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Echoes:Give the devil his due

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To be a winner, one must hate losing, but not be a bad loser.

Reaport by Conway Tutani

Scenario: White Hart Lane, North London, English Premiership football league match, September 2001, half-time score: Tottenham Hotspur 3, Manchester United 0.

But it’s not over until it’s over. Final score: Tottenham Hotspur 3, Manchester United 5. Yes, the Red Devils stormed back in the second half, hitting Spurs for five! Being an avid Spurs supporter myself, I could not have been more shocked and disappointed.

I have cited this match from nearly 12 years ago to disabuse some people of the notion that last week I wrote in praise of Sir Alex “Fergie” Ferguson merely because I am a supporter of Manchester United Football Club. As a matter of fact, I don’t support the team. This was purely in admiration of a remarkable character. Fergie happened to have been at Man U, but could have been at any other club — Arsenal, Chelsea, my own Spurs, etc — and, I believe, he could still have excelled. Maybe, not as much as at Man U, but he would have still distinguished himself.

I wanted to illustrate that Fergie was always guided by fairness and openness. This season he often dropped or substituted his star player Wayne Rooney for purely footballing reasons. Asked about the issue, Fergie replied: “He wasn’t happy about being taken off a few times this season, but a Wayne Rooney in top form wouldn’t be taken off.” Now, that’s honest-to-goodness candour. He means what he says and he says what he means.

OK, he isn’t exactly endowed with much humility, but he has lots of humanity. It can be a disadvantage to be too humble, to be self-effacing especially if you are the face of the club, in the high-pressure cooker competitive world of sport where mind games are the name of the game. On the local scene, Dynamos coach Kalisto Pasuwa and his Highlanders counterpart Kevin Kaindu are too modest for coaches of such avidly followed clubs; they need to have more gravitas, more oomph. But I think Fergie struck a balance to avoid the appearance of boorishness and brusqueness.

Fergie is not like some managers who come across as weepy and weak, who become sad and sympathetic figures — like when Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger nearly lost it when his team was on a losing streak last season and earlier this season, venting his anger and frustration on match officials and even harmless plastic water bottles. To his credit, Wenger has regained his composure and the results are there for all to see.

The Man U project was near and dear to Fergie. There is no doubt about it. It was as much personal as it was professional. That’s why he built the club to such heights. This cannot elude anyone with an open mind who looks at facts as they are and is detail-oriented. It’s not that he has blurred the line between humanity and divinity; far from it. He has had severe setbacks, making him fallible like all of us. But there is a first for everything, isn’t there? Fergie happened to have many firsts, like he has been the only one to reach the milestone of winning 13 English Premiership titles. It’s not easy to stay on top for so many years.

Whereas some coaches are strange birds, who keep to themselves with few or no friends outside the game, Fergie has been both an ultimate insider and activist outsider. He is a football coach with a passion for politics — and his wears his politics on his sleeve because he has the courage of his conviction.

Of course, sport, like politics, is an emotive issue. People will ignore the obvious positives to vent their feelings and push for their preferences against all evidence and sense. Remember just days ago United States basketball star Lebron James didn’t get the widely expected unanimous vote for player of the year garnering 120 out of 121 first-place votes just because one sports reporter who happened to be blinded by his support for his home town team couldn’t bring himself to do the right and fair thing — acknowledging a better opponent in a sporting gesture. Locally, the Soccer Star of the Year award has been reduced to a circus by journalists whose bias blinds them to deserving players who happen to feature for teams they don’t support.

When their teams fail, some people act out their anger on rival teams and fans, lumping them, for instance, with a hated political party or ruling class. That is why you see repressed feelings and other demons boiling over in stadiums. In this country, this has assumed an ugly ethnic dimension. But negativity never won any championship — ask Fergie.

I have never been a Manchester United supporter, but I will sing their praises when it’s befitting. It’s called sportsmanship; fairness, respect for one’s opponent, and graciousness in both winning and losing .

We must not be seized by fear of disagreement, or fear of breaking ranks. What’s good is good. If you see no positives in your opponents or in others, then you have absolutely no business in football in particular, sport at large and life in general. There is what is called sportsmanship, which is expected among players, fans and the media. If this magnanimity was extended to politics, the losers would have made way for the winners in 2008, and — who knows — those losers would have had a winning chance this time around in the cycle of life. But, no, they are bad losers!

All said and done, give the devil his due — even the Red Devils’ former coach. If it upsets some people, well, that’s life. No apologies at all.

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