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The Balotelli moment

Italian striker’s goals against Germany invite a debate on luck and leadership

Written by Peter Ronald DeSouza | Published: July 3, 2012 3:42:01 am

Italian striker’s goals against Germany invite a debate on luck and leadership

There was magic in the two goals that Mario Balotelli scored against Germany. In spite of repeated replays they continue to sizzle and enthral,fuelling a debate on whether he took advantage of the opportunity that presented itself when Antonio Cassano passed the ball,or whether he made the opportunity out of nothing. Did the ball find Balotelli’s head or did his head find the ball in the first goal,or his foot in the second goal — crucial questions that we need to answer if we are to rank him alongside that other great Italian who looked at a block of Cararra marble and saw the Pietà hidden in it where others just saw stone. The magnitude of Balotelli’s dominance can be gauged from the goalkeeper’s sense of being reduced to a bystander when he applauded the second goal in a show of great sportsmanship. At this level,normally,a goalkeeper has an intuition about where the ball will be placed and makes an effort to stop it from going in,but in these two goals he was just absent from the play. Stephen Hawking would have recognised the other universe,with its different rules,that revealed itself in that nanosecond of play.

Much has been written about those magical goals but here I want to go beyond football and have Balotelli’s performance speak to two important issues that obsess social theorists today. In his play there is rich material for theoretical speculation,underscoring the point that social theorists in India must find answers to social questions in a variety of resources,not just in the books of abstruse continental philosophers. Football is available for scoring. There is booty in the boot. What follows,I hope,will not be an own goal.

The first issue that Balotelli’s goals invite us to debate is the relationship between luck and leadership. Today,when we talk about taking a country or an organisation forward,some argue that without luck a great leader would not be able to reap the dividends that history makes available. Did the ball find Balotelli’s head or did his head find the ball? At the very basic level,this is about decisions taken under conditions of uncertainty. In such fluid situations,a leader sees a possibility and makes a decision that yields,ceteris paribus,the desired outcome. A great leader,in contrast,creates the possibility from the material that is available,even if it is sparse,rearranging it in such a way that it produces the desired outcome. Objective onlookers would argue that there was no material out there to produce the outcome and it did not meet the standard requirements of necessary and sufficient conditions. If it happened it was just the genius of the leader who conjured up the possibility from nothing.

If there was another footballer in Balotelli’s place would there have been a goal? Was he just lucky that he was there when Cassano passed the ball or did he open up a space,just for that fraction of a second,which his marker,Holger Badstuber,did not see because it was not there a second before? There was no luck here,just genius. He saw an opening in his mind’s eye and created it on the field. Using luck to explain the outcome is unnecessary for it diminishes the role played by the ingenuity of the agent. Balotelli’s head found the ball. At a particular moment there is just genius. Over many moments,a longer period of time,there may be luck.

The second moment that demands decoding is Balotelli’s defiant act of taking off his T-shirt. Was it a snub to the racists,who have been teasing him with monkey chants,that he is black,proud to be so,and that he would answer them with his football? Was this a Jesse Owens moment? Balotelli had to take off his T-shirt to show his muscular response to racism. The rules against such demonstrations were too small to be obeyed when the greater goal of his battle was against prejudice. There was no smile,just the triumphal arrogance of the victor.

It seemed so considered and yet it was really a case of touch and go. Days earlier,he had threatened to walk off the field if he was subjected to abuse again. If he had done that it would have been the lesser response for it would have contained only moral anger. Taking off his shirt,his chiselled face showed,in addition to moral anger,the added power of beauty,pride and self-confidence. It was a powerful display of morality and its allies. In that single gesture was a thousand winning arguments.

The writer is director,Indian Institute of Advanced Study,Shimla. Views are personal

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