The FIFA U-17 World Cup is over, or at least the role of the Indian team in it is. As fans soap the tricolour off their cheeks and return to the normalcy of pitching tents in front of the television over the weekend, there has been plenty of opinion to go around about the last couple of weeks and what they might mean for the future of Indian football. Coupled with the three matches that the Indian colts played, the senior team also booked their return to the Asia Cup, as a matter of direct entry for the first time since 1984. The U-17 team showed promise, and in one match against Colombia, exceeded expectations. But what now? What does Indian football now have to look forward to? That is a question every footballing fan in country asks him or herself perennially, punctuated almost always by the brackets of cynicism. A way to finding an answer, in fact a way to understanding India’s never-nowhere state in the context of a sport that is truly universal, it might serve the Indian football fan and football in general, to ask — what is there to look back at?
The answer to this question would inevitably come from football’s leading, perhaps only, chronicler, a voice synonymous with Indian football, Novy Kapadia. Kapadia in his new book Barefoot to Boots, charts territory that though in places may be familiar, is really the stuff of mining memory to renew a script. Reading through Kapadia’s book can pull your heart down to the floor, not because Kapadia talks pessimistically about the future, as bright as it might seem, but about a glorious, enviable past, that is already lost. “I’ve known most of these players all my life. Talking to them, watched them, even played with them. I’ve known this history through and through. Nothing surprises me in this book. The only part, that probably does, is that I could get some rare black and white photographs that I thought didn’t exist,” Kapadia says.
Barefoot to Boots, as the title might suggest, isn’t really a narrative of the sport in India through the years, but a hovering, macro study of cities and regions where India’s greatest footballing legacies were written, and in some cases, have been lost. “My intention behind the book was to tell the people of your generation what this history was all about. We already had so much in place that we could have built upon,” Kapadia says. Essays that illuminate the past of strongholds like Kolkata and Goa, and the now emerging Northeastern states make for wonderful, immediate reading. After all, these are the places a football fan in India swears by. Even in Delhi, a fan would mention the Kolkata derby, for example, as the zenith of footballing hysteria in a country where evidence is scant. And therein lies the most painful part of Kapadia’s book — the cities that disappeared off the map.
The decline of footballing culture in the national capital of Delhi, where there once was a proper amateur league, the complete obliteration of the sport in Hyderabad and the eventual decline of Punjab after the richness of the '60s and '70s are eye openers, even if they leave your eyes moist. “It is perhaps one of the greatest tragedies. The way Hyderabad is now finished and has completely disappeared from the footballing scene and the way Delhi as a footballing city declined... I grew up at Kashmere Gate and we had patches of open ground everywhere to play in. Clubs like City Club and India Nationals were the talk of the town in Old Delhi. They may have been amateur, but there was a proper setup, a system and a local connection. Sadly, that no longer exists. And with the way grounds in Delhi are becoming inaccessible, it may not improve either,” Kapadia says.
All three group stage matches of India in the ongoing U-17 World Cup were played in Delhi at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. Though attendance was decent at all games, the stands were largely filled by schoolchildren. In a nutshell, Delhi’s inability to connect with a sport — except perhaps cricket or akin to the likes of Kolkata — is all the more disheartening given the fact it was once a bastion of footballing culture. “The spectacle is not the answer. You can’t throw money at the problem here. There is simply no connection with the game. Whether it comes from communities or the street, football is always about local identity. Small clubs, small leagues. Ideally, every state in India should have its own local leagues. But that won’t happen anytime soon,” Kapadia says. The state of the game is echoed in an episode that Kapadia narrates for the sake of our conversation. “I was invited to a game in Allahabad. The teams there had to bring their own footballs. There was no medical help available. A player told me that once two of their footballs were deflated, so they couldn’t go ahead with a game. That is the state of it, away from centres like Kolkata that we pride ourselves on. If a state footballing body doesn’t even have their own footballs, what does that say about initiative?” Kapadia wonders.
To that effect, extravagant concepts like the Indian Super League (ISL) which will follow the U-17 World Cup are unlikely to help the situation, because it is all about taking football to the roots. Roots that Kapadia’s book provides evidence of, were rich at a point in time. Barefoot to Boots doesn’t merely frame India’s footballing legacy it also gives it meaning and colour by touching upon some of the greatest players we have had. Thankfully, Kapadia restricts his hand on hyperbole or flowery language and goes with straight prose, for facts and information. It is a glowing, perhaps unparalleled tribute. And really, no one else, but Kapadia could write such a thing because it is almost inevitable, Kapadia himself would gain little out of it as compared to what it might do for the game.
Does it then make for a lonely job, chronicling a game that nobody really cares for? “I got used to it over time. It really doesn’t surprise me anymore. Sometimes, on the odd occasion, youngsters recognise me here and there or know who I am. But really, it is almost seasonal, like during a World Cup," Kapadia says. There is really not much other than optimism to hold onto. The last couple of weeks have been good, at least in comparison to the limpness and near slumber of the sport in regions like north and west India, but as the past shows, we never learn or in this case, learn to love.
Updated Date: Oct 15, 2017 10:05 AM