Column | Haaland & the World Cup conundrum

Erling Haaland
Norwegian superstar Erling Haaland. File photo: AFP

The spontaneous outpouring of grief that followed the death of Pele showed the popularity that the great footballer enjoyed across the globe. Pele stood as an embodiment of all that is good in football. In the first place, he combined skills with a natural grace, lending the game an ethereal beauty that followers of the sport would never forget. He also showed how the game can be used for bringing people and nations together and was an excellent brand ambassador of not just soccer, but entire spectrum of sports. His rise from very modest surroundings to the exclusive club of the rich and the famous had a fairytale saga around it; but he did not allow the comforts and luxuries that came with success to change his persona and remained as simple and endearing as he was in his early days till the very end. A true hero in every sense of the word!

Pele shot into fame when he piloted Brazil to their maiden triumph in the World Cup in 1958 and was part of the the team which defended the title four years later. He etched his name in the hall of immortality by his stupendous performance in 1970 when Brazil were crowned champions for a record third time, thus taking permanent possession of the Jules Rimet Trophy. He played for Santos, based in Sao Paulo, and New York Cosmos, but it was his feats in the World Cups that made him a legend.

The same principle also holds true for Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi, two footballers who come close to being mentioned in the same breath as Pele. Though both of them won many awards and accolades while playing for clubs in Europe and earned millions of dollars as fees, their greatness emanated from the manner in which they performed in World Cups. If Maradona could claim credit for single-handedly guiding Argentina to the World Cup triumph in 1986, Messi did this task with poise and skill at Qatar 36 years later. The crowning moment of both these football greats was the World Cup triumph.

Failure to achieve this milestone is the reason why players such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar are not treated by football lovers with the same reverence that they hold for Messi.

Though on the face of it, this system of adjudging greatness on the football field based on performances in the toughest competition in the world appears to be a fair method, one should spare a thought for players who cannot play in the World Cup due to factors beyond their control. This is said with in the particular context of a new football sensation who has emerged this year in the English Premier League, the most-watched soccer league in the world. Erling Haaland, a player from Norway, who had signed for Manchester City from 2022 onwards, created waves by scoring two back to back hat-tricks within three weeks of his debut in the league. Not surprisingly, he was selected as the “Player of the Month” for August, incidentally his first month in this prestigious league. Haaland has been in amazing touch through the season and is the top-scorer with 21 goals to his credit in 15 matches till date. This makes him the fastest player to reach the tally of 20 goals and he is on track to break Alan Shearer's championship record of 34 goals in a single season, set in the 1990s.

Erling Haaland
Erling Haaland has been simply sensational for Manchester City. File photo: Reuters/Molly Darlington

Haaland was not seen in action in Qatar as Norway did not qualify for the final round of FIFA World Cup. Born in 2000, Haaland showed signs of his precocious talent at an early age. Haaland’s potential was noticed by Molde, one of the top sides in Norway, who signed him in 2017. Though he scored only four goals in 20 appearances in 2017, which was low by his standards, he was signed by Austrian side Red Bull Salzburg the very next year. Bundesliga outfit Borussia Dortmund signed him in 2019, for a fee reportedly in the region of $ 20 million. He justified the faith imposed in him by scoring 62 goals in 67 appearances in the Bundesliga during the last three years, winning in the process the “Player of the Season” award in 2020-21. He was also the top-scorer in UEFA Champions League in 2020-21, with 10 goals from eight matches. It was this abundant ease with which he found the net that made Manchester City grab him at the start of the 2022 season.

Norway are presently placed 43rd in the FIFA rankings. Hence, the possibility of them qualifying for the next edition of the championship is remote and even if they do so, they will find it onerous to move into the knockout stage, unless a miracle happens. Thus, the likelihood of Haaland dominating the next edition of the FIFA World Cup in the manner of Maradona or Messi appears highly unlikely. If present rankings are any indication, in all probability, Haaland looks set to join the likes of George Best of Northern Ireland and George Weah of Liberia, who could not achieve the status of legends in the game, despite possessing the talent and skills, for the sole reason that they were born in countries that could not advance beyond the status of minnows.

Are there any options available for Haaland other than representing Norway? There was a study that stated that 16 per cent of the players who played at Qatar 2022 had crossed borders to pursue their career. It was surprising to learn that only Argentina, Brazil, South Korea and Saudi Arabia had their entire squad born within the respective country. Another interesting aspect that came to notice was that 59 players born in France played at Qatar, out of who only 22 (37 per cent) donned French colours, while 56 per cent turned out for African countries. This is because children of African immigrants who take up the game become eligible for playing for their respective countries in Africa. This is by virtue of a FIFA rule that allows players to play for the country where at least one grandparent was born. This study concludes with the finding that the football coaching structure for youngsters in France, Belgium and the Netherlands can justifiably take some credit for the rise of teams from Africa in this game. Thus, the option of changing the nationality is not completely closed to Haaland.

Interestingly, a not too dissimilar situation had arisen in cricket as well. The Imperial Cricket Council (forerunner of the present day International Cricket Council) suspended South Africa from taking part in international cricket in 1970, in protest against the policy of apartheid pursued by the country. This resulted in the three nations who used to play Test matches with South Africa suspending ties with them. Thus all the cricketers from South Africa were suddenly left without a stage to display their skills. The best of them moved to England and started playing county cricket where they showcased their brilliance. But sooner than later, a form of boredom set in as they found that despite the money and fame, game was not the same when deprived of the heightened Adrenalin levels that only international competition could bring. Barry Richards, considered to be one of the best batsmen, and Mike Proctor, a prodigiously talented all-rounder, fell victim to this lack of motivation and fell short of the peaks that were theirs to climb and conquer.

The generation of South Africans who followed Richards and Proctor were smarter and shifted their residences early enough in life to qualify to play for their “adopted” country. Thus Kepler Wessels played for Australia while Graeme Hick turned out for England. John Traicos, whose first Test turned out to be the last that South Africa played before the ban came into force, shifted to Zimbabwe, and represented that nation in limited overs cricket and Test matches. It was only in 1991 that South Africa could return to international cricket after the nation repealed the policy of discrimination based on the colour of skin. However, by that time, many a talented sportsperson had rusted away, unable to test his mettle with the best and display his wares before a global audience.

Rashid Khan
Afghan leggie Rashid Khan is a much in demand in 20 leagues all over the world. File photo

Other than South Africans, there are players like Rashid Khan of Afghanistan, arguably the finest leg-spinner in contemporary cricket, who do not get the stature they deserve on account of playing for a weak side. Rashid is among the top picks for franchisees in Indian Premier League and is treated with respect in international matches. But the fact that his national side does not possess the strength to win too many games in international cricket brings down his success rate in the highest level of the game.

Where does this leave Haaland? If he decides not to play for any country other than Norway, he stands a high chance of following the career graphs of George Best and Barry Richards and end up as one who could not do full justice to his talent. Shifting his nationality to a new country will be time consuming, given the hurdles in place for getting this done, besides making him hugely unpopular in Norway, something he would not wish to happen.

One hopes that the success Haaland has achieved spurs a wave of enthusiasm for football in Norway and the nation is able to develop a successful side capable of mounting a serious campaign in the FIFA World Cup during the next few years, when he is still at the peak of his prowess. This alone will allow the followers of the game to decide his place among the great players who have adorned this beautiful game.

(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)

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