India has 4 major religions, namely Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and Sikhism. If you add cricket to the list, the number is 5. The popular adage that many Indians lived by for the last 20 years was ‘if cricket is religion, Sachin is God.’ Now that Sachin Tendulkar, the ordained god of Indian cricket is almost a year into retirement, Indians are frantically searching for another living, breathing, mortal god. Interestingly enough, if you were to do a google search on the number of gods in India, you will draw a blank – there are more gods than you can count. But Gowthampura, a lower middle class locality at the heart of Bangalore seems to be oblivious to the reality that surrounds it. For it worships a different god.
At the entrance to the locality, a statue of Pele and a life-size football greet you. A closer look will reveal that they have their own football club. Sharing space with Pele is another revered figure who was beatified by Pope John Paul the second – Mother Teresa. It seems that in Gowthampura, football is religion, Pele is god and Mother Teresa the guardian angel.
The Indian Super League (ISL), India’s version of the English Premier League (EPL), began on 12th October. It features a motley crue of ex-international stars, an assortment of state and national players, and celebrity owners. A few star attractions of the league are: Marco Materazzi, who etched his place in the annals of football history as the player headbutted by Zinedine Zidane in his final match; David Trezeguet, who scored a golden goal for France in the Euro 2000 finals and ended his international career by missing a penalty in the 2006 finals; Italian superstar Alessandro Del Piero, who hasn’t been in the spotlight for over 2 years now; Nicolas Anelka, the controversial French footballer who derailed his international career in a spat with his coach in France’s ill-fated 2010 world cup campaign and was recently suspended for what was deemed an anti-semitic gesture made on the field.
Strangely enough, the captain of the Indian football team, Sunil Chettri, is not playing the ISL. His club, FC Bangalore, is a part of another league called the I-league, considered to be the main football league in the country. But where the ISL scores over the I-league is marketing. It aims to take football to every television set in the country. Consider this – the winners of the i-league get 70 lakhs in price money. The winners of the inaugural ISL will get a whopping 8 crores. While both are recognised by the All India Football Federation (AIFF), they seemingly seem to exist in parallel universes.
India is 148 in the FIFA rankings. It last qualified for the football world cup in 1950 but never participated in it. Barring a faithful few who follow the various English and Spanish leagues and the general football craze that takes over whenever the world cup comes around every 4 years, football largely seems to have slipped under the radar of the cricket crazy Indian public.
In simple terms, the world’s largest democracy and second most populous country in the doesn’t accord the same love to the world’s most popular sport, football, that it does to cricket.
A country of a billion people cannot produce 11 players that can kick a ball around and qualify for the world cup. It’s a simple game, really. It doesn’t need any paraphernalia that needs to be lugged around. Pele and Maradona were born in squalor but used their feet to step into a world of unparalleled fame, riches and greatness. But if politics, bollywood and religion, critical barometers of the Indian psyche are things to go by, Indians aren’t too fond of the simple, I guess.
But all of India doesn’t bask in the afterglow of cricket.
The states of West Bengal, Goa, Kerala and Northeast India love their football. The Santosh trophy garners huge crowds and West Bengal has won 31 trophies to date. Bhaichung Bhutia, one of the most recognised faces of Indian football hails from the troubled and neglected North East region.
Not surprisingly, even in football, cricket isn’t far away and a few team owners in the ISL are bigger stars than the players themselves. The Kerala Blasters are co-owned by Sachin Tendulkar. Atletico de Kolkata is co-owned by former Indian cricket captain, Sourav Ganguly. Chennayin FC is co-owned by Indian cricket captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni and actor Abishek Bachan. FC Goa is co-owned by the poster bad boy of Indian cricket, Virat Kohli. North East United and Pune City are co-owned by actors John Abraham and Hrithik Roshan respectively. On a side note, sometime 2012, Diego Maradona made his maiden visit to the football crazy state of Kerala. But it wasn’t on the behest of FIFA or the Indian football association. It was to inaugurate, of all things, a jewellery store. Maradona, who took all of his wealth and fame and converted it into cocaine, only to realize like millions before that had gone before him, that the returns were pathetic. Maradona, a genius who once dazzled on the field, resorting to selling things that dazzle.
It isn’t hard to understand why India is considered to be a cricketing nation. Patches of land, roads, fields, terraces, corridors, all turn into cricket pitches. Stumps are etched on walls and trees. An India-Pakistan face off still puts the brakes on everyday life. But a closer look will reveal the truth – most Indians aren’t crazy about cricket. They are crazy about Indian cricket in a nation where crazy has numerous dimensions. Frenzied fans are crazy enough to stone the houses of cricketers when the national team loses. Their actions over the years have ensured that any major loss on the cricket field is followed by police protection around the homes of cricketers. There is a plausible explanation for this. 67 years after independence, there isn’t much to love in modern India. Its infrastructure is falling apart and it ranks way low in ease of doing business index. Farmer suicides and malnutrition, out-of-staters in the developed world, still claim millions of lives. It’s a country at a constant tug of war between the past and the future. Indians love a few things inordinately as there isn’t much else to love, cricket being one of them.
And to think, India isn’t even the original abode of cricket. For years, the Indian cricket board was treated with contempt. But somewhere in the 90s, led by a wily administrator, Jagmohan Dalmiya, India became the financial centre of the game. Today, boards are at its mercy and a series against India causes the cash registers to hyperventilate. The brown men have beaten the white men in their own game.
At the heart of the matter is the very simple truth that India truly isn’t a sporting nation.
There aren’t many playgrounds and sport isn’t encouraged as a career choice. Parents enroll their children into cricket coaching, harboring a secret wish that their wards will one day secure an IPL contract. In 2014, you won’t find many grounds where people are playing hockey. Or for that matter, football. In the last Olympics, India returned home with its richest haul of medals ever – 6. In the 2008 Olympics, Michael Phelps alone won 8 medals. It just shows the distance yet to be traversed.
If football is yet to come of age in India, hockey is a tale of an unfathomable fall from grace. From 1928 to 1956, the Indian hockey team won the Olympic gold six times in row. Once considered unbeatable in hockey, the game has suffered at the hands of corrupt and indifferent officials.
The unkindest cut of all? Many of its sporting heroes have been cast aside, their stories untold and their deeds erased from public consciousness.
Like Dhyanchand for instance.
Considered to be the best ever to play the game of hockey, he was once offered a post in the German army by Hitler. Who had his hockey stick broken to see if there was a magnet hidden inside. In 1979, he died in penury. In 2013, his was one of the names that came up for the Bharat Ratna, the country’s highest civilian honour. But just hours after Sachin Tendulkar walked away from his day job of 24 years for the last time and sent a nation into a tizzy, it was announced that he would receive the Bharat Ratna. The greatest ever hockey player to ever walk the planet is still waiting for his day under the arc lights.
Personally, being an unapologetic and unabashed cricket lover, I look forward to the day when India becomes a sporting nation. A nation where sport is an option and not an aberration.
So too with the ISL, I’m looking for many things. Close matches. Superb finishes. Genius. Madness. Heroics. A chance for the beautiful game to convert a few hundred thousands and add to its flock.
But most importantly, I’m in search of new heroes. Because it’s on the shoulders of heroes that we stand on and glimpse into the future. It’s heroes that have statues erected in their honor and make people emulate them.
Because heroes are nothing but mortal gods. If you find them, the rest will follow.