There were no football boots, and no kits. No ball to kick, no tackle to be made. Luis Figo, one of the world's greatest footballers of his generation, was tackling something else entirely this time, all suited up no less. "It's true, I changed my uniform for a suit. It's much more elegant," the dapper looking Figo said. Although one can argue he used to be just as elegant, maybe more, on a football ground, while wearing the colours of his team.
Figo was in Mumbai on Tuesday to embark on a "new adventure", a business venture. The Portuguese legend was adding another page to the story of franchise-based sport in India, one that began with the Indian Premier League. India has had T20 cricket through IPL, football through Indian Super League (ISL), badminton with Premier Badminton League (PBL), kabaddi in Pro Kabaddi League (PKL), and wrestling in Pro Wrestling League (PWL). Now, it will have its very first futsal league — Premier Futsal. Figo, in association with his Indian business partners, is bringing futsal to India, and it's sooner than you think. In July, eight Indian cities — Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Kochi and Goa — will fight to be the inaugural champions of the Premier Futsal League (PFL).
But India was already familiar with football, it didn't need ISL for that; it has its own rich history of the beautiful game. But when it comes to futsal, the shorter version of football, India doesn't have too much to write about. It's relatively unknown in the region. "So we'll make it known. We are here because of that, to make it known. If it was known, we would not be here. We like challenges," he told a room full of journalists wondering what was Figo doing in India, talking about futsal.
However, futsal may not be as unfamiliar as you'd think in India. There is a Futsal Association of India (FAI), but even then, the country hasn't seen much of the sport. But take a stroll around towns, and you'll find football fanatic teenagers playing five-a-side games with makeshift goalposts. In urban jungles like Mumbai and Bangalore, you might have trouble finding an open patch of green due to the concrete invasion, but college students and young professionals pay money to play on six-a-side turfs, as much as Rs 1,200 an hour. The game might be beautiful, but it sure isn't free.
So, when Figo says India has the potential to produce futsallers, he is not wrong. ISL rejuvenated football in the country, drew fans to stadia, attracted international stars. There is no argument against futsal doing the same.
"Yes, of course, I've heard of the ISL. I have lot of friends who are playing in it and those who will play in the future. I think that anything that can be improved, in this case football, is welcome," Figo said. But, unlike his friends who have coached and played in ISL, Figo, who retired from football in 2009, wants to stay away from the pitch.
"I don't have a licence to coach. I'm not thinking about coaching. But in life, everything changes. Right now, since I have retired from professional football, I don't want to follow that path," he said.
To what extent will he be involved in Premier Futsal then? "I am here. I am president of the company, what more do you want? If I have to play, I'll play. If I have to coach, well, I don't have the licence to do so," he said with a hint of humour.
But his answer had the journalists smiling, mostly when he said he might play. At the end of the day, journalists are also fans. And who wouldn't want to watch Luis Figo, who one once enthralled spectators while playing for European heavyweights Barcelona, Real Madrid and Inter Milan, kick a ball again? Everyone likes a president who can play. The prospect of watching Figo play futsal in India is exciting and will turn back clocks to the days when he was the best player in the world. And, suddenly, the clock is turned. It's not the journalist asking questions now, it's the fan looking for a piece of trivia, a story from Figo's days at Barca and Real. After all, the weekend witnessed the El Clasico. Figo is one of the few who committed the cardinal sin in Spanish club football. He has played for either side in an El Clasico. He crossed over to Real Madrid from Barcelona in 2000 for a then world record transfer fee, and the Camp Nou faithful never forgave him for that. Such was the crowd's wrath, Figo couldn't take a corner in a white jersey at Camp Now. "That is the past now," he says. Clearly, he's trying to move on.
He went on to talk about the upcoming Euro Championships, the Champions League, Leo Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, the Fifa corruption scandal, his presidential bid for Fifa elections, the new president Gianni Infantino, the Panama Papers, and even his "good friend" Jose Mourinho, when he thought he was there to only talk "about futsal". And he talked elaborately on all topics. But when he was asked who the eight marquee players for Premier Futsal are, he smiled and said "it's a secret".
Premier Futsal will not only have eight marquee futsallers and 56 international players from 21 countries, it will also feature the best of Indian talent in the sport. A talent hunt will be held to scout the 40 best futsallers in the country and they'll get a chance to play alongside international stars. The rise of franchise-based sport in the country has shone a light in the dark corners of sporting talent and opened the doors for those who want to play professionally and have it in them to do so. Even the ISL has a grassroots program for football. Premier Futsal has just taken birth, but it could go a long way in helping the shortest version of the beautiful game. And Figo knows the importance of the opportunity.
"I'm looking for investors. If someone wants to open academies, I’m glad, of course. But jokes aside, of course you have to try to build conditions for the kids to have the opportunities in their lives if they love to play football," he said. "I've just arrived in India, but in the past two years I've opened a few academies in China. Since then we’ve grown really fast in 14 cities. Right now we have 40 Portuguese coaches in the different cities. So anything can happen."