The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Soccer is the team game par excellence. Even an outstanding talent of the calibre of a Pele or a Puskas or a George Best has to play within the confines of an overall gameplan worked out by the manager. Thus there is no space for shock or surprise at the fact that Alex Ferguson, the manager of Englandís leading football club, Manchester United, had no qualms in letting his star player, David Beckham, go to Real Madrid. The star player fetched the astronomical price of more than $ 41 million. It would be simplistic to repeat the hoary cliché that Manchester Unitedís loss is Real Madridís gain. Ferguson was willing to sell Beckham because he felt that the player would no longer fit into his designs for his club. A star like Beckham inevitably has ego problems, and it could have posed problems for a manager with a mind of his own. In a way, Fergusonís decision is a backhanded compliment to Beckhamís individual talent. Ferguson recognized Beckhamís abilities and was aware that these would be difficult to contain within the demands of team building. Fergusonís decision is thus double-edged. It pays tribute to a talent but underlines the importance of the team over the individual in soccer. It is a strange parting of ways but something that is inevitable in the logic of modern football.

Football was the first of the team games to embrace professionalism. This happened not because football players were paid huge fees and became commodities in the process of transferring from one club to another. In fact, the entire approach to the game underwent a transformation. Managers took on the task of training a club team and the process of planning tactics. They, like the chief executive officer of a company, took all the crucial decisions relating to recruitment, selection, job distribution and strategy planning. The organization of the clubs themselves became corporatized. Talented players were not reduced to pawns but had their talents tailored to the interests of the team and the club. When the talent and interest clashed, the player moved, and because the player was valued, the club sold one of its assets at a premium price. Contrary to the opinion of early sceptics, these changes have immensely benefited football, which is essentially a club game. Or to put it another way, it is in the English premier league or in the club matches in Europe that the best football is played, and it is at this level that the best players aspire to show their skills and earn their value.

It is significant that many of the developments in the field of football are being replicated even in cricket. The most noticeable is the decline in the position of the captain. In cricket, especially in one-day cricket, the manager has usurped the position of the captain in deciding on strategy and tactics. It is true that cricketers are not sold, but they are commodities in the way they endorse products and also in the way teams are sponsored. The same process is visibly at work in both games even if the manifestations are different. The Beckham affair is a sign of the way sport is bending to the demands of the market.

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