With its unwelcome environs in tow, Old Delhi appears to be an unpleasant host. Dilapidated settlements and chaos outline the area. Scant reminders of Old Delhi’s former glory exist, to the extent for one to suspect if it really qualified to be the Mughals’ capital once.
However, one needs to travel no further than 40 years in the past to relive the charm of the walled city. More open spaces existed then and numerous public grounds exalted Old Delhi’s allure.
Most of those playfields are nowhere to be seen now, consumed by the city’s development drive. Football in Old Delhi finds itself in a similar plight. Few play the sport with the gusto of yore there. Save for some chroniclers, the sport’s vibrant history in the walled city trudges away from the public memory.
Ambedkar Stadium, alive in deathly silence mostly, remains the only facility for young footballers to display their talent. Ramlila Maidan, for so long a home to thousands for playing different sports, now only attracts publicity when a sadhu is tackled by the city’s policemen.
Syed Shaheen, a portly man in his 50s, remembers the days when the availability of a ground was not among a footballer’s worries.
“Earlier, football was played at Irwin Hospital, Crescent and Mughal grounds. One could play at the Parade ground too, which faced the Red Fort. Now, these grounds have disappeared. Where will people play?” laments Shaheen, who owns the Old Delhi-based club Moonlight.
Teams like Young Men, City and Indian National were formidable outfits once. Especially City became Senior division champion many times in the ‘60s, relying on a steady flow of quality footballers from its feeder Anglo-Arabic School. State-level players like Sabir Ali and Aziz Qureshi made the switch from the educational institution to City FC and achieved great success.
Though the school still exists, its infrastructure mirrors the sorry state of affairs in Old Delhi football. In style, the building is tough to distinguish from the numerous Mughal forts in its vicinity. Poor maintenance, however, has endowed a distinctive identity to the complex. The building wears a pale complexion, its red slowly turning into a queasy white. Erstwhile tennis courts have been destroyed and replaced with thatched houses.
In addition to Anglo-Arabic School, among others, DAV Daryaganj and DAV School Chitra Gupta road were prominent feeder institutions too. However, an increasing emphasis on academics, Shaheen feels, has led to the neglect of sports now. Old Delhi clubs are forced to recruit players from areas beyond the walled city, in turn losing touch with the community which supported them for years. The general public also lost interest in local football once television access became easy.
“May be, once people watched “real” football on their TV screens, they realised local football is far behind,” surmises Shaheen. Resultantly, the once famous rivalry between clubs from the walled city and others has disappeared too. In the absence of football, the young have taken a similar passion for motorbikes.
H.V. Chouhan, formerly of Indian National, also believes that the spreading of matches to venues afar like the CWG Sports Complex has further dimmed the enthusiasm. Cricket’s popularity, adds Sabir Ali, compounded the problem.
The walled city’s sturdy footballers are conspicuous by absence. Even during Ramadan, Muslim players from the area used to last matches without much trouble. Hurt by their gradual disappearance, Delhi football looks on meekly.