and emulate something that was at the pinnacle of cross-country rallying — the Dakar Rally,” recalls Raj.

To associate with the Dakar, India Baja had to make certain adjustments to the format it followed in its inaugural season. Baja rallies are conducted in two different formats: one is the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) format, governed by the cross-country rally championship regulations, which the Dakar follows, and the other is the American way of running the Baja, which is similar to the Baja 500 or the Baja 1000 events in Mexico. Basic difference between the two is that the American format runs day and night and has multiple drivers driving the same vehicle, while the FIA rule does not allow bikers in the night.

“Last year, we were trying to find a middle path between the two because the marathon concept is very exciting with multiple drivers sharing one car. So we were partly following that and partly the FIA rule. Now that we are a part of the Dakar Challenge, we are bound to follow the FIA rules. So no biker will race in the night,” informs Raj.

An intense challenge

The second edition of the India Baja will be held between April 7 and 9 in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan. Apart from qualifying for the 2018 Dakar Rally, the winner of India Baja will also get a ticket to the Sonora Rally in South Africa and the Afriquia Merzouga Rally in Morocco. The complexities of the Baja and the attractive prizes have drawn a host of international drivers such as Joaquim Rodrigues (Portugal) and Adrian Metge (France).

According to the organisers, the India Baja will be the most challenging rally in India till date. “I’ll give you a comparison to put things in perspective,” says Raj. “The Baja is basically running 1.5 days of competition. In those 1.5 days, it is doing 430 competitive kilometres and 150-odd transport kilometres. What it means is that, in say 36 hours, we are doing 430 km of competitive sport. In comparison, in the 1.5 days in Indian national rally championship, you do 70 km. In the Raid de Himalayas, over six days we do 600km. In the Desert Storm, over six days we do 730 km. So in comparison, the Baja is very intense.

“The amount of pressure on the car and the driver is very high because you hardly have any time to breathe and you are perpetually under pressure. That is what this entire game is about — to put a competitor under tremendous pressure on a terrain that is extremely hostile, and where the weather is absolutely against him and his machine. The weather is going to completely dehydrate you and affect your ability to think or focus. The machine is going to over-heat and it will be always under pressure. So how you manage to overcome these obstacles and challenges is the game.”

According to Raj, the entire format has been designed in such a way that only the fittest, the most experienced and the strategically brilliant driver with the most reliable machine can come through. But it is equally difficult for the organisers to stage the event, challenged as they are by a highly populated country.

“What gets done in South America, Africa and Europe with 50-70 people would require around 250 volunteers here. In India, because we have more population and higher density of towns and villages, we would need far more man power to be positioned at various points along the route to ensure that the route is sanitised and has no external influences coming in.

“Laws of the land do not allow us to have certain technology, so again technology is substituted with man power and more man power. We’ve been running an event in Rajasthan for almost 15 years and we understand how the local scenarios unfold on the ground. We know that at a certain time of the day there will be more influx of man power and human interference, so the security needs to be beefed up. Eventually, the aim is to try and replicate some of the regulations and safety requirements. And even then it’s not absolutely foolproof,” informs Raj.

Vehicle manufacturers have traditionally used motorsports to experiment with their designs and Raj is of the view that India Baja will offer them a great opportunity to test their machines. “All they learn in motorsport will find its way into production today, tomorrow or the day after. motorsport helps manufacturers figure out how reliable a particular research and design idea is – the kind of testing that happens in this condition is very difficult to replicate.”

While getting the Dakar Challenge tag was important, the organisers believe the event will only be a success if it can prompt Indians to start viewing motorsports as a mainstream sport. “People have never understood the method of entering the races, the related costs, the path of growth and the reward matrix. It’s always been hazy and people have always perceived it as something not possible by the majority, something expensive… If motorsport is adopted and there are proper guidelines and steps generated for everyone to enter and experience it at low cost and as well as less effort, the growth will be exponential. And there are methods of doing this — you can experience the sport in terms of karting, in the form of an autocross, it will cost less than Rs.10000 — in fact less than Rs. 5000. It’s perceived as something that is unattainable and that is not the case,” concludes Raj.

FIFA U-17 World Cup: Minerva boys earn national team call-up

Norton

An impressive outing against the India Under-17 team has earned six Minerva Punjab FC academy players a call-up for the U-17 national side and a chance to impress newly-appointed coach Luis Norton de Martos ahead of the much awaited FIFA U-17 World Cup, which will be held in India between October 6-28.

Minerva, the AIFF U-16 Youth League champion, had played two matches against the national U-17 and U-15 sides in Goa, which the team won 1-0 and 2-0 respectively.

The performances by the Minerva team had impressed coach Norton, who took over the coaching duties from Nicolai Adam, and the management has now brought in Anwar Ali (defender), Amarjit Mishra (winger), Mohammed Shahjahan (midfielder), Ashem Henba (midfielder), Nongdamba Naorem (winger) and Jackson Singh (midfielder) to train with the U-17 team.

“Four of our players were selected from Minerva after we won the U-15 League. We are proud to be contributing 10 players to the U-17 team apart from the six who play for the U-15 team. A football club’s legacy isn’t about how many titles it has won. I’ve always maintained that the national team should be the ultimate aim. I want to proudly say one day that 10 players in the Indian side which qualified for the World Cup are from my team,” said an elated Ranjit Bajaj, owner of Minerva Punjab FC.

While the decision is bound to have pleased the Minerva management, it casts further doubts on how prepared the Indian team is ahead of the FIFA U-17 World Cup. After a decent showing in the 2016 AFC U-16 Championship, the Indian colts lost its momentum, and performed poorly in the 2016 U-17 BRICS Football Cup and the Granatkin Cup.

The success of the nation-wide scouting program, which was conducted to identify the U-17 players, is also being questioned after the Indian team’s loss against Minerva.

Former Indian captain Bhaichung Bhutia, one of the chief scouts along with Abhishek Yadav (former player) and sacked coach Nicolai Adam, was recently removed from the AIFF technical committee, adding fuel to rumours that he had shown favouritism while picking the players.

Interestingly, both Bhutia and Yadav have their own football academies but the ‘conflict of interests’ was not seen as a hindrance to the project by the AIFF management.

Yuta Kinowaki: Finding home away from home

yuta kino

Shillong Lajong has punched above its weight, so far, in the current I-League season. With seven rounds still to be played, the team, currently fifth in the points table, is level on points with defending champion Bengaluru FC.

One of the stars for the Shillong side has been its Japanese recruit, Yuta Kinowaki. The blonde-haired Asian has marshalled the midfield to great effect for the Thangboi Singto-coached team, while thwarting opposition attacks with ease.

“I enjoy playing in the central midfield. Though, I can play anywhere across the back-line, or as an attacking midfielder, my preferred position is in central midfield, where I can dictate things,” said Kinowaki in a tete-a-tete with Sportstar.

Yuta joined Lajong in the winter window, the latest stop in a nomadic football career that has seen the Japanese ply his trade at European leagues in Poland and Latvia.

“I was 22 when I moved to Poland to play for Energetyk Gryfino. A Japanese agent arranged for a trial in Poland and I passed it. But unfortunately due to some ‘paper issues’ I couldn’t play half of the season. The same agent then got me to Latvia where I played the entire season for BFC Daugavpils,” said the midfielder, who went on to play for Japanese club Kyto Shiko SC after an year in Latvia, before securing a move to Lajong’s North-East rival, Aizawl.

Like any modern day footballer, Yuta was lured by the promise of playing in the big Europeans leagues. “Yes, the idea was I will move to a club in Europe and one of the big leagues will find me,” said Kinowaki, who believes that he has settled well in India and now wants to build a career similar to his countryman and Mohun Bagan midfielder Katsumi Yusa.

“I was sceptical about coming to the country because I knew that would reduce my chances of playing in Europe,” said the 26-year-old. “But I’m happy and focused now. I want to improve as a footballer and win titles here. Katsumi Yusa is a role model for Asian players in the league. I want to be like him and stay for the long run.”

But with the future of the I-League still hanging in the balance, Yuta is keeping all his options alive. “We are footballers and ultimately we have to go where opportunity takes us. Like I said, I want to be here. But we don’t know what will happen to the I-League. So I have no idea what the future holds.”

The Japanese, though, has been impressed by the passion shown by Indians for football and feels the country is in the cusp of a football revolution. “It’s my second full season here and I can already feel a difference in quality. All India needs to do is maintain this effort. I have already heard of good academies popping up in places like Dimapur (Nagaland). Recently, I learned that the Mizoram government is sending a bunch of kids to Germany to learn from experts. These are all good signs,” said Yuta.

Shillong Lajong follows a strict policy of promoting home-grown, young players in the team, as highlighted by its recent match against Chennai City FC, when the coach fielded eight under-22 players in the starting line-up. Yuta, though young himself, has had to don the role of the experienced player in the side, something that he has done to great effect till date. The midfielder believes pressure is part of a professional footballer’s life, but prefers to enjoy the game and not think too much about it. “Every time you go out in the field there is the pressure of winning. I don’t think ‘I am the senior, the team depends on me’ when I go out to play. I just concentrate and work hard for the side.”

Lajong’s season so far has impressed Yuta, but the Japanese wants his team to remain focused till it achieves its target. “Our aim is to secure a top four slot. That was our aim when we started the season as well – to finish in a position better than what Lajong has achieved so far in its history of the I-League (best being sixth). So we need to continue to do the good work,” concluded Yuta.