GAME PLAN: Falling off-side of the law

Jaideep Ghosh

File photo of footballer Lionel Messi. Photo: AP/PTI

File photo of footballer Lionel Messi.
Photo: AP/PTI

Wednesday wasn’t quite a happy day for the world of sports, if you were in the Southern Hemisphere.

It’s not nice to read or hear that one of the superstars of world football, Lionel Messi, was in tax trouble and had actually been sentenced to 21 months in prison, albeit a suspended sentence.

Then came the news of Oscar Pistorius, South African ‘blade runner’ double-amputee Olympian, who was sentenced to six years in prison for the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in 2013.

Not a happy Sports page, then, if you are from Argentina or South Africa. It isn’t ever nice to see athletes, who are stars, supposedly role models, get into a situation that isn’t great.

Unfortunately, sporting qualifications do not necessarily translate into moral high ground, or even being on the right side of the law.

In fact, some sports seem to thrive on the slightly anti-social image. Especially football in Europe.

There have been many instances of footballers tripping over the fine line between what is legal or not.

The Italians had their fair share, not least Paolo Rossi, who was released from jail to go and play for the national team and lift the 1982 World Cup.

Then there was the enigmatic Salavatore ‘Toto’ Schillaci, who was a sensation for Italy in the 1990 edition, scoring six goals. The Palermo man was supposedly “connected”, which is quite something when you come from Sicily.

File photo of Argentinian footballer Diego Maradona. Photo: AP/PTI

File photo of Argentinian footballer Diego Maradona.
Photo: AP/PTI

Argentina’s undisputed superstar Diego Maradona would not be such a great name, had he not been to jail, at least in concept.

Maradona took a shot at a journalist with an air pellet gun in 1998 and was sentenced to two years behind bars. Suspended, of course.

Britain seems to thrive on such stars too. George Best was in the headlines for all the good reasons, as well as the bad ones.

There are other names which would even surprise you a little. Bobby Moore, Tony Adams, Eric Cantona, Jan Molby, Ian Wright. Quite a few, if you ask me.

Even the current day footballers aren’t quite out of the frame. Jamie Vardy, the current British Premier League star with Leicester City was quite the bad boy before he got his act together.

Seems like the hero quotient of slightly ‘bad’ boys actually goes up.

But if you thought this was bad, you should take a look of athletes in the United State of America.

Anyone even remotely interested in sports would remember the death dive of erstwhile megastar O.J. Simpson. But that list doesn’t even begin to be completed without some names being listed.

American football takes the cake. On the gridiron list are names like Aaron Hernandez of the New England Patriots, sentenced to life without parole for first-degree murder!

Then we have Darryl Henley (Los Angeles Rams), in jail for 42 years for drug trafficking and attempted murder.

The names of athletes who are serving or have served sentences of up to 30 years is disconcertingly long.

File photo of former Indian cricketer Mohammad Azharuddin. Photo: PTI

File photo of former Indian cricketer Mohammad Azharuddin.
Photo: PTI

So it seems that it doesn’t necessarily have to be that the fame and money that come from sports is enough. Many are lured by the risk of being at the fringes of the law, a gamble taken for the thrill.

But as the American list shows, it can be more than just the thrill. Sometimes, you just don’t know when to stop. By the time you do, or are forced to stop, it is too late.

Another classic American case is that of Marion Jones, and track superstar whose career and life imploded after she failed dope tests, eventually culminating in prison.

Indian sportspersons, mercifully, are by and large above the ‘criminal’ tag.

Cricket has seen a few being banned for match fixing and/or betting, but most of them have utilised this platform to get to better places, especially in politics.

The only ones whose lives were affected were small fry. As with most things in life, the rich, famous or connected can get away with match-fixing at least.

Otherwise, mercifully they have by and large stayed on the right side of the law.

A photo of Paan Singh Tomar

A photo of Paan Singh Tomar

The only real saga is that of Paan Singh Tomar, who went from being a soldier to an athlete to an outlaw. Quite the Wild West story that, with a rather sombre end.

All said and done, seeing athletes who basically have everything in life, suddenly getting snared with the criminal world is a little depressing and definitely surprising.

Pistorius was caught in the moment, one would assume. But surely Messi can afford people who can look after his finances. Maybe he put too much trust in his near and dear ones, who succumbed to avarice.

Any which way, it wasn’t great to see Messi struggle. He is losing focus on the football field and reputation off it as well. One only hopes he can conquer his demons and return to delight us all for many years to come.