When it comes to sports, there are universally loved characters, universally hated characters and there are eccentric characters. This third kind; they are loved for their talent, but hated mostly for their behavior, commitment or any other trait on or off the field. My problem is, I seem to like these eccentric characters more than even the likable ones.
Why do we love a sportsman? He gives it all on the field, behaves well, credits his team despite performing in crunch period and inspires us to do better things. Why do we hate a sportsman? He looks disinterested, he is a loud mouth who is always complaining or chokes when it matters most. But then there are these eccentric characters, which are brilliant in the game, have this tendency of self destruction through a short circuit in their head or simply this is just how they are. For me, they add color to the game, which otherwise would just become a computer simulation. So without further ado, here is my short list of characters, which, whether you love them or hate them, simply just cannot ignore them.
First ever poster I put up in my room was not Imran Khan or Wasim Akram, but Diego Maradona. I guess blurry visuals of 1986 FIFA World Cup where he tormented opposition defense must have been the reason for that. But most of the world remembers him for that ‘hand of god’ goal.
Somehow his heroics on field have always been over shadowed by his off field antics. A journalist once wrote about him ‘everything about Maradona is exaggerated, the good and the bad’.
Often celebrated as people’s champion, there is a long list of Maradona’s scandals. His club career in Europe gives you enough material to write more than one Hollywood flicks. Although his free kicks were no jokes, but some of his flying kicks would have given Bruce Lee tough times.
He decided to move to Italy instead of serving ban for this martial arts ridden performance. At Napoli, as much as he was god on the pitch, he remained a man off it. His list of issues would include cocaine addiction, rumors of close ties with the Neapolitan mafia and an illegitimate son. This was 90s, but paternity payouts and tax evasion claims still hang over him in Italy from those days.
His career in Italy ended after he was busted in drug test and received 15 month ban. His performance by then was not same due to weight gain but he was still good enough to get into Argentina team for 1994 World Cup. Another ban during the World Cup ended his playing career. In between somewhere he fired at journalist using an air gun. Maradona still has the ability to annoy, irritate and sometimes simply baffle. A quality he consistently displayed during last World Cup as Manager of Argentinean national team. He is currently managing Al-Wasl in UAE.
I started watching Tennis in late 80s, and it was limited to famous Boris Becker vs Stephen Edberg duels in Wimbledon. But one man who although way past his best days but remained hard to ignore was John McEnroe.
Former world No.1 tennis player John McEnroe will always be remembered for his 7 Grand Slam titles. But what keeps McEnroe in our memories to this day, is his then on-court antics, which include four words we’ll never forget, “You cannot be serious!” which he’d made very sure, every chair umpire and linesmen had etched into their heads.
Known for his heated exchanges with umpires and match officials, John McEnroe was often fined and punished for ‘an overly expressive passion’ on more occasions than you would imagine. Some say his paid fines total more than his prize money worth. It would take some doing to count either.
After his retirement, John McEnroe has turned into a respected witty commentator. When asked to comment on Andre Agassi’s marriage with Steffi Graff on a television show, he said ‘their kids will be some helluva talent’.
Shoaib Akhtar attracted wrong media attention even before he made it to national team, the sort of media attention only reserved for likes of Imran Khan and Sarfraz Nawaz during their ‘playboy’ days. For me, Shoaib Akhtar has represented all that is most glorious—and most ridiculous—about the wonderful world of Pakistani cricket. At times among the most devastating bowlers ever, the Rawalpindi Express was exhilarating to watch; he was at various times also arrogant, badly behaved and involved in fallings-out with more or less everyone.
His career was anything but express. There was always an element of stop-start attached to him, frustratingly so. If I was to list down his injuries, I just cannot. His medical condition was unique, I would give him benefit of that doubt, what I am not sure about is his attitude or commitment towards the game in his early days. Even if he gets a clear chit for his injuries (and chucking controversies) there is a long, very long list of run-ins with law for various reasons. E.g.
2002: Hit by brick thrown by crowd during a game in Dhaka. Banned for an ODI for throwing a bottle at the crowd in Zimbabwe and ball tampering allegations.
2003: Dropped after 2003 World Cup, recalled and banned for ball tampering. Becomes Vice Captain for test against South Africa and is served up a lawsuit by a Pakistani citizen for attending a fashion show on a night of religious significance. Banned for one Test and two ODIs for abusing Paul Adams in the first Test. Misses Test in New Zealand with calf and groin injuries but is photographed one day before enjoying a jet-ski ride leaving management red faced in front of media.
2004: Captain questions his commitment and accuses him of feigning injury against India, but a PCB committee clears him. Ditches Bob Woolmer on a team bonding exercise of a walk from hotel to stadium and shows up in his sponsored Ferrari.
2005: Worcestershire Chairman publically calls him a disruptive influence in dressing room. Greg Chappel (Indian coach) questions his action after a successful series against India and more injuries follow.
2006: Banned for two years for testing positive for Nadrolone. Ban over-turned by PCB but dropped for World Cup over fears of ‘target testing’ by ICC.
2007: Fights injuries and named in First T20 World Cup squad, but sent back from South Africa after a fight with fellow paceman Muhammad Asif.
2008: Riddled with contract crises and injuries.
2009: (From Cricinfo) Further embarrassment for Shoaib as he’s withdrawn from the World Twenty20 squad after being diagnosed with genital viral warts. He later says he could have sued the PCB for going public over his skin condition. The board responds by serving a show-cause notice for violating his contract.
2010: Makes a comeback, stays largely controversy free (by his own standards at least)
2011: retires after 2011 world cup, but gets all due attention with release of his autobiography
In between all that and about a million injuries, he played 46 tests and 163 ODIs for 178 and 247 wickets respectively. He was good at breaking toes, hurling bouncers and installing fear among the opposition. He knew one way to bowl and it was fast, very fast. In short, he was entertainment.
Game continues to move on, but I doubt it will ever deliver the drama of an Shoaib. He remained to the last someone people could identify with, precisely because he was so flawed while being so undeniably brilliant. It’s the paradox of Shoaib: a once in a generation talent who was also a very odd kind of everyman. I’m definitely going to miss him.
He has made sort of a comeback as an studio expert on PTV Sports in his true Shoaib Akhtar style. His language and description remains colorful and ‘awaami’. Whether his second career brings more consistency to his life or will remain stop-start like his cricket career remains to be seen.
Second footballer in my list, as of now nowhere near the might of first one. Mario Balotelli is without doubt one of the most interesting, but controversial players in the current game. Flashes of brilliance for the Etihad Stadium outfit, Inter and Italy testify to the 21-year-old’s ability, but scandal and strange off-field behaviour have never been too far away in the attacker’s short career to date. He remains the only footballer I know who is allergic to grass. I remember telling a friend how he reminds me of Shoaib Akhtar. Not a week passes without him becoming a news of some sort, on or off the field. Below are some of his reported incidents. Not in any particular order.
- Balotelli accused his biological parents of ‘glory hunting’ when they tried to make contact with him after he became a professional footballer.
- Infuriated Inter fans when he wore an AC Milan shirt in a television interview, was reportedly seen shopping in the AC Milan superstore, and his numerous fallings out with Jose Mourinho blighted his time at the San Siro.
- Moved to Manchester City in August 2010 for a fee of £24 million, following Roberto Mancini to England.
- ‘Mad Mario’ has been involved in a raft of motoring incidents; he has been fined £10,000 in parking fines during his time in the United Kingdom, has had his car impounded 27 times and crashed his Maserati sports car within days of having it imported from Italy.
- Turned the backyard of his English mansion into a quad bike track.
- Balotelli is not shy when it comes to flashing the cash; when pulled over police the striker had £5000 in his wallet. When asked why he was carrying so much money by the police officer he replied: “Because I am rich.”
- Last year, in December 2011 British Press reported he dressed up as Santa and handed out money on the streets of Manchester; an act rebuffed by Mario personally. The same month Balotelli also donated £200 to his local church, before paying for a £1000 round in a bar the same day.
- Disciplinary matters have blighted his career – Balotelli has been sent off against West Brom, Dinamo Kiev and Liverpool. Fined £100,000 for throwing a dart at a City youth player because he was feeling bored.
- Let off fireworks in his house the night before a Manchester derby, before becoming an ambassador for firework safety. Broke a curfew before a game against Chelsea to go to a local curry house, where he was involved in a mock sword-fight using rolling pins.
- Scored in the said Manchester derby and unveiled a t-shirt with ‘Why Always Me?’ on it; City went on to win 6-1 at Old Trafford.
- Has been involved in training ground bust-ups with Vincent Kompany, Jerome Boateng, Carlos Tevez and most recently Micah Richards.
- After City won the FA Cup in 2011, Balotelli said: “This season I have been shit. Can I say that?”, on live television.
- After he won the European Golden Boy trophy in 2010, Balotelli claimed to have never heard of runner up Jack Wilshere and stated that Lionel Messi was the only player in the world better than him.
- Incensed Roberto Mancini by trying an audacious back heel finish when through on goal in against LA Galaxy in pre-season friendly match against LA Galaxy in the United States; was instantly substituted.
- Was spotted using his iPad on the Italy bench in a game against the Faroe Islands.
This is all I could remember about, and I am sure I must have missed few days of his life. The thing about these characters is, as much as they have made news off the field, their achievments on the field are part of their over all charisma. Their respective sports would be poorer without these Bad Boys.