With the FIFA World Cup set to begin, there is a burgeoning interest for the sport, particularly among the young lot in the city

In a cricket crazy nation, a bunch of youngsters sit in a café near the Beach Road intensely engrossed in a discussion of sports. It wouldn’t have been any surprise to guess the topic. But this time, it is not cricket. Counting the days for the football world cup to begin, the young football enthusiasts discuss animatedly about their favourite team and players.

While cricket dwarfs every other sports event on the sub-continent, the football fans of the city say that this year it is going to be different. “Of course I like cricket, but not more than football. And the football World Cup is a time when even the cricket freaks get transformed into football fans,” says Rohit Varma, an avid football follower.

The national obsession for cricket is hard to be overstated, but things are slowly changing. The global game of football is catching on and there is burgeoning interest, particularly among the young lot.

While Kerala and West Bengal has had a long romance with football, now even smaller cities like Vizag are seeing a renewed interest in the sport. There are a few football clubs in Vizag like El Matadors and Sea Shells where the members meet once every week to practice. “We play every Sunday and have a 43-member group on Facebook,” says Bhargav Bommali, who is the main goalkeeper of El Matadors. A fan of Spain’s captain Iker Casillas, Bhargav is eagerly waiting for the exciting action-packed days of the football world cup even as he gets into a heated discussion to defend his favourite team.

The battleground lines are drawn in the online world too. Facebook pages like Hardcore Football Fans that has over 60,000 fans and other groups like Football Gists are throbbing with intense discussions among football fans. “Most of the participants are from India and some are from the African nations. For each football match, a thread is opened and every moment of the match is discussed,” says K.N.K. Chaitanya, who is an ardent fan of Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo. Chaitanya has planned to watch the football world cup matches at home with his friends. But he rues about the lack of public joints in the city where football fans can converge, watch the matches live and share their passion for the sport. “There are lot of football enthusiasts in the city. But we still do not have any public places which screen football matches regularly,” Chaitanya adds.

M. Girish Chandra first became interested in football while playing for the local team. Since then, the passion has stuck. This week he is gearing up for the football season with a new hairstyle. “My hairstyle is a mix of David Beckham and Brazil’s Neymar,” says the young football fan. The odd hours of the matches haven’t deterred the spirits of the football enthusiasts. Like many others, Girish too is planning a night-out at his friend’s place to see the football world cup matches.

And then there are football fans who are right in the thick of the sport, taking control and even “owning” their own football teams. All this through the simulated games online! Says Prashanth Sai: “We have tournaments and group knock-outs where we play the game on the desktops. The thrill and excitement is as good as a live football game! We sometimes start playing from 5 a.m. and the matches go on till late in the night.”

The football fans have also downloaded the ESPN FC mobile app for regular updates of all the news from the football world cup and the schedule of the matches.

While the popularity for football has seen a marked increase in the past couple of years, Indian football fans are now eagerly waiting for the much-anticipated Indian Super League (ISL) to take off. A more robust franchise-based competition, based on the IPL cricket format, ISL has Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly as some of the high-profile winning bidders of Kochi and Kolkata team franchises.

“We hope that ISL creates a vibrant football culture in the country,” says Chaitanya and sums up: “Once that happens, football may perhaps be able to catch up to the feverish excitement levels of cricket in India.”