Peeping Shankar | Scoring an impossible goal for India

Mission 2022 is an ambitious plan to put together a football team that will win India the FIFA World Cup. Is this a pipe dream or within the realm of the possible? Our super sleuth finds out

As we all know, on any given day, the Prime Minister’s Office receives hundreds of proposals and suggestions from well-meaning citizens. Most of these are consigned to the trash can and end up with environment assessment reports, human rights violation petitions and other anti-national documents in the garbage dumps outside Delhi. But a lucky few survive the onslaught of the sorting clerk and are forwarded to various ministries and departments for follow up action. Last week, the IB received an elegantly produced, 25-page presentation titled “Mission 2022”. It came with a note which had an oversized question mark covering the entire page with the initials of a senior official in the PMO scrawled below it. The implied message was that we must investigate and give our feedback.

The boss had an amused look when he handed me the envelope marked secret. “This here is your assignment for the week,” he said, “I thought it might interest you since you are the sporting kind. For your information, Mission 2022 is all about football and how India can lift the FIFA World Cup at Qatar. So off you go, and don’t tell me it’s a mission impossible because I already know that,” he said with a sardonic smile.

In top priority cases like this one, there is a standard operating procedure that we follow. For a start, we check the antecedents of the person/organisation sending the proposal. Should we see any connection with the A Team (read Ambani, Adani), we tread with caution and are guarded in our criticism. Ditto if the authors have Nagpur links, or if there is some other G (Gujarat) Force behind them.

Luckily for me, Fast Foot India (FFI), a nascent, non-profit organisation based in football-crazy Malappuram district of North Kerala, which had submitted the Mission 2022 plan had no VVIP connections. True, its chairperson, Maradona Pele (formerly Madhavan Pillai), had attended 10 yoga camps of Baba Ramdev and even clicked a selfie with the self-proclaimed guru. But that didn’t amount to much by way of influence in South Block. Neither did his sharing his birthday (September 17) with Narendra Modi, MF Hussain and Pope Paul V (who famously persecuted Galileo) give him any special privileges. Consequently, I concluded that it was safe to assume that I could assess the proposal in peace without fearing any ‘influence-za’ attack.

So, what was this Mission 2022 all about? In a nutshell, it was a zany plan to put together a national football team that not only qualifies for Qatar — the host nation for the next World Cup — but would pull off a surprise by reaching the finals and winning it. The FFI claimed it had envisaged a special training package which involved “yoga, meditation and cutting-edge robot-vedics (an undiscovered, ancient Indian school of advanced machine learning)” to deliver a team that will do India proud.

A special device implanted in the frontal lobe of the brain will send commands to the muscles to act. This contraption, in turn, will be provided inputs via a wireless link by former football players stationed at vantage points in the stadium where a game is being played. Our research shows that when off-the-field, these ex-champs can plot manoeuvres which they wouldn’t have executed in their time

I flipped through the proposal and read about the various yogic postures that would provide the players with added muscular strength, stamina and extra flexibility. Apparently, the FFI has in its employ a young instructor from England who has developed the art of “ball yoga” where asanas are performed on a spherical surface with a “truncated icosahedron” pattern in saffron, white and green - much like a soccer ball. The exclusively developed postures supposedly can help transform the body into a “football playing machine which can outdo even champions”. Added to that would be a special meditation programme which will give mental strength and inculcate the killer instinct in each member of the team.

The yoga and meditation bit sounded interesting. But why on earth would the FFI require a budget of Rs 40,000 crore for its project? It certainly sounded preposterous when you reckon that the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) only spent Rs 447.39 crore on Mangalyaan, its Mars mission! I decided I must meet Mr Maradona Pele to ascertain how he intended to spend Rs 40,000 crore of taxpayer money? Or had there been a clerical error, as it happens with government data, resulting in a few extra zeroes being added to the costing?

Marvels of ancient medicine
When I finally managed to get through to the chairman of the FFI, he was thrilled to hear from someone in Delhi. Yes, he would love to meet me. He said he was currently in Bangalore and if it was convenient, we could meet there. I fixed a luncheon appointment at Koshy’s on St Mark’s Road. ‘I will be in the AC section,” Mr Pele said as he hung up.

The flight to Bangalore was bumpy but my spirits warmed up as I sipped beer at my favourite watering hole in the city. Mr Pele turned up late and cursed the traffic for it. He was not the athletic type I had expected. On the contrary, there stood before me a short, plump, pot-bellied man in his mid-30s who had stuffed himself into a business suit. “Mr Shankar,” he said gasping for breath, “I am so glad you could make it.”

When he had settled down I got straight to the point. “Mr Pele, your proposal was interesting. But how do you explain the Rs 40,000 crore?”

“I knew you would ask me that. The Mission 2022 document deliberately kept out a few things in national interest. Our programme goes much beyond yoga and meditation. It involves complex surgery and muscle implants and a host of other things,” he said with pride.

“You mean replacement of muscles and all that!” I was incredulous.

“Well, the thing we have in mind is alien to modern medicine. But, let me tell you, it is in the realm of the possible and is based on proven surgical methods. In fact, the idea of the project came up after a doctor friend of mine stumbled upon the missing chapters of the Sushruta Samhita, the ancient Sanskrit text on medicine and surgery, while exploring a cave in the Wayanad Hills. The manuscript he discovered detailed the procedure to be followed during muscle implants and when limbs are replaced with artificial systems which function on impulses received from the brain. These replaced limbs can pack in much more power and manoeuvrability than any human muscle can. So, we thought of employing the knowledge to put together a perfect football team with superior physical power and skills which can be world-beaters.”

“What you are suggesting is a playing eleven which will for all practical purposes be robots,” I found this increasingly intriguing.

“You could say they will be humans with robots within their bodies doing the kicking, heading, shoving and pushing for them like those great soccer players,” Mr Pele explained. “Interestingly, the entire surgery has been tried and tested in ancient India and created superheroes then. I see no reason why it should not work now.”

“But how will these robotic limbs be controlled?” I wondered.

“They will be programmed to obey instructions. A special device implanted in the frontal lobe of the brain will send commands to the muscles to act. This contraption, in turn, will be provided inputs via a wireless link by former football players stationed at vantage points in the stadium where a game is being played. Our research shows that when off-the-field, these ex-champs can plot manoeuvres which they wouldn’t have executed in their time. You know, just like those experts in TV studios, who can come up with winning strategies at the drop of a hat. Well, we’ll have our own team of experts guiding the players, or, to be more precise, their limbs.”

And there’s a Plan B
That bit sounded straight out of Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke but was not entirely illogical. However, there were still several unanswered questions. For example, would players of the national team allow themselves to be subjected to such intense replacement surgery? To this Mr Pele responded in a hushed tone that the team for 2022 would have no players from the Indian squad. “Our players will be robust young men who know the game but have never played in any tournament — national or international. We have already shortlisted 18 for the squad from across the country.”

And the funding? Isn’t it humongous? I slipped that query in while dessert (hot chocolate fudge) was being served. “I know Rs 40,000 crore is a lot of money, but national glory comes at a price,” Mr Pele said, without mincing his words. “I also know there will be several people in the media who will question the wisdom of such a mind-boggling sum being busted on winning the World Cup. In fact, these critics will compute the number of hospitals, schools, roads and bridges that can be built with that kind of money. One shouldn’t waste time explaining things to them. They will never understand how India’s pride will soar to new heights when our team lifts the World Cup.”

Here Mr Pele paused for effect, perhaps savouring that proud moment in the future, and then continued. “Mr Shankar, also tell your people in Delhi that the entire amount will not be spent. Training the team and the surgeries will cost no more than Rs 15,000 crore. The rest of the money will be kept aside for Plan B should our original plan happen to fail. Of course, if unused, this amount, Rs 25,000 crore, will be duly returned.”

I made a mental note of that. But the alternative plan aroused my curiosity and I asked Mr Pele to explain.

“Well,” he said, lowering his voice, “in the unforeseen event of the team playing below par on a given day because of some technical glitch, we thought of Plan B. It involves fixing the match. On making enquiries from the Dubai underworld, we learnt that this operation would require a huge sum of money because we were told that it’s not as easy to persuade footballers to throw away a game as it is with cricketers. So, we decided we need to keep cash in reserve. But I don’t think we will ever need to use it,” he added without much conviction.

I politely nodded and called for the bill.

Outside it had begun to drizzle. As we shook hands, Mr Pele had this parting plea: “Mr Shankar, please do put in a kind word. And yes, see if you can get us upgraded as an NGO of Eminent Status like the Jio Institute. It would be a great favour.”

I promised to help even as I went over all that he had told me over lunch. Football fever certainly does strange things to people.

(As imagined by Ajith Pillai)

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