Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The American Project

The term ‘project’ has been thrown around with almost reckless abandon in world football. Whether by the subject matters themselves or by third parties, the instigators instantly attach a sense of long-term planning with a strong commitment to realise these visions.

When Rafa Benitez joined Napoli last year, he said, “I look forward to experiencing each and every one of the fans of Napoli and their strong support for this project that we will begin.”  Similarly, Zlatan Ibrahimovic used the same term to describe his joy at joining Paris Saint-Germain, while the word itself is not exclusive to those joining new teams. “The most exciting project in European football,” said Jurgen Klopp of his Borussia Dortmund team.

Whether those involved stick around long enough to see such ideas come to fruition is probably a different story. Having said that, I suppose people should be free to choose whatever terms they see fit, however appropriate it may be.

Nevertheless, I do believe that the term ‘project’ is incredibly appropriate for the United States football team taking part in the 2014 World Cup. The Americans, led by German coach Jurgen Klinsmann, have just survived the so-called Group of Death, having remained undefeated against continental heavyweights Portugal and Ghana.

For this edition of the World Cup, I had initially picked out Spain and Brazil as the potential winners. While the Spaniards have rendered my selection almost useless, the Brazilians are doing alright for now, with their superstar Neymar firing on all cylinders. The most intriguing team, though, is the Americans, and that is because of the number of players from other countries they’ve assimilated into the squad.

Assimilation to gain a sporting advantage on the international stage is not a new thing. The aforementioned Spanish team infamously included the Brazilian international Diego Costa, while both Portugal and Ghana have also taken advantage of such rulings, utilising the likes of Pepe and Kevin Prince Boateng.

However, what makes the American project intriguing for me is the systematic effort to bring anyone eligible and of the perceived sufficient quality. The appointment of Klinsmann was seen as emblematic of this, but then again, he has been living in America for over fifteen years.

His selection of players included a great number of those who would have qualified to play for other nations. Just a quick look at all their goalkeepers is indicative of this. Even though the likes of Nick Rimando, Brad Guzan and Tim Howard were all born and bred in the United States, could have played for the Philippines, Mexico, Poland or Hungary. Omar Gonzalez, one of the main defenders in front of any of the three goalkeepers, is even a Mexican citizen.

Those who did not come to the United States, Uncle Sam will go through them. Alejandro Bedoya, who started his professional career in Europe, had family members who were respect Colombian professionals.

Less surprising is the rich mining field that is Germany, with no less than five German-Americans peppering Klinsmann’s World Cup squad. They range from the likes of the young defender John Brooks, who was born and bred in Berlin, to Fabian Johnson, who spent his decade-long professional career playing for German clubs and the youth national teams before Klinsmann came calling.

Julian Green practically manipulated the system at will, with the Bayern Munich young star representing Germany in 2011 and the United States in 2012, before switching back to Germany the following year. A long and drawn out courtship by the Americans, though, was successful in persuading him to don the white of the US Men’s National Team.

Moving beyond the Germans, you also have the Scandinavians, with Mix Diskerud and Aron Johannsson pretty much Norwegian and Icelandic either by blood, birth and breed.

I raise all this because I often thought of the international form of any sport to be an extension of the country in question. It is a great example of how the imagined community, as hypothesised by Benedict Anderson, can be quantified.

Witness any sporting event in which the audience has a major stake in the proceedings; closer to home, the exploits of the Malaysian national badminton players is a key example of this. People from all sorts of backgrounds would be gathered around television screens up and down the country, hoping not only for the success that would pave the way for a national holiday to follow, but also to bask in the glory. Not that many things unify people peacefully in the way sports does, and the rules and regulations have ensured that such expressions of nationalism, though aggressive at times, is enhanced in a respectful enough manner.

How does this work, then, when almost half of those representing you on the big stage could have represented someone else? How do you feel if even a quarter of those were actually born and bred on lands far from where you are? United though we may be by strong universal bonds and values, international sports is largely based on narrative-based conflicts, the foundation of which is the identification of familiar, if not identical values with those wearing the shirt of your team.

Some have argued that the very assimilation of these players from all over the world is a very American thing to begin with. The United States have long held itself as a bastion of fusionality, and that these players is a strong testament to that very American spirit. Others suggested that the currency gained in skill and experience (in players battled-hardened by more established football breeding grounds) is not worth the loss of passion and pride in the representation of the country. That is as essential as any ingredient in international football.

I don’t proclaim to know an answer to all this, or that any view is to be considered as truer than the other. Perhaps there is no true, conclusive answer to this. Understanding, though, the key role played by sports (and especially football, given its global appeal) in the fostering of relations both imagined or otherwise, the American project remains an intriguing one to follow.

At the very least, it promises to live up to the term 'project'.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Confessions of a Cat Killer (part 1)

I was driving past Ampang Point, along the Middle Ring Road 2 (MRR2) as I saw it. I was in the fast lane, though admittedly I wasn’t driving all that fast. A small flurry of furry activity darted out before changing its mind just as quickly.

It was a Friday rush hour, in theory the end of a long working day. There was plenty of traffic all around, rendering fast movement of any sorts almost impossible, but that’s not to say that movement of any kind is obsolete. We are not quite in Jakarta, ladies and gentlemen, where the term gridlock is very much defined by the second part of that word.

Once, I was stuck in the worst traffic jam possible in Jakarta, where three hours bought only about three kilometres worth of progress. Coming back to Malaysia, I was almost immediately stuck on the Lebuhraya Damansara-Puchong for an hour, and I was glad it was only sixty minutes of my life.

As such, the traffic was moving enough, if not quickly enough. A good thing too, for it allowed me more time to instinctively swerve slightly, nearly banging into the vehicle in the middle lane. I wondered what it was as I drove past, and quickly realised it was a small kitten; even from my car, during that one second I could see its eyes widened in fear.

I moved on and along the highway. Though I cleared the worst part of the traffic, I couldn’t get the kitten out of my head. Its ginger fur, coated lightly in dirt, belied the sense of absolute fear, clear and resolute, in its eyes. It must have been there for a while, trying to chance it across the highway without truly find the pockets through traffic at that time.

I thought about helping it. What could I do, though? To make a u-turn, go back and get it? To inform someone about it? What do I do with the kitten after that? It's likely that a catch-and-release operation somewhere nearby would land it in a similar predicament in the near future. That part of that town is forever teeming with cars, whatever point of the day it is.

I could take it home, of course, and care for it. However, the way I live my life makes it practically impossible at that moment in time. My house or apartment, for the most part, is usually a roof over my head, a place to store my stuff and my self at the end of the day. I don't even take my stuff out of the boxes anymore, forever anticipating a moment when I would be moving once again. There is no way I am capable of caring for another living being in the same limited space.

I neared an exit of the highway, the exit I was supposed to take. This is it, I thought to myself. What will you do?

I flicked the indicator, and made the u-turn. As I gently glided underneath the flyover to the other side of the highway, I realise that knowing what I was going to do is not exactly the same as knowing how to do it. However, this is a situation in which time is a luxury at a higher premium than usual, and I dove head-first into the situation all the same, trusting that time will shed more light.

Even if it’s a mere few seconds more.

I parked near the Hindu temple just before the Petronas at the corner near the International School Kuala Lumpur exit. Though my car was fairly safe, I had second doubts about my own safety; the traffic from the other way may have been slow, but this side of the tracks is a little too smooth for comfort, with cars whizzing by at a fairly regular rate.

I spent a few minutes by the road side, still thinking whether I should back out. Again, the questions come back: what am I going to do when I get to the middle?

Let's cross the bridge when we get there, which was tricky enough as it were. I eventually spotted a large enough gap, and stepped quickly across, taking ginger steps. I held my hand up to indicate to an oncoming vehicle, hoping that he would slow down. The driver did. I got to the middle, my shirt by now stuck to my body with sweat. The dust in the air is not all that desirable, either, and I wiped some of the dirt from my face, using the edges of my long sleeve.

I peeked over; the kitten is there, still looking for that gap. It darted out, then back again, deftly avoiding an oncoming lorry.

By now, I realise a huge flaw in the plan. I can’t assume my presence to have been a welcome one, a completely big factor to miss. I inched closer, hoping to not surprise him.

That was the biggest mistake. The kitten took one look at me, and for a few long moments that felt like an eternity, our gazes locked on each other.

Now or never.

I made a move for him, trying to grab him as quickly as I can. However, it wasn’t quick enough. He darted out again, a one tonne lorry came, and…

Well, you can imagine what happened next.

I picked up his body (flattened, but not splattered), still writhing with the last gasps of his life, and crossed the road. It was, after all, his last apparent wish, and I felt so incredibly bad enough as it is. He was so small, the whole body just about filling the palms of both my hands.

I laid him on the grass, and looked at him. I patted him on his head, said my prayers for his soul, and cross the highway once again.

I got into my car, and shut my eyes for a moment. I felt shaken by the experience, and eventually called my sister just to purge my soul of the sin I felt I had caused.

Until today, I think about that cat almost everyday, a badge of guilt I wear on my shoulder to remind me of my imperfection.

There are moments in our life when we feel as if we called to do something. Whether we like it or not, there is a certain force that draws us to do something, and our action (or its lack) is a reflection of the kind of people we are (or wish to be).

Whatever we wish to be, first we must do or do not. Whatever happens after that, we'll just have to live with it.

Monday, June 16, 2014

What We Can Learn

Recently, I had the pleasure of witnessing two presidential debates in Indonesia. With the main elections coming up in July, both candidates, Prabowo Subianto and Joko Widodo (popularly known as Jokowi), have been slugging it out on and off the screens of Metro TV and tvOne.

The debates, then, offered them a chance to truly go toe to toe with one another. Though I have to admit to a lack of understanding and knowledge when it comes to Indonesian national politics, they have made for an interesting viewing all the same.

A lot of it mirrors the American political system, which is of no great surprise. The influence of American politics and culture in Indonesia cannot be underestimated, and I remember watching intently when the American candidates squared off against one another, especially in the last few elections; I am one who was intrigued by the election and subsequent reelection of Barack Obama as the supposed leader of the free world.

On the surface, at least, Jokowi seems some way ahead of Prabowo. The first debate involved their nominated deputies. Prabowo have teamed up with Hatta Rajasa, a man with a strong economics background, while Jusuf Kalla, who I remember largely as a man who sticks his nose into Malaysian politics every once in a while, is the chosen wingman for Jokowi.

It helps that for the most part, both Jokowi and Jusuf Kalla appear to be on the same wavelength. There were moments where the no. 2 candidate (Jokowi was ranked second behind the initial round of elections last month, while Prabowo was placed first) seemed content to let Jusuf Kalla step into the spotlight. Prabowo, on the other hand, was reluctant to relinquish it; at this level, that lack of cooperation between the presidential candidate and deputy can indicate something bigger.

Prabowo’s choice to wear what appears to be party shirts also seemed somewhat domestic, with Jokowi and Jusuf Kalla, in their dark suits and red ties, projecting a more stately appearance. It’s an interesting observation for me, and I wonder whether that is a deliberate strategy, given that one of the major disadvantages pointed out for Jokowi is his lack of national administrative experience and international panache. Many consider them to be prerequisites for someone who wishes to lead a country that straddles the edges of continents. The subsequent debate this past Sunday, with only the two of the presidential candidates of them flying solo, did little to truly change my train of thought.

I am sure more informed analysis can be found elsewhere. The main thing that kept popping into my head, however, was how this would have worked in Malaysia. Unlike Indonesia, Malaysia have largely kept in place the system and influences of British politics, and all the pros and cons that goes with it. However, the culture of constructive debating is still something that is not as prevalent within Malaysian society itself, let alone on its political stage.

It is unfortunate, for a strong debating skill is almost a requirement for those who wish to enter the highest levels of politics in the United Kingdom. Witness how the prime minister, David Cameron, can be incredibly combative in heated parliamentary arguments. I wonder this can be linked to our tendency to view this as something that lacks a strong traditional value i.e. it is not in our culture to be as confrontative as is required in the contexts of such debates.

Many Malaysians I come across prefer to whisper across their words of discontent amongst their own chosen kind, before shutting up their mouths and opinions when the spotlight is swung in their direction. There are many different factors for this, but I believe it comes down to an innate fear of being wrong. Perhaps more to the point, the institutionalisation of the fear of being ostracised is the drive behind this brand of omerta.

Of course, that is not to say that acts of debating do not really take place. I remember a number formal debates taking place between politicians and activists across the spectrum a number of years ago. However, they occurred largely outside the context of an immediate election, and so affected little for actual change to take place. Hence, the efforts of the likes of Khairy Jamaluddin, Ambiga Sreenevasan, Lim Guan Eng and others amounted to little more than public dick swinging contests to see who can gain the biggest cheers from those in attendance (metaphorically speaking, of course).

Many universities and colleges (and a number of schools) have also tried to educt a debate mentality through certain clubs and activities. It would also be useful to spend some time at a mamak; sooner or later, one of groups of people filling the tables nearby will be loud enough for you to detect the basic underpinnings of a debate. However, in such contexts, it is usually those who shout the loudest who will win.

Unfortunately, that is the conclusion I keep coming back to. During the first debate, the moderator actually made the effort to shut the audience up, informing them that they can only applaud on his cue, after the candidates have been given a fair enough chance to put their own views across.

All this was impressive in a constructive manner, and it is this lack of ability to truly engage in relevant discourses in a mature enough fashion, coupled with the lack of willingness to be confronted with even the slightest of possibilities of being wrong, that makes me feel, on this level, we have plenty of learning to do from our brothers and sisters across the straits of Malacca.

I hope you can prove me wrong, though.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

This Life Came So Close To Never Happening

In thinking of what if, sometimes we neglect what is.

It is not uncommon to look back on the traces of life, the moments that stood out amongst the mediocrity of day to day mundanity. Try as we might, large parts of our years are non-existent in our memories, with only certain events serving as a representation for days, weeks, months and even years.

In that moment, recalling that sense of immediacy can be tricky. Our minds can play tricks with us, serving what we want instead of what we need.

Surely, though, none has gripped our thoughts as much as the thought of what if. The consideration of the alternative, at times, can drive us from the present into the realm that is the unknown paths we could have taken.

It remains an intriguing statement, a question and a sentence all rolled into one, the lack of definitive grammatical mark not diminishing its value as a catalyst for an answer. It cries for one, reaching into the void for the fulfillment of dreams.

At least, that’s what we’d like it to be. Many times, my attempts to do that were little more than expressions of the dissatisfaction of life. A road blocked encountered, and not easily manouverable, is always a spark for more of these questions.

A moment too soon, a step too early, and everything changes.

Yet the decisive what is is probably a poorer cousin of the above, one that is not at the forefront of many people’s thoughts to begin with. It is the reality one sought to escape from. Perhaps for some, a dream world that came to life, but, unsustained by the chains of practicality, it floats ever more into the distance, a little blimp on the horizon representing all that we know in a single dot.

Our life, our memories, our stories, are little more than just dots on horizons. Senses of happiness and joy, sometimes tempered, are often measured against that which did not happen.

We stand in front of mirrors, looking deep into the reflections that is us, and we question ourselves. Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? Perhaps more did I get here?

Everything is a decision, a moment that is shaped by previous choices made. Whether they're made by us or for us is probably a different story, but it does not diminish its importance. The destination is known: the finality and permanence of death. The journey? The journey...that is the key, the decisions we take.

This life, you and I, here, right now in this universe, is a life that is decided by a series of accidents and happenstances, incidents and decisions occurring and made to intertwine us ever more. We could have easily chosen to step aside, to take two step forwards or backwards, or to even stop...and never have met here. At all.

This life came so close to never happening.

For that, I am thankful.

*Title taken from 25th Hour, written by David Benioff.

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Galaxy: An Evening To Remember

He looked into her eyes, glistening with her tears as they were, agonising with the wish to comfort her while knowing how he caused her tears to begin with.

Hers were of the darker variety; hazelnut, with a hint of vibrant brown in the middle, all the more so when she is laughing. Her lips and mouths would part, a wondrous sound emitted from within, a laughter well known to children everywhere.

None of those smiles and laughters was present then, though. She looked down, gazing at his fingers as she traced them with her own. He struggled within, longing to reach out to touch and comfort her. She fingered the small scar he bore from birth, a result of a biking accident in the country.

That, and nothing else that came after it, could compare with the scar grazed in his heart.

“Jo.” Hers was a name, short and sweet, and straight to the point. His delivery, though, was pained, and it was drawn out longer than the single syllable it was. Almost a whisper, a pained embrace of the fact that hers is a name that brought so much to his life.

She looked up. Her eyes were reddened with sadness, though they did little to showcase the whirlwind of emotions swirling in her heart. This was not the first time, but despite of the moment’s vividness, she could not hold back the tears again, her heart breaking as if for the first time.

For it felt like it. They had both fallen in love before, but not like this.

Not like this.

“Jayken.” His was a name that brought glory to her soul, a compass for her directionless life, all swayed at sea.

He shut his eyes, and felt a streak of warmth rolling down his chin. He reached for her hand, her fingers, the warmth of her touch. He gripped it, and he promised, with the shards of broken hearts on this evening to remember for all the wrong reasons, that he would never let go.

He opened his eyes, and looked out the transparisteel windows, the swirling of the galaxy a beauty to behold.

*Read Galaxy: The Fighter.
*Read Galaxy: Red Mist.
*Read Galaxy: Room With A View.
*Read Galaxy: Revelations.
*Read Galaxy: Masks.
*Read Galaxy: Goodbye Darling.
*Read Galaxy: Love Letter.
*Read Galaxy: The Last Stand.

*Read Galaxy: The Sixth Sense.
*Read Galaxy: Homecoming.
*Read Galaxy: Vs.
*Read Galaxy: The Journey.
*Read Galaxy: Tears of the Son.
*Read Galaxy: Across The Stars.
*Read Galaxy: The Prodigal's Return.