Perhaps because we don’t have enough achievers in popular space and certainly because Sachin Tendulkar is one, he has been a point of reference for all things cricket and some beyond the boundary. So, it didn’t surprise when a recent eulogy of Raghuram Rajan mentioned Tendulkar. Indeed, it may not be a stretch to suggest that if Satyajit Ray were to be given the Oscar now, he would have been called the SRT of Indian cinema, the man who made it a globally cherished thing.
When Lionel Messi announced that he has had enough of playing for Argentina, I was half-expecting the Tendulkar analogies. And flow they did like the cover-drives in the days he ruled cricket. The sum and substance of what most said was this: Messi should have stayed like Sachin did and that by quitting he showed he was not ‘made of great’.
If you haven’t read something similar or heard anyone at work/pub/club/swimming pool/salsa classes saying this, you can stop reading. But I have and I’ll say that the comparison is as flawed as the penalty-kick that perhaps started it all.
First, as mentioned at the start, Tendulkar didn’t grow-up in the shadow of another Indian cricket great — or, for that matter, any sport legend given that Dhyan Chand, Leslie Claudius, Milkha Singh and Ramnathan Krishnan happened before social media defined our lives. Every breath the rajah of cricket took; every move he made was not compared to someone else. Ever since his left foot did things to a football no one his age could, Messi has been compared to a man who gave Argentina the salvation of a World Cup and almost did an encore. Argentina have been waiting for Messi’s Maradona moment, if not since he debuted for Barcelona definitely since the 2007 Copa America final.
Being compared to a genius, especially when you are young, can feel like a blessing but it doesn’t take long for it to become a curse. There is a long line of England all-rounders who faded not long after being told they were the next Botham. (They are still looking). In an interview to HT, his first in India, Zico made it clear that he didn’t like being called ‘White Pele.’ And it took nearly 36 years for John Bradsen, a lecturer in Adelaide, to take back his family name of Bradman.
What made it worse for Messi was that the man he was supposed to emulate didn’t stop throwing punches at him. Messi has been accused of not having a personality, of not being Argentine even by Maradona. Imagine Sunil Gavaskar questioning Tendulkar’s Indian-ness!
Then, forget when he was a teenager, Tendulkar didn’t have the equivalent of club like Messi’s Barcelona even when he was 29. That is, if you can call Mumbai Indians that. The concept of playing for a rich club, in a team of multiple internationals came to India in 2008 and Tendulkar was 35 then. So, yes, Messi will always have Barcelona in the way ‘Casablanca’s Rick and Ilsa ‘will always have Paris’. That’s because a lot of football continues to be about clubs and that may have made it easier for Messi to quit playing internationals. And here, he’s being hardly original.
‘Best footballer ever’
That brings me to the third and final point of difference. It is true that Tendulkar faced strident, mostly baseless criticism, during his time with India. Ignoring them couldn’t have been easy but monk-like he did that for 23 years. But then, India was the only ‘club’ Tendulkar had. Playing for India made Tendulkar and he acknowledged it by wearing the Tricolour on his helmet. Messi gets only air miles and abuse despite being part of four tournament finals and being instrumental in taking Argentina to three of them. He’s expected end Argentina’s wait for a trophy, do, as 1986 World Cup winner Jorge Valdano said, the job of 11 Argentines. Messi’s been stoic about all this but even for legends there must be threshold to tolerating nonsense.
For many, West Germany and Bayern Munich legend Paul Breitner among them, Messi will be the best footballer ever even if he never wins anything for Argentina. Just as Tendulkar would have been even for many if he hadn’t played such an important role in the 2011 World Cup win. So, why compare legends when we can celebrate them?