A Messi freekick, freezing Lyon and a pen – tales of a European sojourn

IFBI-2017-83 - CopyA pen. Beautiful, granted, but still just a pen. A Cartier: shiny, a little bit heavier than a biro and emblazoned with the Milan club crest. But still just a pen – the opening lines of Andrea Pirlo’s autobiography was stuck inside my head as I examined my pen. It wasn’t a Cartier. I never looked at it so closely but I felt a connection. When did I buy this pen? I don’t remember. I don’t use pens. I am a digital writer. I never write. I key in. I have keyed in for the last 10 years. Until 2016.

The black body of the pen was adorned by a gold crown at the cap with ‘Flair’ embossed in the clip. As I looked closer – The ink cartridge was blue. Plain old blue. I looked at the pen, spun it around in my hand like an infant examining its first soft toy.

“Can I take the exams online?” I had asked before the first trimester exams. The answer: a resounding ‘No’. Back home, my father would buy me two Mitsubishi gel ink pens before the semesters. Black ink, plastic body. In Brussels, I didn’t know where to find one. Sitting in my room, I went through my bag. I found,

  • An IFBI engraved Parker from the welcome kit at the beginning of the course
  • Two FIFA etched ball point ones that we received during our visit to Switzerland
  • A couple of Reynolds that somehow ended up in my documents file

And this black pen.

As I opened the cap and scribbled on the chequered IFBI notebook, it felt good. The grip was firm, the shape, comfortable. As the ink flowed on the paper, the smoothness reminded me of the roads from Lausanne to Nyon. While the Swiss Alps couldn’t quite fascinate me, the experience of walking the corridors of FIFA and UEFA was permanently etched in my mind. Add steaks and red wine to it.

But why was I thinking of Switzerland in the middle of an exam? I don’t know. I looked around the class. I looked back at my pen. I felt a sharp chill as I touched the metal clip. Oops, that’s Lyon cold – I muttered. Lyon was cold – the weather, the food, the bed in the hotel. I saw Alexander Lacazette but he was a prick and didn’t pose for a photo.

However,  he wasn’t the biggest prick we met. It was Yaya Toure. No wonder he doesn’t receive many birthday cards. There’s nothing much to like about Manchester City except their academy. State of the art, period. But Manchester bears similarities with Kolkata – old world charm, art and culture and lots of Manchester United fans. And boy, they’re loud.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, he is a Swedish hero,
On a free from PSG he cost us fuckin zero,
Six foot five, hard as fuck, he gets the Reds excited,
Stick your City up your arse,
‘Cause we are Man United.

I heard that crap throughout Stockholm. So much excitement for a Europa final? Seriously? They were lucky. Sitting in my cushioned seat at the Friends’ Arena, I saw how lucky Paul Pogba was. But it didn’t matter. I was tripping on witnessing a European final, LIVE.

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“Is this question from Man City?” – I was brought back by one of my classmates. I looked at the question. I looked at the watch. I looked at the pen. The golden crown of the cap sparkled.  I studied the thing from a few different angles, seeking out hidden depths and meanings. Trying to understand. Trying so hard that I felt a headache coming on and a few drops of sweat slide down my face.

The headache was probably due to the lack of sleep but the beads of sweat lining my forehead took me back to Barcelona, one of the most beautiful cities. The Camp Nu is an experience. It intimidates you but when Lionel Messi bends in a free-kick, the intimidation turns into divinity. It’s surreal just like me doing a master’s degree in football business management.

Last June, I was sitting in Kolkata cursing my life when an advert popped up on my Facebook feed. Clicking on it changed my life, forever. A journey that started at Indiranagar in Bangalore has now seen its peak. I still had a couple of questions to answer but my mind was trying to sort out a different one – can I ever top these experiences? Maybe not. But why was I wasting time focussing on a pen rather than finishing off the paper? What was so interesting about the pen?

Finally, the flash of inspiration arrived. Mystery solved: it was, indeed, just a pen. No added extras. Its inventor had left it at that. Deliberately? Who knows.

Then why was I focussed on it? I wasn’t. I was just trying to prolong my stay in the classroom. It was the last day and I didn’t want to leave early. I wanted to soak in every detail of the room – the high ceiling, the walls, the floor, the statue at the end of the hall.

As I submitted the paper and left the building, I turned around. Was this the end of my European dream? I don’t know. I would like to think that the future is made up of blank pages, waiting to be filled with other tales and experiences yet to be written.

But one thing’s for sure – I’ve got a pen.

 

Vivo’s IPL acquisition: China, changing the face of sports business

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If you have worked long enough in the sports industry, the word China will always catch your attention. Previously, it was because of the premium Chinese athletes who would astonish you with skills beyond belief and normally top the medal tally in most sporting events. Nowadays, the word China makes you twitch a bit in your seat and there’s a sense of eeriness whenever China comes up in a sporting discussion.

The uneasiness started in 2016 when a Columbian football striker named Jackson Martinez made a move to Guangzhou Evergrande for a record breaking fee of €42 million.  Now before you throw the Paul Pogba price tag in the mix, read the next line. A couple of days later, a 26-year-old Brazilian midfielder named Alex Teixeira signed for Jiangsu Suning for €50 million to break all Asian records. Suddenly, the football world sat up and turned its attention to the Far East. Since then, top stars like Hulk, Oscar, Axel Witsel, Graziano Pellè, Demba Ba, Paulinho and Carlos Tevez have crossed into the largest Asian country leaving European football quaking in their cleats.

While football has seen a full blown Chinese invasion over the last five years, cricket has had nothing to worry about. Not until now. Played by a handful of countries, nobody bothered about the game except India and its neighbours. India – amassing massive revenues generated by TV rights and sponsorship – rules the game both on and off-the-field. All seemed fine until Vivo, a Chinese Smartphone company, gazumped the title sponsorship of the Indian Premier League (IPL) paying an astronomical 21.99 billion rupees (267.68 million pounds) for the next five years. Take your time to figure out exactly how many zeroes are there in 21.99 billion rupees.

But what do we know about Vivo? Not much, apart from Ranveer Singh posing for selfies with a phone you didn’t want to buy. For Indians, Vivo still is the stopgap ‘cheap’ mobile phone you get when you’re bored with you old iPhone and is waiting for the new one to launch. Here’s what Vivo is all about. Vivo was founded in 2009 in Dongguan, Guangdong and it launched its first Smartphone in 2012. Next four years saw Vivo break into the top five smartphone manufacturers in the world. In the first quarter of 2016, Vivo shipped 14.3 million units and captured 4.3% of the global market share. According to the International Data Corporation’s Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker report that’s a yearly increase of 123.8%.

That’s serious business and Vivo isn’t fooling around.

The industry though is sceptical. According to experts, Vivo has taken a massive risk by putting all their eggs in the IPL basket. Most experts pointed out how Micromax fizzled out after joining hands with the Board of Cricket Control in India (BCCI). They also were the title sponsor of the Asia Cup T20 tournament but it did nothing for their brand – no recall, no long-term bump in revenue.

But hang in there for a second. Have you recently seen the Indian cricket team play? Did you notice during the recently concluded Champions Trophy, there was a change in shirt sponsorship for the Men in Blue? The Star logo, in front of the shirt, vanished and a four lettered sponsor appeared on the shirt sleeve. Oppo – another Chinese electronics company pouring in the top dollar in Indian cricket. Oppo’s Indian mobile division paid Rs. 1079 crore (approx USD 162 million) to win the Indian team sponsorship rights for a five-year period. Their nearest bidder, Vivo offered Rs. 768 crores.

Is the pattern emerging now? Two of cricket’s biggest properties are now sponsored by Chinese companies. The Indian industry experts are only looking at the money invested. They are calculating the risks and rewards. They are missing the point. They are missing it because, for them, sports is still not an industry yet. They are looking at the figure but their tunnel vision is preventing them from figuring out the grand plan.

During the inception of the Chinese Super League, President Xi Jinping wanted businessmen in the country to raise the profile of the sport by owning clubs in China and around the world. It was a great plan to promote the sport as well as to dominate emerging world of sports business. China needed to change the world’s perception and what better way than investing in football. Now, they are using sport to unlock inaccessible markets to engage with new fans to open up new revenue opportunities. It’s only a matter of time that struggling IPL teams would open themselves up to Chinese ownership.

However, is it only the business that they are interested in? No. They’re interested in the sport as well. For China, sport is a way of life. It’s ingrained in their culture and China is an Olympics giant. But in football, they rank in the 80s and in cricket, well. The Chinese don’t like coming second in anything. They are a superpower and for them, supremacy in sport is an absolute must. It might take time to acquire the skills but if you have enough dough in the bank, you sure can acquire the business. Hence, the Chinese acquiring football clubs have now become the norm. Now, it’s cricket’s turn.

Champions Trophy ’17: When Sri Lanka went full Pakistan

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How the eff did Sri Lanka lose that game? I have watched the highlights of the game thrice now. What was that one moment that took the game away from the Lankans? – I have struggled all night to answer that question because throughout the game, there were so many of them.  At Cardiff, Sri Lanka weren’t stupid, Angelo Mathews’ men were simply moronic.

The day though started well with Dickwella driving Amir through the covers and scooping Junaid over the keeper. They lost an early wicket but the ball didn’t do much and the Pakistani fielders did their best in converting ones to twos. Then Hasan Ali slipped one through Mendis. However, at 82 for 2, it was all cool. But Sri Lanka’s ‘Mr. Potential who never lived up to his talent’ Chandimal decided to throw the spanner into a smoothly rotating Lankan wheel. It was still cool because with a partnership of 78 runs, Mathews and Dickwella brought things back to normal. At the 30 overs mark, Mathews decided to throw down the gauntlet. He danced down the track, hoicked one over mid wicket and the match started to tilt the Lankan way.

Enter Pakistan’s green-eyed retro cherub – reverse swing. Pakistan shifted into Pakistan mode. Weirdly, Sri Lanka too did the same. The left-armer pacers union kicked in and with four down within the next six runs, Sri Lanka were lost, they were super lost. Somehow someone kicked some sense into them and Gunaratne and Lakmal realised, hey, there’s a semifinal spot at stake here.

236 isn’t a big score but with Pakistan chasing, you understand why I say that. But a good lunch break must always be followed by a comforting siesta. Understandably, the Lankan lions sleepwalked through the first 10 overs of the chase.

Except Lasith Malinga. He tried. He really tried hard. But how much more can a 33-year-old-creaking-joints-trying-hard-to-land-his-yorkers pacer do? He delivered his full range – the yorker, the slower, the slower bouncer – but the Lankan fielding was off the charts. Catches to the left of them, catches to the right of them, catches above them – they dropped them all. They even ruined Sarfaraz’s Steve Waugh moment. Just when Sarfaraz was about to walk past Thisara and deliver the Waugh-ish jibe, they dropped him again.

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But hey, you can never blame Pakistan for not trying. They are the only side in cricket who believes in total entertainment. Over the years, Pakistan have always maintained that you don’t need to play great cricket to entertain the audience. Mind numbing cricket does a better job. They take it up as a challenge. Whenever an opposition dishes out a sub-par performance, the Pakistan cricket team goes, ‘hold my Tarbooz ka Afraa…we can do worse.’ Then they sprinkle moments of genius over it to give it a tangy flavour.

At Cardiff though, the script looked different. After a terrific performance with the ball, Pakistan took the game by the scruff of the neck. Azhar Ali looked determined while a graceless Saeed Anwar-clone Fakhar Zaman tore into the Lankan bowlers. With the Pakistan openers rattling along, we all wondered, “Where’s the collapse?” Zaman reached his fifty. We waited. Zaman got out. Everyone sat up. Babar Azam followed.

With 2 for 92, Pakistan looked too comfortable. Hence, the senior citizens got to work. Mohammad Hafeez did his bit. Shoaib Malik obliged. Then Azhar Ali thought, “Why should they have all the fun.” With six down and 80 to get, the script was set. But Pakistan don’t read the script. The script reads Pakistan. Help arrived when Sri Lanka took a big step back… and literally, f****d their own face. As if they wanted to make a statement to Pakistan and beat them at their own game. And boy, they didn’t drop character ’till the DVD commentary.

As Sarfaraz ran towards his mates after hitting the winning runs, the camera panned on Angelo Mathews. The Sri Lankan captain stood still contemplating the moronicity of the situation. His sunglasses kept his expressions hidden but the tautness of his ferocious gum chewing jaws gave away his despair. He won’t sleep well for at least a week now. He will stare at the ceiling wondering how the Lankans looked like Sri Lanka but played like Pakistan, disguised as Sri Lanka. But more importantly, what exactly went wrong after a stellar win over India.

Here’s what went wrong Angelo, your mates went full Pakistan man. Never go full Pakistan.

Sir Ravindra Jadeja’s Excalibur: It cuts. It cuts deep

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November 5, 2009 brings back bittersweet memories for every Indian cricket fan. In a cliff-hanger against the mighty Australians, Sachin Tendulkar produced a modern age classic. Chasing 351 runs to win, Tendulkar scripted an epic knock of 175. But India fell short. India fell heartbreakingly short. India lost the game by mere three runs.

The superhero’s carnage made it into the history books but that night India found a new villain. A 20-year-old. He didn’t do much wrong. He scored a 17-ball 23 and looked steady. He almost took India home. He faltered at the finish line. He ran for a non-existent single and became the whipping boy for a billion people.

That was the start of a hate story.

It gathered wind in 2009. While chasing 7.5 runs an over, he blocked his way to a 35-ball 25 against England. It became worse in the 2010 World T20s. First, a walloping against South Africa. Then, an Aussie chastening. Finally, a pestering in the hands of the Windies. He single-handedly confirmed India’s exit from the tournament.

The ‘Rock star’ label peeled off and Sir Ravindra Jadeja became a cult figure. With every failure the legend grew. So did the boos. Sir Jadeja became the toast of the internet, the darling of the Twitteratti.

The axe came down in 2011. India won the World Cup and Sir Jadeja began his journey towards oblivion. But fate wouldn’t have it. Yuvraj Singh’s health gave in and India needed an all-rounder — a player who can blast the ball in the end overs and can chip in with valuable breakthroughs. Yusuf Pathan failed. As did Piyush Chawla.

The selectors turned towards MS Dhoni and the man from Ranchi fixed his gaze on IPL’s ‘rock star’. He threw Jadeja into the deep end. He made Jadeja swing his bat. He made his left-arm fall off his shoulders. He made him cover every blade of grass. Jadeja dropped short. ‘Aage daal Jaddu‘ – shouted Dhoni. Jadeja threw darts. ‘Ek chakka khake dikha’ – screamed the skipper. Then, Jadeja turned one off-the-track. ‘Howzaattt’ – Dhoni whipped the bails off in a flash. Jadeja failed. Dhoni pushed. Jadeja failed again. Dhoni pushed harder. ‘Are you out of your mind?’ – The nation wanted to know. But Dhoni never answered.

He didn’t because Merlin had found his Arthur.

He took him to England. With India struggling, Jadeja walked out at Lord’s. Moeen Ali was spitting cobras. Liam Plunkett had his tail up. Then, there was Jimmy Anderson. India needed a partnership but Jadeja decided to make a statement. Out came the sword from the scabbard and the ‘Saurashtra Bradman’ tore into the English bowling in true Rajput style.

That was the start of a new love story. Sir Jadeja’s cult was now official.

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“Some time ago people didn’t consider me a Test bowler. This season is a good response to them”, said Jadeja after picking up his Man of the Series award.

In December 2012, he was ranked 89 in Tests as a bowler. December 2014, he was at 20. 2015 saw him at 23. Then, he took off. December 2016, he chased Ravi Ashwin. Now, he isn’t Ashwin’s plus one anymore.

Sir Jadeja has finally taken over.

The ‘Jadeja story’ should be widely celebrated. It should be because he is scripting our story. He’s fighting those scorns after failure and the disapproving nose twitches. He taking on the bullies for us and explaining what m*d**c**d really means. He’s teaching us a power packed lesson on improvement and self belief. The best part, he’s doing it with aplomb — he’s put his arm on auto mode, picked up his Excalibur and is swinging it.

He’s swinging it bloody hard.

Arsene Wenger: For the Ned Stark of Islington, the winter has arrived

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“We are fully aware of the attention currently focused on the club and understand the debate. We respect that fans are entitled to their different individual opinions but we will always run this great football club with its best long-term interests at heart.”

Arsenal chairman Sir Chips Keswick released a statement after a horrid month for the Gunners. Someone had to speak. Someone, other than Arsene Wenger, had to say something.

Cue,  the Arsenal media management team.

Read the above statement again. The conclusion is crystal: Arsenal’s media management is worse than their first XI’s game management. No quality, no substance, no style; just dry words wrapped in corporate bullshit.

In some way it depicts the rot that runs through the club. It sheds light on the poor governance that’s led to the decade-long stagnation. The fans are angry. The players unsettled. The manager weary. And the club comes out with a ‘we-know-what-we-are-doing’ press release.

It’s absurd. It’s hilarious. It’s a new low. But hitting new lows is the ‘in’ thing for this Arsenal. If anyone thought 8-2 was bad, try wrapping your head around 10-2. Yes, that’s the new banter number for the Gunners.

Teams lose all the time. In sport, you lose more than you win but what sets teams apart is the way they lose. Arsenal aren’t just losing. Arsenal have lost faith. Arsenal have lost substance. Over the last decade, Arsenal have struggled. Arsenal have struggled bad. But Arsenal never grovelled.

Arsene Wenger is adamant about ‘the good shape’ of the club. Financially, Arsenal are stout. Debts under control, stadium liability paid off, money in the bank — the Gunners are one of the most stable corporate set-ups in European football.

Sportingly though, they are on their knees. They lack a blueprint for sporting success and that impotence has created an unrest amongst the fans. Player rifts have raised their ugly heads and Arsene Wenger isn’t in charge of the dressing room anymore.

Once upon a time, he was. He never was tactically brilliant but his vision, innovation and man management skills catapulted Arsenal into the top tier. His arrival ushered a new era in the Premier League. His teams created history and his ideology changed the way football was played in England.

20 years on, he forgot to change himself.

Now, he’s the Ned Stark of Islington – a man stuck in an infinite loop of his own ideals, morals and the code of honour. Great qualities to admire but we all know how it ended for the Warden of the North.

However, the Professor’s delusion isn’t the biggest problem at the Emirates. It’s the set of self-serving Greyjoys he has fostered at the London Colney.

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Over the last month, experts and social media have waxed lyrical about Alexis Sanchez’s fighting spirit, his winning mentality. People writing Arsenal’s obituary have gone on about how a ‘loser’ club doesn’t deserve the Chilean. May be they don’t. But after the second leg against Bayern Munich, neither does he deserve to wear the crest on his chest.

Alexis is a great player but his smirk that night left fans around the world in shock. You want to leave, fair enough but why ridicule those who made you a superstar? The Catalans didn’t care about him because they had Lionel Messi. Alexis was Arsenal’s Messi. Alexis is a winner but he wants to win alone. A real ‘winner’ never whines and gives up on his troops, no matter how inferior they are. He digs deeper, takes control and fights harder to elevate the ones around him to the next level.

The Theon of the team, Mesut Ozil, has the ‘Fabregas’ flu. He goes bowling the night before the game but is never fit enough to play. He’s taken advantage of Wenger and hid behind his trust. And now with the club on stranger tides, even £ 280,000 per week isn’t enough.

The less you talk about rest, the better. They aren’t Arsenal quality. They have the skills but they haven’t got the shoulders to carry legacy of the heavy cannon.

Hence, it’s not November pain or flimsy February  anymore, Arsenal are in free fall. The season’s gone bust. Even the ‘top four’ trophy is eluding their grasp. For the first time the furrows on Le Professor’s forehead are deeper and are crying out for help. Sadly, the Tomas Rosickys aren’t on the bench anymore.

Can Arsenal survive this? Of course. They are too big a brand to fold and have deep pockets.

Can Arsene Wenger survive this? He might. A new contract is on the table but signing it might destroy him forever because for Arsene, the winter isn’t coming anymore, the winter has well and truly arrived.

Keep playing Rafa, Roger needs you

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‘@Jaideep_18 Nadal is unfortunately going to wrap this up in the next 20 minutes.’ – Read the tweet with Roger Federer 2-0 down in the fifth set.

The game was wrapped up in the next 20 minutes but it was the Swiss maestro who reigned supreme at the Rod Laver Arena.

Roger Federer versus Rafael Nadal isn’t a rivalry. It’s a ritual; hence every face-off is a classic. Surface doesn’t matter. Form doesn’t matter. This Australian Open, even age didn’t matter.

As soon as Grigor Dimitrov was conquered in the semis, the hype hit the roof. Nostalgia was at all time high but there was always a doubt lurking – can they turn the clock back to script another classic?

On Sunday till the fourth set, they couldn’t.

There were flashes of genius. Federer flew off the blocks in the first. Nadal put him in place in the second. Federer stomped back in the third, only to be humbled in the fourth.

The match tipped towards the other whenever one made a mistake. But the two ‘ageing’ megastars dug their heels in. They knew at this point of their career, skills won’t be enough. So, they added some old-fashioned grit to it. Federer’s forehand deserted him but the backhand kept him going. Whenever his intensity dropped, ‘Vamos‘ – sprang back Rafa. They spurred with caution. They maintained safe distance. They kept coiling their springs to last the distance, gathering all the potential energy for that one final thrust.

The fifth set finally unleashed the beasts.

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Rafael Nadal rode the momentum and charged in like a bull, swinging his forehand like a rapier. He gained his second wind, found new legs and the Rod Laver Arena looked set to hand him his 15th Grand Slam.

The next three games weren’t tennis anymore. It was knife fight between two seasoned assassins.

They knew the rules. There were no rules.

As the swishing forehands of Nadal met with the screaming backhands of Federer, the surface scorched. It begged for mercy as the two old pros matched each other’s intensity, shot for shot. Even the net cord wasn’t spared.

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The game ended with Federer lifting his 18th Slam but the 2017 Australian Open final will not go down in the history of tennis as one of ‘the’ #Fedal finals. It lacked the drama. It was nowhere near the 2008 ‘twilight’ Wimbledon final. It lacked quality. It wasn’t as pristine as the 2009 Melbourne final as both Federer and Nadal made mistakes. Glaring mistakes.

This final wasn’t even on the cards. They weren’t even supposed to be there. They were making comebacks from serious injuries. They were there to be fodder for the Sir and the Djoker.

But then, they were there and the 2017 Australian Open final will go down in the history of tennis as one of ‘the’ #Fedal finals. It etched itself amongst the classics because both Federer and Nadal were there protecting their legacies. They were there satisfying their hunger. They were there fighting a dodgy knee and an uncomfortable wrist. They were there healing their bruised egos.

They were there because being there is the best thing that they ever did.

The hawk-eye handed the match to Federer. He went down on his knees with tears in his eyes. Five years is a long wait. It’s longer when you are an ailing champion. The world looks at you with pity. The body gives in even if the mind refuses to. The spirit never wanes but the powers do.

Nadal was no different.

This #Fedal Final wasn’t about ‘Bel18ve’ or ‘H15tory’. It was about showcasing the undying spirit of two champions. It was about meeting your age-old foe at the highest stage for one more time, for one more round.

“Keep playing Rafa, please. Tennis needs you” – Federer lied. Rafa needs to keep playing because more than tennis, Roger needs him to. Roger needs Rafa to keep playing because he’s his greatest asset. He needs him to keep playing because at the end of the day, beating your greatest rival is what sport is all about.

Lionel Messi, Murtaza Ahmadi and the magic of being a fan

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Murtaza Ahmadi is one lucky, lucky boy.

If you don’t know who he is, go to Twitter or scroll down your Facebook timeline. Murtaza is everywhere. He’s just six years old but today, he’s the biggest sport story of every publication.

For those who are still living under a rock, here’s some context.

Murtaza is a football fan from Afghanistan. Last January, he became an internet sensation. No, he doesn’t have stunning skills with the ball. No, there was no video of him going past eight defenders either.

His claim to fame was his jersey. Back up, it wasn’t his jersey. It was what he did with a plastic bag to turn it into a football jersey. Murtaza gathered an Argentine coloured (white and blue striped) plastic, scribbled the name ‘Messi’ and his number on the back and was photographed playing football.

The internet, staying true to its nature, went “aww…” over it as it does over every good looking chaiwala or senseless kitten posts and dubbed Murtaza as Messi’s ‘fan number 1’. However, after a few click bait headlines and thousand page views, the story should’ve ended there.

It didn’t.

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Murtaza was tracked down and last night, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, made his dream come true.

Murtaza met Lionel Messi.

Not only did he meet him, he walked on to the pitch with him, hugged him and refused to let him go. It was Murtaza’s night and Messi and his Barcelona colleagues played second fiddle to perfection.

The video, as expected, went viral and it brought a smile on everyone’s face. But more than its virality, the video re-established the power that sport possesses and how it can touch people’s lives.

But it’s a difficult time to be a fan. Especially, a football fan. Trust me, under the glamour of the Premier League, the dark underbelly of football makes for a terrible reading.

Don’t believe me? I didn’t believe it either.

Till last October, football, for me, meant the footballing elite of Europe. Then, I came to know about clubs in Eastern Europe who fail to pay the salaries of their players. I came to know about clubs in the ‘stan region where players are made to sign contracts under duress.

Football has changed. It has changed too much, too quickly. Money has become the driving factor and that has taken away the simple pleasures of the sport.

Nowadays, everyone wants to make money. Nothing wrong in it. The football economy should grow every year but it shouldn’t take away the sheer joy of a sensational first touch. Players should earn more money. Nothing wrong in it. But their agents shouldn’t hold their clubs to ransom. Big money transfers should happen. Nothing wrong in it. But that shouldn’t deter a fan from being a student of the game and get lost in the clamour.

I came to study football business because I wanted to know more. But after the last couple of months, I think ignorance was bliss for me.

I have started looking at the game differently. Now, a late substitution makes me smirk – more appearance fee, I think. Every Anthony Martial goal means more bonus money for Monaco and every Alexis step-over is one more zero added at the end of his contract.

The more you know the bigger cynic you become.

Last night, Murtaza fulfilled his biggest dream. He also washed away my cynicism. His warm hug to Messi reminded me why I started watching the game and Messi’s candid behaviour re-ignited the magic of being an illogical fan that I really am. A fan who can’t do anything but worship his heroes. A fan who can’t do anything but support his ‘loser’ team. A fan who can’t do anything but dream.

And boy, dreams do come true.