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Issue 22

Russia, Ukraine, and Football: The Field in the Times of War

Cesar Azpilicueta fell to his knees, collapsing in a heap of relief. On the 29th of May, 2021, while the balmy evening in Porto succumbed to the cool, nightly winds, the Chelsea’s skipper’s exertions finally caught up with him. The referee had just blown for full time – Azpilicueta’s Londoners had just won the Champions League, the most coveted trophy in European men’s football, for the second time in their history.

In the stands, Roman Abramovich, Chelsea’s Russian owner, punched the air in joy. This was his dream – seeing his team being crowned the kings of the continent. In his time at Chelsea, over the men’s and women’s teams, Abramovich had overseen six European finals, with four successes. Chelsea had, in fact, become the only team to have both their men’s and women’s teams in Champions League finals in the same season – and while the latter lost, the former emerged victorious thanks to a goal by the young German Kai Havertz, a 72 million pound acquisition made the previous summer, bankrolled by Abramovich.

Azpilicueta knew the importance the Russian held for the club. After the game was finished and the trophy was handed over and hoisted in the Porto night sky lit up with fireworks, he raced over to the stands with the trophy, and asked a beaming Abramovich to come forward – “It’s for you”, he declared in a voice hoarse by celebratory yelling.

 Less than ten months after these giddy highs, Abramovich made the hasty decision of parting ways with Chelsea – after nineteen years in charge, he would no longer continue as owner of the Blues.

As it turned out, Russia had invaded Ukraine, and Abramovich’s proximity to Putin was not being liked by many in the Western hemisphere. It is true that Abramovich, like many billionaires in the world, was close to his head of state, however dubious he may have been. It is also true that important organisations and individuals in the West, such as the British government, knew of this and allowed Abramovich to pump in his roubles into the British economy.

It is truest, however, that the Russia-Ukraine fiasco has underlined that football cannot exist in a silo – it is a political entity and has always been one. Therefore, the tragic fallout of the crisis impacted the most banal of important things in our lives – sport.

At the very beginning, it is important to understand how football in Ukraine itself was affected – the domestic league was suspended. Players from all over the world were based out of cities in Ukraine such as Kyiv, Kharkiv and Donetsk, which were now being bombed incessantly by Russian forces and Moscow-funded ‘rebels’. Donetsk, particularly, is home to multiple Brazilian footballers – who were now trapped in an overnight war that they could do little about. Families were severed, with players and their partners in different cities across the country, and like everyone else, question marks emerged over lives and indeed, livelihoods. With matches likely to remain suspended for a considerable period of time, income for a lot of clubs would be severely impacted – not to mention the infrastructural costs they would have to incur to recover from the war. Salaries to players and staff would get severely compromised. While those in the upper echelons of the league, playing for major teams such as Metalist Kharkiv, Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk might be able to cushion the blow, one really wonders about the fate of those who happen to ply their footballing trade towards the lower half of the league, and indeed, in the Ukrainian second and third divisions. As physically able youths, many of them would even have joined up with the armed forces, possibly divorcing themselves from a career and a dream, willing to lay down their lives for their country and identity.

In other parts of Europe, gestures of solidarity too made clear the point that football and politics were interrelated, and that the sport had simply been turning a blind eye all this while to crises that brewed in other parts of the world. It is notable how the Premier League in the United Kingdom implemented solidarity gestures for Ukraine – which the people of the besieged country absolutely deserve – while also not making any noise about Israel’s incessant attacks on the beleaguered peoples of the Gaza strip. The League was also quick to remove itself from the scene of controversy when Arsenal midfielder Mesut Ozil spoke up about the crimes of the Chinese state against Uyghur Muslims – his activism was met with his club deciding to never play him again, and eventually offload him midway through his contract.

The Spanish La Liga too blares a ‘Stop Invasion’ sign next to the scoreboard on its global television broadcast – something it has never done in the past when nations in the West happened to invade those in other parts of the world.

Once again, that is absolutely not to say that the people of Ukraine and the cause of an independent, stable Ukraine, do not deserve the solidarity of the average football watcher, and of the sport at large. But the event has made it extremely noticeable as to when the sport decides to use its huge platforms for activism and speaking up, and when, and at whose expense, it seems perfectly happy to not utter a peep.

On the Russian side, too, impacts were felt. The deep-seated suspicion of the country at large – a sentiment that has been manufactured from the time of the Cold War – has led to football governing bodies clamping down on the country’s footballers and its athletes. The European football governing body, UEFA, decided it would be appropriate to force all Russian teams in their competitions to withdraw from their competitions, as a statement of intent against Russia. In fact, there were a bunch of opinion-editorial columns that simply preached to Russian athletes to be banned from major tournaments, lumping in all Russians as the Bad People, who have personally overseen the invasion. That beyond the superstars, these athletes too were just working-class people being denied a livelihood seemed to be lost on those spouting such rhetoric.

Indeed, the pressure on Russians to behave like ‘good Russians’, especially in football, was remarkable. The same pressure was exerted on Chelsea, thanks to its Russian owner Abramovich. It must be acknowledged that Abramovich, like many billionaires, has a chequered past. Fundamentally at the centre of the energy behemoth Sibneft, companies he is invested in have also funded and provided material for the construction of Israeli settlements in Gaza. It is said that Abramovich, once a governor himself, nominated Putin for the role of Russian Premier.

His is a politics that could be described as sketchy at best, and his selling the club may not even be a decision many in the Chelsea faithful might mind.

The manner in which he was ousted, mainly by the British government, however, makes it interesting and once again draws attention to football’s selective politics. There are other billionaire owners who have links to heads of states and corporations that have not exactly been ethical – the Glazer family, who own Manchester United, for instance, have been known to be major contributors to Republican campaigns in the United States, bankrolling Donald Trump’s vision, among others. Newcastle United was taken over by a fund operated by the Saudi Arabian state, which has been bombing Yemen for years now, while Manchester City’s Abu Dhabi-based owners too have close links with the royal family of the Emirate. 

Football has been blind to the lives these establishments have taken – Asian lives, African lives and Latin American lives. Once chaos ensues in civilised Europe, however, solidarity emerges and in what is convenient for many in the Western world, it is Russia who once again can take on the role of the bad guys.

It is hard to nail down the kinds of impacts the crisis has had, or will subsequently have, on football, particularly European football. What it has, however, exposed, is that football and politics have always been intertwined – and from any point going forward from now, football’s silence would ring louder.

Aritro Sarkar is a fourth-year student of history, international relations, and media studies at Ashoka University. 

Picture Credits: Reuters We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 22

Hype Culture: Status, Money and Inclusivity In Conversation With Vedant Lamba

How we see each other and ourselves influences many aspects of our life. It affects our image, identity, emotions, and relationships, to name a few. Some consider themselves above materialistic tendencies, but many of us are awed by status and money, especially through our possessions. In a mass of people, we want to stand out and simultaneously fit in. It is in this dichotomy that ‘hype culture’ thrives. “We are built like this: to want to fit in”, Vedant Lamba says, the founder of Mainstreet Marketplace, a hype culture resale store in India that makes limited-edition high-end sneakers and apparel available to the public. Hype culture is the procurement of the exclusive– it is the want for the “next best thing”. A brand sells a limited amount of a product due to which they get sold out extremely fast and are resold at a higher price by other resellers. It also consists of collaborations, such as the basketball player Michael Jordan’s collaboration with Nike that resulted in Air Jordan, that are basketball shoes and clothing. The hype lies in wanting this limited product, that can be sneakers, hoodies, t-shirts, bags, mostly streetwear, that is casual clothing worn by followers of popular culture. Hype relies on the niche status of being a rival product, that is, a product that everyone wants but only a few can get – and it links back to conspicuous consumption, that is, consumers’ spending on exorbitant goods because of their high prices and not despite it. 

“It’s not supposed to be”, Mr. Lamba says, when asked whether hype products are meant to be accessible. On his store, Mainstreet Marketplace, most of the sneakers, such as Jordans, sell for upwards of 15,000 rupees. Some of the products even go up to lakhs. So there is a fiscal divide, where only those who have a considerable amount of money and are willing to spend it on sneakers or other hype products are able to access it. 

Mr. Lamba mentions the risk factor of hype and how it is perceived as an investment. “It’s just like gold and property”, he states, and he believes that is why his business model has worked in India — because it mirrors the risk and investment of other desirable products.. Moreover, Mainstreet runs on reselling sneakers that are meant for exercise or casual walking. Since these sneakers are inherently meant for use and utility, they also suffer wear and tear. So it can either be used and worn down every day or be maintained with the utmost care, in the way one would treat a gold necklace. So hype products are not only exclusionary but also require a lot of effort to maintain. That is, only if one actually cares whether their 60,000 rupee sneaker gets dirt on it — which it probably inevitably will. 

This is not a criticism of hype culture, but rather a component of it, since it relies on being exclusionary so that the hype or the obsession increases. Its accessibility is curbed so that the brand value will increase, and more people will vie for the same thing. When asked whether hype culture is turning into a luxury product, Mr. Lamba says, “Luxury is staying luxury. Luxury’s purpose is different, it’s produced with a different intent”. Yes, both are expensive, but hype feeds on the adrenaline that one gets in that clock down to get what very few others have. One cannot blame the culture for the privileged people that sustain it, because it is those people with money and the need for the “next best thing” that let hype culture survive. 

Apart from access and finances, Mr. Lamba believes that identity is a key component of Hype Culture. Clothing has always been a way for some to express themselves. Whether it is one’s gender, sexuality, economic bracket or identity. Sneakers, and hype culture, work in much of the same way. “You want what other people have. It’s about identity.”, Mr. Lamba says, when asked why he thinks people are willing to pay such an exorbitant amount on a pair of shoes. They can walk around in their sneakers, and people would be able to recognise their status through their shoes, and their identity is thus defined. So, money ties into status and identity, and they are interdependent, perpetuating one another. Your money depends on your identity and status (and vice-versa), which then propagates into hype products. With an incredulous laugh, Mr. Lamba exclaims, “An eight-year-old bought a four and a half lakh hoodie off of us!”. The obvious question would be, who is giving this child so much money? Are the parents so hyped at the prospect of their child owning an insanely expensive – but rare – hoodie? However, there is also the aspect of identity that comes into play here. Do the parents or the child feel the need to define their identity through this product? Hype culture may be about identity, but not everyone can define their identity through hype. Is identity a product that one has to now be able to afford? 

To one who is removed from this culture, or cannot afford to be a part of this culture, all of these questions may seem inane and inconsequential. Perhaps, that is what hype culture is. It is a culture that is purely a business rather than an inclusive and thriving community, especially in India. Vedant Lamba has taken this culture by storm and has produced a profitable business out of it. Start-ups that have emerged due to hype culture in India are possibly one of the only propitious futures for this culture. Yes, it is about identity, status, and exclusivity, which makes it a profitable business, but not necessarily a prosperous culture. 

Shree Bhattacharyya is a student of English literature and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

Picture Credits: Sneaker News

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Issue 22

Racing Ahead: How The Popularity Of F1 Rebounded Globally

2005 was very similar to the way 2021 ended with Lewis Hamilton losing out on the world title for the first time in 4 years. Michael Schumacher had won five driver’s world championships on the bounce and Ferrari had won 6 constructor titles in a row. F1 had become predictable and boring. In 2005 and 2006, the legendary German was dethroned by Fernando Alonso in a fast Renault car and some rule changes designed to stop Ferrari in its tracks. It was an end of an era, but it was a time when F1 should’ve adapted but didn’t.

Schumacher was by far the biggest brand in F1. He drove for the most famous and loved team in the history of the sport – Ferrari. F1 was a machine in the mid-2000s and its popularity was spiking when in late 2006 Schumacher decided to retire. A decade and a half later Lewis Hamilton would statistically overtake his feats but F1’s popularity through his career has been in decline. The emergence of a Netflix documentary series, a young prodigy in Max Verstappen who many believed would put an end to the Englishman’s dominance has changed things.

In 2007 — F1 was treated to one of the greatest championship battles of all time. There were not 2 but 3 drivers in the mix for the crown. The battle went down to the wire to the last race of the season . It was the year Lewis Hamilton announced his arrival when he took on the world champion Alonso. But in the end, Kimi Raikkonen and Ferrari prevailed. Raikkonen had replaced Schumacher took an unlikely win by a point. 2008 there was another titanic fight — this time it was Massa’s Ferrari and Hamilton in the McLaren. They went down to the wire, but Hamilton fortuitously prevailed. This year F1 had 600 million unique viewers, a number that has since not been achieved. F1 never embraced social media as its CEO Bernie Ecclestone was against it and would remain so till he was in charge till 2016. 

2009 was when the tide started turning against the sport. Ferrari and McLaren, the two icons of the sport, were nowhere in the mix. Alonso was struggling in the Renault. Brawn GP came from the ashes of Honda’s F1 project to propel Jensen Button to a world title. This team by 2010 would become the very same Mercedes team with whom Hamilton would become a world-beater. There was the rise of another power — Red Bull which had an Schumacher acolyte in a young Sebastian Vettel who made Button sweat for his only world title in 2009, but in 2010, he trounced the entire grid 4 years in a row. In this period F1’s growth of unique viewers dropped from 527 million to 450 million uniques between 2010-2013. But the overall viewership figures were growing still, even in India. 

In 2010 the eponymous Senna documentary was released by Asif Kapadia in 2010. It chronicled the story of Aryton Senna who had passed away during a crash in May 1994 at Imola. He is still considered the greatest F1 driver of all time and F1’s star was given another fillip. 

That year — Alonso who was now at Ferrari heartbreakingly lost out to Vettel in a cliffhanger. By 2011 the race in India was getting off the ground at the Buddh International Circuit in Greater Noida. Things were looking good, but people didn’t show much love to the brash dominance of Vettel and the Red Bull team. People were still rooting for Ferrari and Alonso who pulled miracles in a slow car till 2013 coming P2 three times in a 5-year tenure at Maranello.

Come 2014, Mercedes had nailed the new turbo hybrid V6 engine and its advantage was immense. Mercedes and its driver line-up of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg were different gravy. The 2014 season was a battle between the two — and Hamilton won out. Vettel had also joined Ferrari as a 4-time world champion. But in his 5-year tenure, especially in 2017 and 2018 when he had a car to match Hamilton and Mercedes, he faltered. In 2015, Red Bull fast-tracked a racing prodigy called Max Verstappen to its junior team Toro Rosso and then in 2016 elevated him to the main team where he won his first race becoming the youngest Grand Prix winner in history.

By 2017, F1 was also now under the control of Liberty Media which acquired the commercial rights from Ecclestone. It opened up social media for the sport. Before Liberty Media, drivers were not allowed to post on social media any content from the races and generally F1 till 2016 as a sport had no digital presence. Under Liberty Media, F1 even closed a deal with Netflix for a series called Drive to Survive (DTS). The first season debuted in 2019 chronicling the 2018 season but it didn’t feature Ferrari and Mercedes as the teams opted out of it only to change their mind for the next seasons.

DTS has been the single biggest catalyst for the rise of F1 in the US which had hit a stinging blow in 2005 thanks to a fascicle USGP at the legendary Indianapolis track. Even the return of the US GP at in Austin didn’t do much to improve things as F1 was mostly a one-man, one team show — Hamilton and Mercedes. Under Liberty Media in 2023, the US will have three races.

DTS showed the inner struggles and rivalries of the drivers. The audience saw the human side of the sport for the first time as mostly it was regarded as something highly technical and boring to watch. By the end of 2020, the cumulative average was 87.1 million viewers per race and overall the figure was at 1.5 billion ( not unique ) across a 17 race season which had 4 fewer races thanks to the pandemic. The overall figures of 1.9 billion in 2019 were higher though but it was social media that had 99% growth impressively. In India alone, F1 had 31.1 million viewers. That year the Italian GP had 112 million viewers — it was the race in which Charles Leclerc for Ferrari beat out Hamilton to win at its home — outlining how important its success is to F1 globally.

From a peak of 600 million uniques in 2008, the year Hamilton won his maiden title, these numbers had plunged to 352.3 million in 2017 when Hamilton won his fourth title in 2017 which was the first year of Liberty’s takeover of F1.

Aside from Drive To Survive and opening up social media, Liberty Media put in several measures to improve the reach of F1 which resulted in that number catapulting to 490.2 million uniques in 2018. These numbers have stayed relatively steady since — at 471 million uniques in 2019, 433 uniques in 2020 and 445 million last year. A big part of the digital push was the development of the F1.com website, the F1 app and also a series of podcasts like Beyond the Grid, F1 Nation which propelled the digital growth of F1 further. Now, there is a focus towards E-sports as well thanks to the pandemic.

This growth continued with 1.55 billion viewers at the end of the 2021 season, but this was a year Ferrari wasn’t in play for the world title hence the TV numbers of the audience were lower than in 2019 despite having one more race. The season finale at Abu Dhabi where Verstappen beat Hamilton to the world had only 108 million viewers was still lower than when Leclerc won for Ferrari in 2019 at Monza.

ESPN reported that the first race of the 2022 season that was won by Leclerc and featured Ferrari’s first 1-2 since the 2019 Singapore GP was the highest viewed F1 race since 1995 in the US. And with Ferrari having a competitive car, the rise of young Max Verstappen and the popularity of drivers like Carlos Sainz Jr, Lewis Hamilton, Charles Leclerc and George Russell, F1 is set to have its best year ever — both globally and in India.

Sahil Mohan Gupta is a technology and automotive journalist with more than a decade of experience specializing in the field of artificial intelligence, consumer electronics and semiconductors. Currently, he works with a multitude of publications across domains. He is consulting technology editor at carandbike.com and also leads F1 coverage for the website. Alongside, he is the India editor of TechAdvisor UK and contributing tech editor for CNBCTV18.com and GQ India. 

Picture Credits: Wikipedia

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 8

Rishabh Pant: The Boy at the Centre of It All

“पाजी, जब ङारूरत पड़ेगी, तो घर से बुला के लाएंगे”

(When they’ll need me, they’ll come home to get me)

This was Rishabh Pant’s response to being dropped from the Delhi Ranji side in 2017. Ajay Jadeja, a veteran of the cricketing circuit, recalls this incident. The sport is usually unforgiving to players with this attitude – it is not about being confident in one’s ability, instead it reflects a sense of गुरूर (pride). Commendably, in the face of all the failures and criticism, this man has never changed and that, ultimately seems to have rewarded him. 

When you come in with a bit of flamboyance about yourself, as Rishabh did, you irk the cricket world. Sachin, Sourav, Laxman and Dravid were instant fan favourites because they were humble. On the flip side, Kohli, Sehwag and Dhoni have that fandom that elevates them to a near-god status (the title of God, of course, is reserved for Sachin alone). While somewhat similar to the latter three, Pant is different. He isn’t there to watch the ball, see new balls out, or even take his front foot to the pitch of the ball. Tumbling away while playing the pull over fine leg is more of his style. 

Anyone’s first memory of Pant has to be the Under-19 Men’s Cricket World Cup 2016. With two standout innings, 111 (96) against Namibia, and a sphincter-tightening 78 (24) against Nepal was what set him apart. Funnily, India was chasing just 170 in 48 overs – an easy chase under all circumstances. Yet, Pant being Pant was in a hurry, hence, a 78 off 24. With the IPL auctions just around the corner, who wouldn’t want to bet on this hard-hitter in the T-20 format!

A large chunk of that U-19 team found takers but Rishabh attracted the dough. The Delhi Daredevils decided to bring him home to try and turn their fortunes around. He had a decent first outing in the IPL, getting 198 in 10 games, and averaging it to 25. However, bigger things were yet to be set in motion. In 2017, Rishabh faces a heartbreak right before a game between DD and RCB – he lost his father who peacefully passed away in his sleep, knowing that he had seen his son register his first cap for India earlier that year. Hastily, Pant travels to and fro, attends the last rites, and makes it back just in time to play an innings that goes down as an ode to his father where he gets a lone warrior’s 57 in a lost Delhi cause. Despite the emotional turmoil, Pant makes 366 runs in 14 games that season, and the world notices this boy who was made of different mettle.

However, it was the next season that got his name on the lips of a billion Indians. In 2018, the Daredevils finished last, once again, but the only feather in their otherwise drab cap was Rishabh. He ended the season with 684 runs to his name in his 14 games, second only to Kane Williamson. He made it a memorable year. His scoop off of India’s premier fast bowlers were nothing short of mesmerizing. Pant had finally merited the world stage. 

His test debut before the ODI perplexed the public. In his 3rd test against England, he achieved a century and the murmurs began. India had already lost the game, and he was getting into a habit of coming good in inconsequential causes. He was also making a habit of throwing away his wicket in games where his team stood a chance. Yet, the selectors are convinced that this boy will cement his place in the Indian team in all formats as the wicketkeeper of choice.

Series after series, Pant becomes a controversial selection with DK, Ishan Kishan, Saha, Samson and even KL Rahul, lurking in the wings for their chances. Sometime before the 2019 World Cup, Pant became a fringe player. He was not selected for the squad that would travel to England to compete on the world’s biggest stage. When he was called up as a replacement player, he carelessly got out after a well-made 32 in the Semi-finals. The popular narrative became about just another talent who had majorly squandered away his time on the big stage. 

Fast forward to the Border Gavaskar Trophy of 2020-21. Pant has lost his place in the ODI and T20 sides to KL Rahul, and it is highly likely that Saha will play the tests. But Rishabh somehow gets a shot. After a valiant 97 in a drawn test match, we set our sights on Gabba, for the potential series-decider. Australia gets 369, India responds with 336, Australia put up a fighting 294, nearing Stumps on Day 4. India starts the day at 5/0, and now needs 324 on Day 5. A tall order on any pitch, much rather Fortress Gabba. And the same day, at 5 am in the subcontinent, our eyes glued to a thrilling finale for this smack-banger of a series, Rohit goes where? and Gill takes the Aussies to the cleaners with a quick 91. Rahane falls cheaply, with Pujara holding up the fort on the other end.

On the famous Gabba day, the Brisbane crowd was absent. There was an eerie silence, and slightest of knicks could be heard till the parking lot. The loudest voices on the day were probably the ones in Rishabh Pant’s head, as he came out to bat.

“He’s not fit enough to play for India”

“Tu Dhoni Banega??” (“Will you become like Dhoni??”)

“When Saha is fit, Rishabh is out of the side”

“Don’t pick him for England at least, this series is over anyway”

“He just got lucky”

“Keeper hoke bhi, catch pakad nahi paata” (“Even as a keeper, he couldn’t catch it”)

We need 161 with 44 overs left in the day. Pujara falls, Mayank, Shardul and Sundar too. It’s up to Pant to take us home and shed the image of unreliability. The norm would be to bat it out and protect one’s wicket but Pant only knows one way to bat; his own way. An innings full of lofted pulls over fine leg, no footwork square cuts past point, and a few ill-timed scoops over the keeper against a daunting Australian line-up culminated in a drive-through mid-off – causing the Indian team rush to the ground in delight, as a billion people watched the victory in awe.

“Fortress Gabba has been breached” made headlines in dailies across the country. An Indian side with enough injuries to fill a whole hospital ward had barraged past a strong Australia. At the centre of it all, as always, a 23-year-old from Haridwar and Delhi, with a proud attitude, and a unique spirit. Long live Rishabh Pant, may you conquer this sport, as you did at Gabba that day. हम तुम्हारे साथ है (we are with you!)

Picture Credits: mykhel.com

Arnav Mohan Gupta is a graduate in Economics and Finance and is currently pursuing a Minor in Entrepreneurship at Ashoka University. He plays cricket and has a keen interest in the world of sport. 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).