Sunil Chhetri equals Messi's international goals: The danger of making ill-judged comparisons

The Indian media went overboard recently, perhaps displaying a fair degree of naivety, when they celebrated star forward Sunil Chhetri’s feat of equaling Lionel Messi’s 64 international goals. That’s not all — they also bragged that the only contemporary player to have scored more goals than Chhetri in international football was Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo.

Elsewhere, Afghan skipper Asghar Stanikzai said, “Our spinners are better than those that India possesses,” throwing down the gauntlet before their debut Test at Bengaluru recently. The Afghans are the babes among Test-playing nations of the world. India are currently ranked number one.

Illustration courtesy Austin Coutinho

Are players, experts and the media guilty of shooting their mouths off without thinking of how odious comparisons can be in sport? Illustration courtesy Austin Coutinho

Are players, experts and the media, therefore, now guilty of shooting their mouths off without thinking of how odious comparisons can be in sport, especially when they are between two individuals at different levels? Take for instance, Chhetri’s 64 international goals against those of Messi (64) and Ronaldo (81); chalk and cheese! One writer even went to the extent of mentioning the fact that the India skipper’s strike rate was 0.63 per match, which was much superior to that of Messi’s (0.52) and Ronaldo’s (0.54).

There is no doubting the fact that Chhetri has literally carried the Indian football team on his shoulders for the last few years. When he was asked about the milestone he had reached at a media conference after the Intercontinental Cup final, he was candid when he said that there could be no comparison between him and Messi. ‘I’m not taking that comparison seriously. Messi is at a different level.”

I would really like to know how many of Messi’s and Ronaldo’s goals are against the top 25 teams in the world, and how many of Chhetri’s goals are against teams that are ranked in the top 100. Of course, without belittling his lion-hearted performances, I can’t expect any of them to be against the top 25, can I?

Hope the India striker’s fans and football pundits understand the difference and celebrate him for what he is; not by comparing him to legends!

Afghanistan has some talented spinners in Rashid Khan, Mujeeb Zadran, Mohammad Nabi, Rahmat Shah and Zahir Khan. They are proven match-winners in T20 cricket. But to say that they are better than Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, in Tests, would be stretching it a bit too far. Before the India-Afghanistan Test, Ashwin had 311 Test scalps, with 26 five-wicket and seven 10-wicket hauls. Jadeja too had 165 Test wickets, with nine five-wicket hauls and one 10-wicket haul.

Irrespective of how they perform at Bengaluru, Stanikzai had no business questioning the credentials of proven match-winners like Ashwin and Jadeja. ‘Wake not a sleeping lion’ would perhaps have been the right attitude for the Afghan skipper to take, before their big day, instead of needling the Indians with such bravado.

In sport, whether it is at the local or international levels, the underdogs quite often surprise fancied individuals and teams. To do that, however, the weaker individuals/teams need to accept the fact that the opposition is stronger. Next, strengths-and-weaknesses analysis and good strategy helps create an upset. Waking a sleeping lion hardly ever helps.

In the mid-90s, in a Ranji match between Mumbai and Vadodara at RCF Sports Club, Chembur, Sachin Tendulkar was picking singles and was rather subdued by his standards. Mukesh Narula, from forward-short-leg was sledging him, when non-striker Sanjay Manjrekar, the Mumbai skipper, walked up to the fielder and said, “Why are you waking him up? You’ll have to pay for it!” Tendulkar scored a hundred and helped Mumbai win.

Apples and oranges need to be separated, especially in a world sport like the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games. And cricket, though it is restricted to only a few teams at the Test level, would benefit from apples playing against apples and oranges against oranges. That perhaps would be the only way of pragmatic inclusivity in sport at the world level.

Everybody loves a winner. And to find more winners, it would be ideal for sport to be all-encompassing, and compartmentalised according to aptitude and dexterity. Therefore, on my wish list would be two – even three – divisions at which teams and individuals compete at The Games, the football World Cup, in Test cricket and in other sports.

The football World Cup of 2026, to be held in the US, Mexico and Canada, we are told, will have 48 teams playing in the finals. That, experts suppose, is FIFA bending over backwards to be more inclusive, especially for nations like India, which is believed to be a huge market for sport. If, therefore, there were two divisions of 32 teams each at the World Cup, we would have two World Cup winners, one from the top ranked teams and the other for teams ranked by FIFA from 51 to 100.

Speaking at a talk show before the opening ceremony of the FIFA World Cup of 2018, Baichung Bhutia mentioned the fact that India would have to get into the top 10 of Asia if they had to play the World Cup finals in 2026. “That,” he said, “is a major task and India would have to work very, very hard to be ranked among Asia’s best.” Once Asian champions, the Blue Tigers are now in 15th position.

How many Asian teams have really made it past the first stage into the knockout rounds in the World Cup? Very few, till date! Therefore, wouldn’t it be better to have a separate division for lower ranked teams?

The Olympics too, could have two different levels of participation, with different qualification criteria for each event/sport. This would provide backward sporting nations the opportunity to participate and create a sporting culture for themselves.

Similarly, in cricket, if Test teams were divided into two groups, according to performance, with England, Australia, India, South Africa, Sri Lanka and New Zealand in the ‘elite’ division and the West Indies, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, Ireland and Afghanistan in the plate division, it would be a level playing field for all. A biannual Test championship could then be played in each division, on a home-and–away basis, providing for promotions and relegations.

Being crowned a world champion or becoming the world’s best in any sport requires a lot of hard work; sweat, blood and tears. It’s like climbing Mount Everest. There are many base camps, accidents, failures and slipups before the final attempt is made to scale the highest peak in the world. Many take a shot at climbing Mount Everest, but very few conquer it.

Therefore, players, the pundits and the media are well within their rights to shower praise on sportspersons, where it is due. But it isn’t right to pull down legends of sport, from their high pedestals, by comparing a lower level of achievement to theirs. Sunil Chhetri felt embarrassed; most don’t.

The author is a caricaturist and sportswriter. A former fast bowler and coach, he is now a sought-after mental toughness trainer

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Updated Date: Jun 16, 2018 12:17:10 IST

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