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The incorrigible lover of the beautiful game: in conversation with Novy Kapadia

“Novy, who scored that goal?” “Who gave that cross?”

I have heard these desperate queries in the press box at the Ambedkar Stadium for more than three decades. And continue to do so. Can’t imagine a big football match in India without the presence of Novy Kapadia, a commentator who enriches his work with some unknown and unending anecdotes. He is a treasure house of Indian football and encapsulates much of it in his forthcoming book Barefoot To Boots, The Many Lives Of Indian Football, published by Penguin Books, with a befitting foreword from Bhaichung Bhutia.

“The book should have happened long time ago. Teaching and later administration work kept me busy. I thought I would never be able to write,” says Novy as we meet for lunch at the Sorrento Ristorante in Shangri-La’s-Eros Hotel.

“I love Italian food,” Novy declares as he quenches his thirst with water-melon juice. Nicely settled, he breezes through the menu and orders Mozzarella On Wheels, a locally hand-crafted buffalo mozzarella salad with toy box tomatoes, Napoletano basil and extra virgin olive oil.

His doting sister Bunny passed away in London in 2015 and this book is a tribute to her. It was Bunny who motivated Novy to write because he would describe the matches so intensely at the dinner table at home. “I started writing this book to overcome the grief of losing her. I am glad this book happened even if late in my life,” quips Novy, having commentated on the game from the Ambedkar Stadium to Wembley.

There are few books in English on the legacy of football and this one, needless to say, stands out. Sheer experience guides Novy, who teaches English at Khalsa College, through the book as he weaves a tale that is gripping and intoxicating. The narrative gives you a detailed insight into the world of Indian football.

“My first big football match was the 1960 DCM tournament final at the Delhi Gate Stadium (now Ambedkar Stadium). From a community (Parsi) which had little contribution in football, I grew up loving this great game. We lived at Kashmiri Gate and I would walk across with my father sometimes to the Railway Station. Once I heard a large group of porters shouting “East Bengal is coming to win the Durand Cup.” When the train arrived from Calcutta, there was a surge. The players seemed liked heroes. I went the next day. More than 1000 people welcome the Hyderabad Police. The whole Jama Masjid had turned up and Yusuf Khan was hoisted on the shoulders. He had a Tarzan like body. My child’s mind realised these were the real heroes. And I became a football fan.”

Novy opts for a pizza with grilled chicken, mushrooms, extra virgin oil and garlic cream. “Yummy,” he mumbles as he does justice to the pizza. Novy reflects on the good old days, “I wanted to see the players. My father (Minoo Kapadia) would take me to the Delhi Gate stadium. What I remember is the utter simplicity of the players. They were well built, not aggressive, so easily approachable. I started reading newspapers to know more about these players and those memories have stayed.”

Among the anecdotes in the book is his “first” Durand final in 1960. “There were two matches that year. East Bengal v Mohun Bagan and DCM was East Bengal v Mohammedan Sporting. Fantastic games both. It was a fascinating spectacle, an occasion, to see fans jumping and celebrating, singing songs. It inspired me to follow football. Those days more youngsters played football than cricket.”

Winter vacations, recalls Novy, were great. “We would play in the morning, grab quick lunch and rush to the Delhi Gate Stadium. Twenty-five paisa tickets. Later I would buy season tickets. It was great. Discussing the matches with strangers and friends. There was no bitterness. Players like Yusuf Khan and Chuni Goswami would interact with fans. I would just lap up the information. I have used it in the book.”

Time for main course. Parchment paper baked salmon fillet with roast potatoes and Skillet roasted Mallard duck breast with heirloom parsnips, raisin mostarda and chestnut purée.

Nothing could stop Novy from watching football. Not even a death in the family. “In 1965, my grandmother passed away. I was going out to play when I was summoned back. I was crying. Suddenly it struck me Mohun Bagan were playing that day. I was in a dilemma. Stay on for the prayer service or miss Mohun Bagan. By lunch time I started fretting. My mother (Soona) guessed my dilemma and quietly gave me money. I went for the match. On returning, I answered queries from the priest and my father on how the game went.”

Commentary came Novy’s way by chance. “One of my friends (Renu Mehra) was compering a show on All India Radio called Date with You. It was the ultimate programme those days. She recommended my name to RBL Mathur (AIR Director) for commentary. My mother told me to listen to BBC and try and speak like them. I did that. My first match (in 1980) was at DCM between Western Australia and Punjab State Electricity Board. I enjoyed it and that started my journey as commentator, thanks to support from Anupam Ghulati. Through commentary, I came into journalism and then TV assignments.”

Novy, 65, is a die-hard lover of Indian football. “I find this obsession with Man U and Barcelona strange. There is no emotional involvement. I enjoy watching their football but I don’t support any team. Indian football is like friends and family. I want to see it developed. I don’t like anyone scoffing at Indian football.”

On Indian football, Novy has some observations which figure in the book too. “The federation did not spread the game to the other parts. In this World Cup (Under-17) team, not one player is from the north, We used to have 100s of tournaments. Youngsters were playing. Many came from small villages. We have to broad base the game. They play to get admission to colleges or go on private fancy tours. And then they are lost.”

AIFF has to take major blame, insists Novy. “Society too is responsible. We don’t have infrastructure in both urban and rural areas. Play fields are shrinking and lesser people are playing. We still have not shifted to floodlit matches fully. AIFF doesn’t promote the game. What little it does is a drop in the ocean. Clubs have also not played their role in developing the game.

If he had to pick one match? “In terms of quality of football, the 2010 World Cup semi-final. Spain v Germany at Durban. The only time I have seen and read that Germany was outclassed. ASEAN Cup (2003) when East Bengal beat BEC Tero Sasana 3-1. It was a memorable match and I loved sharing the mike with my friend Ghaus Mohammad. We have a great rapport,” reflects Novy, who is celebrated like an encyclopaedia on Indian football.

As Novy enjoys the Raspberry sorbeto, I wonder if he would ever report on an India match at the World Cup. “Not in my life time. That shall remain a big regret. We can play a World Cup only if we host it. I can’t even imagine seeing India win a major title.”

Football Against The Enemy by Simon Kuper and Puskas on Puskas by Karla Jamrich are his favourite books. His own will figure in the must-read category too.


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