SAF

by Ashish

The parable of Sisyphus holds great fascination for me. Every time I read it, or think of it, I am also reminded of a cartoon that was my desktop wallpaper for many years in the previous decade. It showed a rather befuddled mountaineer who had finally scaled Mount Everest, only to be greeted with a a board stuck rudely in the snow: "Congratulations. You've reached the top of the world. So what?"

Escapism, angst, rebellion. Call it what you will, I quite liked the cartoon. From the high of having accomplished whatever it was that you had set our heart upon, it seemed to say, there is only one way: down. And then (assuming you made it to the top in the first place), if you so felt like it, you could start upon the long, arduous journey to the top. Again.

Which is why the manager of the football team I had chosen to follow, Sir Alex Fergusson, was such a puzzling entity.

I had begun to follow them with somewhat lukewarm interest after reading of their improbable victory in the 1999 Champions League Final. Any team that could pull that off was probably worth following, or so my line of thought went. The other sports I followed then were cricket (where we couldn't win anything) and tennis (where Sampras seemed to be in terminal decline, and Graf was on the verge of retirement) – so the fact that Manchester United seemed to be winning everything, all the time, also helped.

The English Premier League had just about begun to be shown in India, which only helped kindle my nascent interest in watching Manchester United. They completed the first of their two league hat-tricks in the years that I started really following them, and that certainly helped cement my devotion.

Sir Alex was puzzling for two reasons. Firstly, I couldn't for the life of me understand why he didn't retire after 1999. It was clear, even to a newbie such as I, that the feats of that year would likely never be repeated. And even if they were, they would likely only be repeated – not exceeded. So why not leave on a high, like Schmeichel had done?

And secondly, and even more puzzling, he first announced his retirement a couple of years after that historic treble-winning year, and then cancelled it. It made no sense. Here was a guy who had been in charge of one of the biggest football teams in the world, which had recently completed a historic treble, and he had been knighted in his country. He'd made his pot of gold, he had his family waiting for him at the end of a long and successful career, and he was certainly old enough to call it a day. So why go through the whole rigmarole again?

In terms of my befuddled mountaineer, it was like ripping the board out of the snow, tearing it into shreds, going back to base camp, and starting up all over again – voluntarily, and what's more, eagerly.

It made no sense.

And he continued for more than a decade since that annulled retirement. He won the Champions League once again, reached the finals twice. He won the league six times since, and other trophies besides. He built and rebuilt his team every year since, played a significant role in the development of Cristiano Ronaldo, and ensured that when he finally did retire, his team was at the top of the heap, with room to spare.

Lots of things changed in those years in terms of the other sports that I followed. India became the No.1 ranked Test team (for a while, anyhow), and what's more, they won the World Cup. Roger Federer ruled the world of tennis like no one has before or since. But for all that time, Manchester United continued doing what they were doing since and before 1999: winning.

And a lot of this winning was directly down to the efforts of that one man; Sir Alex Ferguson. And even now, when he's about to leave his beloved Manchester United, I couldn't for the life me figure out why he did it.

Year in, year out, why put yourself through the trials and tribulations of juggling a squad filled with as much ego as talent, of dealing with other managers, transfers, multiple tournaments, media commitments, and the lord alone knows what else – and all for what?

It took all these years to figure out that the summit wasn't the point; the climb was.

That grizzly old bear would probably bristle at the notion that winning wasn't the point, and as always, he'd be right. But the point with, and to me, the defining feature of Sir Alex Ferguson was that enjoying what he did was inexorably intertwined with winning at whatever he did – you couldn't separate the two in his case.

And we're lucky that he has built that ethos – of enjoyment and victory – into his team, his club.

And for that ethos, besides much else – thank you, Sir Alex.

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