It was only after Muhammad Ali’s visit to Africa in 1964 that he became one of the most recognized faces on the planet. It was also the year he decided he didn’t want to be Cassius Clay anymore. While America was still hesitant to call him Ali, in Africa they were applauding him for giving up, what the boxer called, his “slave name”.
Even at the time of his death, there was a different tone of obituaries emerging from divergent geographies. Those of his country, the USA, were more balanced. These tributes also spoke of her serial adultery and double standards. They even ridiculed his quotes that black people were original humans and white people the product of a botched experiment by a rogue scientist. To the rest of the world, Ali has been largely blameless. He was “The Greatest” vanilla.
The unconditional love of foreign shores was not only for Ali, other superstars also enjoyed this benefit. This is an intriguing global phenomenon; a fascinating human trait that sport has the power to highlight with a neon marker.
To the world outside of Brazil, Pelé was the magical one-dimensional dribbler, the sparkling black diamond. At home, it was also considered a sold-out. They regretted that he couldn’t be the strong voice that speaks out and defends football. Bjorn Borg was the “cool guy archetype” for neutrals. In Sweden too they revered him, but he was also called a tax evader.
It’s not exactly contemptuous familiarity. These are local fans who are more aware of the careers of local stars. They understand their own better, grasp the nuances of their character, and are better equipped to denounce or judge them. They are also more invested and therefore inclined to be more objective.
Most outdoor megastar fans are usually fair weather enthusiasts. They can take the downs and the defeats much better than the home supporters, who as a tribe are known to be less forgiving. With sports tied to the pride of a country, the locals’ fandom is in layers.
The drama of the captaincy of Virat Kohli saw a similar reaction in the cricketing world. While India seemed to have seen it coming, fans elsewhere are in shock. Kohli’s modest ICC event record has been the subject of intense debate in India, a country obsessed with World Cups, for some time now. Perhaps after their initial outrage, even Kohli die-hards in India could rationalize the change and make peace with the change. But for non-Indian followers of Kohli, the drummer, it wouldn’t be easy.
Interestingly, Kohli has an army of followers in Pakistan. Minutes after he resigned as test skipper, neighbors couldn’t believe India could abandon a Kohli-type leader. Before Babar Azam sparked Naya Pakistan’s dream at the recent World T20, fans in green would see Kohli with wistful eyes. Only if they had someone like him. There was grudging respect among fanatical fans, as for others they openly praised him.
The day Kohli quit, Pakistani Whatsapp groups started sharing photos of him with Mohammad Rizwan and Babar Azam after the recent India-Pakistan match in the UAE. Greetings and respects started to be hashtags. Kohli’s fierce on-court rival and friend Mohammad Amir tweeted: “Brother to me you are a true leader of the rising generation in cricket because you are an inspiration to the youngsters. cricketers. keep rocking on and off the field.
For some time now former cricketers in Pakistan have been setting Kohli’s example for players who are far from fit. A while ago on a popular cricket show, Wasim Akram, Saqlain Mushtaq and Shoaib Akhtar had praised Kohli.
Saqlain, then England spin coach, had met Kohli during a recent tour of India. He would tell others about the extremely courteous Indian captain and his obsession with fitness. “Paaji paaji karta raha, he met me as if I was from his country. He was eating bhutta (maize), he said he hadn’t eaten paranthas for five years,” he says. The Punjabi-speaking panel shook their heads in disbelief. Akram would have the last word saying, “Usko success ka raaz pataa chal gaya hai.”
They seemed to like the fact that Kohli was playing their style of cricket. . Even for the man on the street in Pakistan, Kohli was a reminder of their golden days. Like Imran Khan, they saw the Indian captain as an aggressive captain who was never intimidated by the environment or the opposition.
Ironically, while in India, Imran’s perception of his playing days had not changed much; in Pakistan, the opinion on Khan saab had undergone a radical change. As I said before, the away supporters are always much more forgiving and the home supporters are much more invested.
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National Sports Editor