Musing again about nurture versus nature and India and soccer

Have you ever wondered why India don’t have a team at the World Cup finals? [Here I am being obdurate and pedantic and loving it…. there is only one Open. And there is only one World Cup. There is absolutely no need to have adjectives before those words. Tautology bordering on treason).

You would imagine that a country with a population in excess of a billion may just be able to scratch up a decent soccer team. If, like me, you were born and raised in Calcutta, you would understand it even less. Because Calcutta is a soccer-crazy city. I would suspect that the brand awareness of East Bengal, Mohun Bagan (the oldest soccer club in Asia, dating back to 1889) and Mohammedan Sporting are individually greater than that of Sony, Microsoft and Apple put together, across the state of West Bengal as a whole.

I was brought up to love sport. And to go watch it. We had no television in the house. In fact, when I left India in 1980, I’d only seen a TV programme three times. And I could remember each occasion vividly. At the USIS, when man landed on the moon in 1969. Watching “I Love Lucy”, one of the first programmes to be screened, and wondering what the fuss was about. And trying to watch a cricket match at a friend’s house some years later while the adults were busy having lunch and arguing about cars and petrol. That was it.

Back to soccer. As a child I’d been told that India had actually qualified for the World Cup Finals in 1950, only to be disqualified later for refusing to put boots on. And I’d filed it under my childhood equivalent of “urban myth”. But later on I found out the truth. One, India did qualify; but only because their  qualification opponents all withdrew. Two, India did not really get disqualified later; they withdrew because FIFA insisted that no player appear barefoot, and the Indian team weren’t having that. That sounds about as believable as the USA-England scoreline that year…. :-) Read all about it in Wikipedia here.
India is currently ranked 137th in the world, and have recently announced some sort of tie-up with Brazil, across a number of fronts, including soccer. Park that to one side for a while.
While studying the nurture-versus-nature debate, I came across The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, published recently. I have not done any more than skim it, I need time. But the elevator pitch appears to be, Nurture Wins. Motivation and Perseverance and Coaching and Training Wins. Every Time. But it takes as long as it takes, usually Ten Years. If you want to see a summary of the book, which resonates with a lot of other things I believe in, you could do worse than read the latest issue of New Scientist, which reviews it here, but all too briefly, the rest is behind a paywall.

So I thought to myself. India. World Cup Finals. Ten Years. Which means qualifying for the 2018 Finals. From 137th to Top 10 in a decade, because of Nurture.

You see, ever since I read Porter’s Comparative Advantage of Nations in 1990 (an aside, try linking to that book!), I’ve always believed I understood why, say, Pakistan produced excellent squash players, why Germany had no real golfers until Langer, why Sweden had no world-class tennis players until Borg. Availability and opportunity. The willingness and motivation may be there, but there needs to be much much more. Opportunity. Availability.

That’s why the web and social software excite me so much. Opportunity. Availability.

Let me know what you think

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