Thriving in several places in addition to Kolkata, football was a source of the finest sports entertainment for most of the twentieth century. The game was also inextricably linked to community identity, shrewdly used towards political ends and contributed richly to our cultural heritage. It is this glorious past of football that India’s foremost commentator and noted journalist Novy Kapadia reveals in his book Barefoot to Boots. In this exciting narrative published by Penguin Random House India, Kapadia recalls the sport’s illustrious legacy through riveting descriptions and analysis of on-field action, stories of memorable matches, lively anecdotes, and exclusive conversations with legendary players and officials. Here are excerpts from a conversation with Kapadia.
What can one look forward to in this book?
My involvement in the game since the 1960s has enabled me to witness some of the most epic matches between top clubs. As a sports journalist and commentator, I have delved deep into the history of the game and have closely known some of the best players, coaches and administrators. This book remembers and celebrates the glory years of football in India, even as it considers the promise the present generation holds. In the Hall of Fame section, I have profiled some of India’s legendary coaches and players from 1947 to 2017. The detailed history of every major tournament in India is also chronicled as well as all the major football playing states. I have also given detailed description of landmark matches in Indian football, such as the gold medal winning game of the 1962 Asian Games and in club football. Above all, there are rare photographs many in black and white of India’s rich legacy in football and reprints of newspaper cuttings from the first East Bengal vs Mohun Bagan match in 1925 to India’s participation in the 1948, 1956 and 1960 Olympics.
Any lesser known instances that you can recall
When the Hyderabad City Police came to Delhi in the winter months to play in the Durand (tournament), the players wore their long, brown woollen overcoats—part of their uniform — as protection from the bitter cold. Since their first Durand in 1950, the team always stayed at the Karim Hotel as their preferred food was on offer there and due to its proximity to Jama Masjid. Beddings and mattresses would be spread out on the floor, where the players slept. Despite being one of the best teams in India, the Hyderabad City Police players accepted such rudimentary facilities as many of them were of humble origins. Rated as the finest restaurant in Delhi for Mughlai food, Karim Hotel became famous due to the team’s patronage. Fans flocked to the hotel to gossip and exchange views with the down-to-earth star players of this team.
Whilst lingering there, the fans would order food from the restaurant. The reputation of its mouth-watering dishes spread far and wide by word of mouth. The rest, as they say, is history. Karim Hotel is now a landmark in the capital. Creditably, the owners acknowledge the role played by the Hyderabad City Police team in popularising their restaurant. Alimuddin Ahmed of Karim flew to Hyderabad to attend coach Rahim’s funeral in 1963. Till date, the Karim Hotel management gives a 50 per cent discount to the former players of the team and to members of Rahim’s family.
International vs Indian football
The popularity of English and European football is increasing rapidly with live telecasts of English Premier League (EPL) matches beamed in by satellite TV. So, supporting English clubs, like Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal or Barcelona and Real Madrid reflects the growing self-consequence of contemporary India’s globalising elite. The urban cosmopolitan youth have the desire and spending power to purchase the merchandise of leading foreign clubs and join their global fan base. After all, India’s English speaking middle-class consists of over 120 million people, more than the population of Britain. For some years now it has also been noticed that there has been a shift in the sporting culture of metropolitan Indian schoolboys of the mall-going middle and upper middle-class.
They are seceding from international cricket and switching loyalties to English league football. With the decline of the West Indies and Bangladesh and Zimbabwe becoming insignificant competitors, international cricket seems like a small and tawdry colonial sport. It is this thriving middle class which the foreign clubs, who have set up academies in India, are targeting as potential customers and fans. More youngsters are playing football now. But they have little interest in Indian football and dream of playing in a European league. When this does not happen, their interest and participation in the game declines.
Transition in Indian football
With a much higher income, the lifestyles of contemporary Indian footballers have considerably improved. Many splurge on cars and luxury items, a testimony to the impact of consumerism. Utility player Ishfaq Ahmed from Kashmir who has been on the circuit for a long time and has played for Dempo, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, is using his third car. His justification for splurging on cars is typical of many youngsters in aspirational India, ‘I work really hard every day and my body goes through a lot of strain. Thus, I feel the need to pamper myself and a car is a part of that.’
In contrast, players in the past like the late, great Sailen Manna, Peter Thangaraj and Ram Bahadur, used public transport for daily work and practice sessions. Only on match days they came by taxis. Syed Nayeemuddin still travels on the old Lambretta that he bought decades ago and calls it ‘my old friend’. It is not only possessions but also recreational activities that have undergone a change. Players now go abroad on vacation with their family. A vacation for the Kolkata footballers of the 1970s meant an excursion to either Darjeeling or Shimla.
FIFA U-17 World Cup
For the U-17 World Cup, a squad of talented youngsters has been training for two years. Players from the NorthEast where football is a passion are dominating this squad. Eleven outstanding youngsters from Manipur are part of India’s U-17 squad. The AIFF has left no stone unturned to prepare them for the event. India is in a tough group, with USA, Ghana (twice champions of U-17 World Cup) and Colombia. So, qualifying for the Round of sixteen may be tough. India can hope to get through as one of the four best third placed finishers. Crowd pressure can help India do well. After all opponents are young players and not seasoned professionals.