Football continues to throb with vigour in the sinewy by-lanes of the slums of Viveknagar, Austin Town and Ejipura
We hated them because we secretly admired them. Admiration for the opponent, we were told, clouds judgement. Emotions such as ‘awe’ have no room in a high-intensity contact sport.
We re-wired our heads to hate them as much as we could in the hope that it would translate into an extra goal. But when we tried to sleep the night before a game, we would admit to ourselves that the thoughts keeping us awake were admiration laced with fear.
For, in the morning when we went up against a team from Viveknagar, Austin Town or Ejipura, we stood to lose more than just a game. We were faced with the prospect of coming back home carrying one malfunctioning limb… maybe two!
Those were the early 1990s. The economy was growing at the same pace at which professional footballers were losing jobs. Public sector companies were treading the path of ‘reform’ and ‘financial discipline’. Entire teams got sacked overnight. Sprawling playgrounds were turning into residential layouts.
The popularity of the Indian cricket team grew with each game they lost. Cricket coaching camps were sprouting and little kids arrived at playgrounds in their daddies’ big cars. They carried kits the size of coffins, imported from London and assembled in Jalandar. Kapil Dev was tripping over Palmolive Shaving Cream and Sachin Tendulkar was high on Boost. English willow was replacing that from Kashmir.
Oblivious to the change in times, football continued to throb with vigour in the sinewy by-lanes of the slums of Bangalore — 560047.
Was that an amplified heartbeat or the sound of boot meeting ball?
Euro 2012 is here and I set off to Nandan football ground in Austin Town in search of that throbbing sound.
The ground now shows up as an exhibition venue on Google Maps. Instead of football-studs hammering down on the pitch, the resident sound is of metal clawing into earth. Thankfully, a local politician is giving the playground a facelift.
The scene has shifted to small uneven surfaces in the neighbourhood where the game is being fought under the leering gaze of lean buildings. “Take a left from the Palli, straight past the big Ambedkar statue and turn left at the statue of Mary,” says an elderly woman when I ask for the former captain of the LRDE team Darryl D’Rozario. I lose my way. A phone call helps me find the man whose fame has entered more homes than mobile networks have in this forgotten underbelly of Bangalore.
Darryl has quit active football following an injury. He takes me to meet with the boys who are thundering past the post.
“People like Darryl and Mary Miss have been role models for generations of kids,” says 38-year-old Mukram Ali Khan , himself an accomplished player who represented the Karnataka State Reserve Police teams. Evidently, football has played a role in kick-starting his career in politics. He is the district secretary of the Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee’s Labour Cell.
But who is Mary Miss? The boys, who have gathered around, let out a mocking grumble. “Anybody who has played any football in the area knows Mary Miss. She has taught everybody their first lessons in the game,” announces Santosh Kumar who, at 34, has played for ITI, HAL and the postal department. A Sports Authority of India certified coach, Ms. Mary is away on an assignment.
“I just want to play football,” says 14-year-old S. Kiran who is enthusiastically introduced as the boy who just returned from Nepal after representing the country. The boy reminds me of a teenaged Sachin Tendulkar, who recently entered parliament. No such luck for Mukram.
Kiran’s dream turning into reality is the result of a community effort. The boys try to list out all those people who contributed money, equipment and advice. “I couldn’t have done it without their support,” admits Kiran who is the youngest of three boys in his family. His father is an autorickshaw driver.
His brother Suji Kumar (21) plays for a team in Pune and makes Rs. 20,000 a month with all incidental expenses paid for. “Everybody here wants to be like him,” says C. Sathyanathan a.k.a. ‘John’.
There are others who have done better than Darryl and Suji. Some are earning as much as Rs. 20 lakh annually. Almost all of them have left the slums. “They have not forgotten where they came from,” says C. Anbalagam, local patron of the sport and a Dalit activist.
The boys maintain a respectful silence as Mr. Anbalagam speaks. When he finishes, they introduce him as the man who sponsors tea, buns and bananas at the end of each early-morning game. “I have limited resources. I am a small man,” says a flushing Mr. Anbalagam.
“It is people like him who have kept the game alive…people like him and Nagaraj,” asserts Mukram. Nagaraj is a slight, balding man employed in the housekeeping department of a multinational tech-firm.
Around five years ago, football had almost died here. The boys turned men. Some became sports teachers in schools, others became waiters and cooks. The lucky ones, particularly the Christian boys, got jobs in call centres. The ground became a late-night haunt for pimps and drunkards.
“But Nagaraj started encouraging the next generation of boys. He would go door-to-door in the Sonenahalli slum and drag the boys out,” John points out. “They are no longer lazy… see?” laughs Ramesh (24) as a group of boys race to fetch the ball he kicks into the distance.
The ball appears headed toward the future. But my mind goes spiralling back to the past.
I see lithe bodies darting after a dusty ball; their skin is as black as their shiny, locally-made NIVIA boots. Their game is as colourful as their bright stockings; their heart as large as the Nandan stadium. I see them shifting impatiently in a single file, waiting for their turn to squeeze an 8.65 inch ball into a 7-inch gap… Goal, goal, goal!!!