Book review

With the Under-17 World Cup underway, now’s the time to read about Indian football

Like a penalty kick, Novy Kapadia packs enormous historical power in a single book.

The legions of foreign footballers, officials and fans who have descended the country for the under-17 World Cup may well wonder about India’s football legacy. Does it qualify India to host a FIFA championship?

For a ready reckoner on the subject, they need look no further than Novy Kapadia’s timely Barefoot to Boot: The Many Lives of Indian Football. Here, they will discover that India were once dubbed the “Brazil of Asia”, after the South American giants who have won the U-17 World Cup three times and the senior championship, a record five times.

There’s no one more qualified to write on the history of Indian football than aapro Novy, who has followed its highs and lows with tremendous energy over nearly 50 years, besides writing and commenting extensively on the subject. His, of course, is not the first volume on Indian football and may not be the last. But Kapadia translates his encyclopedic knowledge into a racy script peppered with chatty anecdotes over 323 insightful pages.

Kapadia ticks all the important boxes in his panoramic sweep – the famous triumphs of the “blue tigers” and Indian clubs, major domestic tournaments and teams, regional powerhouses, legendary players and coaches (including the now-forgotten SA Rahim, India’s greatest football coach) and historic matches that are part of the sport’s folklore.

Sunil Chhetri, Jeje Lalpekhlua, Bhaichung Bhutia or IM Vijayan may be somewhat familiar names in today’s times, but how many will remember legends like Sahu Mewalal, Tulsidas Balaram, Talimeran Ao, Yousuf Khan, Noor Mohammed and Sailen Manna (he deserves an individual portrait, having being named AIFF player of the 20th century), all of whom are nostalgically resurrected in this volume? Defunct teams like Hyderabad City Police/Andhra Police, Bangalore Muslims, Leaders Club, crowd-pullers in their time, also get their due.

If the millennial generation hooked on European football today takes the trouble to brush up on their history, they will not flunk the Rs one-crore question, as a hapless contestant once did on Kaun Banega Crorepati over a decade ago when asked: Who was the only Indian to score a hat-trick in Olympic football? (Answer: Neville D’Souza.) Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it, but perhaps if we remember our football history without living in the past (in which we wallowed for the last four decades till reality caught up), we might be inspired to replicate our successes.

East (and West?)

In the pantheon of Indian football, the Big Three from Kolkata no doubt hold pride of place, having dazzled all and sundry across the country for decades. But they are no longer kings of the catwalk, being humbled repeatedly even in their own backyard. A point to note – it took Mohun Bagan another 36 years to repeat their epochal win of 1911 in the IFA Shield, a seminal moment in Indian football, while Mohammedan Sporting and East Bengal forged ahead of the famed maroon-and-green outfit by reaping success in the big tournaments earlier.

Indian football has evolved in fits and starts ever since Nagendra Prasad Sarbadhikari reputedly kicked a ball by chance on the Calcutta maidan in 1877 without knowing that he was scripting history. It took a while for the Indian clubs that emerged to prick the bubble of supremacy of the British regimental teams who ruled the roost prior to independence. But once they had found their footing, they were away and running. Various clubs have reigned supreme over various eras, both before and post independence – Hyderabad City Police in the 1950s, Dempo SC from 2004 to 2012, etc., – but the golden run of Mohammedan Sporting’s black and white shirts from 1934 to 1942 was arguably matchless in its magnificence.

I feel there should have also been a section on Bombay’scontribution to the game, which is only acknowledged in passing, even as Delhi enjoys a spread in the chapter on regional powers. India’s commercial capital has produced several homegrown stalwarts and also provided employment to many illustrious players from outside the city who made it their home. It boasted several teams that either challenged for or won major honours – such as Caltex, Mafatlal Mills, Mahindras/Mahindra United, etc. But football being a club-oriented game, the feats of the Mumbai clubs overshadow those of their counterparts from Kerala and the North-East.

Downs (and ups?)

The story of Indian football is also the story of its descent – from the dizzying heights of being the top dogs in Asia (two Asian Games titles in 1951 and 1962, runners-up in the 1964 Asian Cup, and a fourth place finish in the 1956 Olympics while making the best of the truncated circumstances) to its whipping boys (the 11-0 aggregate mauling by Zico’s Japan in the World Cup qualifiers of 2004 and the heavy defeats suffered by our clubs on the Asian circuit).

The malaise was soon reflected in empty stadiums that used to be packed to the rafters earlier, tournaments folding up, and reputed corporate teams shutting shop one after another. A sense of complacency, lack of investment in infrastructure and football development, technical, tactical and physical deficiencies, the lethargy and short-sightedness of officialdom, all contributed to the eclipse. Perhaps, while skimming through the downside, Kapadia could have been more forceful in bringing the culprits to book!

But is a revival around the corner now, what with the rapid rise in our rankings from a low of 171 to 96 in July 2017 (we are 107 currently), Bengaluru FC’s appearance in the final of the second tier AFC Cup in 2016, and an anticipated qualification for the 2019 Asian Cup finals? Not quite, whatever the partisans may say – we have merely taken advantage of favourable circumstances! There are still miles to go before we can catch up with the Asian leaders. “Looking ahead” in his concluding chapter, the incorrigible optimist in Kapadia, however, lists some of the initiatives that can help.

In the constantly evolving Indian sporting scenario, where franchise-based leagues have now proliferated, Indian football has become both a beneficiary and victim of this development. It will be a tough challenge to avoid the offside trip and reclaim the high ground. That will require loads of cash, luck, pluck and planning and an overdose of special talents who can bend it like a Balaram, Banerjee and Bhutia.

Barefoot to Boots: The Many Lives of Indian Football, Novy Kapadia, Penguin Random House India.

Mario Rodrigues is a senior sports journalist and football and hockey writer. He is the author of the biography of Ranjitsinhji titled Batting for the Empire. He has written from various publications in the past.

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