Book Review: The glorious legacy of Indian football

Deccan Chronicle.  | Sayan Mukherjee

Lifestyle, Books and Art

The book celebrates the high tides that swept the game in our country. Indian football has largely been a story of neglect.

Barefoot to Boots, The Many Lives of Indian Football by Novy Kapadia Penguin, Rs 399

Books charting the history of Indian football are rare to find, information available online or elsewhere even less so, despite Google search being at its pomp. Novy Kapadia’s Barefoot to Boots, The Many Lives of Indian Football is a precious possession as it charts the history of a sport, which despite distinguished achievements, has mostly flattered to deceive. In today’s world, corporate giants have assumed a self-proclaimed responsibility of promoting and developing football, while Indian youngsters stay awake late at night to track the fortunes of top European clubs, taking pride in following their day-to-day activities, from transfer gossips to season-ending analysis. They even shell out considerable money to sport these foreign clubs’ shirts as a fashion statement, even at the cost of zero emotional attachment, but prefer to remain aloof from the action back home.

The advent and growing influence of cable television and Internet have made it easier for millennials to be abreast of developments occurring thousands of miles away from India, making it convenient for them to scoff at Indian football’s low standards. But they mostly are unaware, partly by design and choice, about India’s prominent place in the continent in the 1950s and 60s. The book takes us back to this era. Barefoot to Boots offers insight into the evolution of the “beautiful game” in the country in the last 150 years. The task of putting together non-descript facts into simple prose, in a light and engaging manner for today’s “scroll-generation”, shows Kapadia’s vast experience and knowledge that makes it an enjoyable read, also enabling one to gather knowledge, which otherwise isn’t easily accessible.

In his many capacities as a fan, journalist, commentator, and columnist, Kapadia has followed the course of the game from close quarters for nearly 60 years. He utilises his deep understanding of the game to weave a gripping tale, giving a detailed account, which will shock and awe one in equal measure. His vivid description of a thrilling 1965 Durand Cup semi-final between Mohun Bagan and Andhra Police is a case in point. His commentary of the match and the tense atmosphere surrounding the Ambedkar Stadium (then known as the Delhi Gate Stadium) is captivating and can be sampled as a good example of football writing.

Kapadia’s passion for the game and mastery over the subject is in full display in the book. Spread over 323 pages, it is an eye-opener not only for the readers but also an inspiration for many football journalists. For example, Kapadia points out: “Football fans in India today may find it hard to believe that one of the oldest rivalries in world football — is between none other than East Bengal and Mohun Bagan”. Kapadia identifies three famous victories — Mohun Bagan in the 1911 IFA Shield final, Bangalore Muslims in the 1937 Rovers Cup and Mohammedan Sporting in the 1940 Durand Cup — that galvanised public’s interest.

However, India’s gold medal at the fourth Asian Games in Jakarta in 1962 was the country’s greatest triumph in international football. After this victory, the Indian team came to be called the “Brazil of Asia”. Vivid details of India’s triumphant campaign, masterminded by the India’s most successful coach Syed Abdul Rahim, set the tone of the book, with a detailed description of how people flocked to the grounds in numbers to watch local teams in regional tournaments. “Many experts consider the team, comprised of legends P.K. Banerjee, captain Chuni Goswami, Tulsidas Balaram, Jarnail Singh among others, as the greatest India football side,” Kapadia writes. The footballers turned into overnight demigods for their skill, attractive quotient and attacking verve, making football a rage in the country. 

It caught the fancy of the masses and became popular in several cities like Kolkata, Bengaluru, Delhi, Chennai and Punjab where newly-formed clubs participated in local leagues and tournaments, which were played in front of packed stadiums, underlying the game’s popularity. But mass acceptance of the sport was never utilised, either by the government or by corporate biggies, for a concrete effort to drive in money, build modern infrastructure or introduction of a robust youth system, the repercussions of which India is still facing to this day. In its prologue and introduction, the author gauges the effect of these victories on the psyche of working-class people of a growing nation, suggesting the massy appeal of the game, coupled with relative early success (gold medals in the 1951 and 1962 Asian Games, fourth at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics) was synonymous with the aspirations of a growing nation, still in its infancy following independence in 1947.

These victories, which contributed to flourishing of the game’s contrasting styles in different corners of the country, get a seamless description in the first part of the book. The narrative then takes us to an astute analytical journey of historic clashes involving Indian clubs and the national team over the years, which the author has been fortunate enough to witness, before winding down the journey with profiles of legends, whom the writer either knew personally or interviewed, making his account authentic. The book reminisces and celebrates the high tides that swept the game in our country. Indian football has largely been a story of neglect. But its journey from barefooted amateurism to “suited-booted” corporate professionalism has for once, got its moment under the sun, at least on paper, even though it continues to remain in its “Rip Van Winkle-like slumber”, on the field. Also, the timing of the release of the book couldn’t have come at a better time as India is just days away from hosting its first Fifa tournament, in the form of the U-17 World Cup.