After they win the game, the seniors treat them to a celebration at a neighbourhood bakery.

Barefoot in Bengaluru How football shapes the lives of young men in the city
news Football Monday, August 15, 2016 - 21:15

By Sumanto Mondal

They stood in a straight line in the uneven but well used playground in ITC Colony, as if they’d been asked to pose by a strict headmaster. Somewhat self-conscious, somewhat-shy, the lean, lanky young men discussed in low voices, whether to speak in Tamil or English. “You can speak in English! What are you all going to college for?” a senior called out to them. The “senior” had spoken, the matter was settled. The seniors hung around, the interview was to happen under their watchful eye.

The seven young men of Sudeep FC were practising for the Independence Cup, Bengaluru’s only surviving barefoot football tournament. On August 15, every year for the past 60 years, Bengaluru’s culture of football has been on full display, passions and pride running high. Eight weeks before August 15, the knockouts begin, with about 60 teams from every part of Bengaluru participating for the coveted Independence Cup. Matches are each about 25 minutes long, played throughout the day each Sunday, with seven members to a side. This August, there were 72 teams.

This year was a special year for Sudeep FC. The actual name of the ITC Colony team is Gunners FC – after their favourite team Arsenal. Someone came up with the idea of naming the team Sudeep FC, and everyone readily agreed. Sudeep, a neighbourhood player had always done his best to get the boys playing, had died recently, and is very important to the team.

As in many of Bengaluru’s bylanes, and residential areas, football families have kept many a young boy off the streets. It would be a rare boy in the ITC Colony, who doesn’t know how to play football.

The bowling wicket in one half of the playground. The floodlights cast a whitish glow, competing with the blue rainy-ish sky

On a weekday in late July, the seven young men of Sudeep FC turn up for practice to the neighbourhood ground. It isn’t in the best condition, but has one major advantage – flood lights, which were recently installed. Dressed in their most prized jerseys – bought after laborious saving – some of the teenaged boys sport snappy haircuts.

28-year-old Gautam, the coach, directs them to get the cones and the warm up begins. Gautam is a football coach at a school in GM Palya, where he also doubles up as a freestyle dance teacher. But once his day job is over, he heads back to the neighbourhood on most days, to train the boys of neighbourhood, just as he himself was trained a few years ago.

Practice begins and everything else is put on hold. Anyone playing cricket or marbles knows to make way for the footballers.

Tucked between houses and small apartment complexes, the playground can only hold five or six players per team, but more players have turned up because it’s the weekend. Our raw-boned team gets to play first as they have a match coming up. The older players of the area are their first opponents.

As the game begins, the older team makes full use of the fact that there isn't a referee. A shove here, an elbow there and a block, but the younger men are unfazed. They pass the ball between each other with practised effortlessness. One of them takes a knock to the shoulder by a senior. He’s down on the muddy ground for a few moments, but gets up and jogs off pretending it is nothing. The older team commit some fouls during the game but not the younger ones who will play in the Cup.

Despite their best efforts the seniors lose and walk away quietly. That’s when Gautam allows the young men to be interviewed.

They smile nervously and the conversation happens in both English and Tamil. Aren’t the seniors domineering? Praveen. P, the team’s 20-year-old striker responds, “Seniors shout at us when we make mistakes and play rough with us when we practice.” In his neighbourhood, Praveen is known as paane, a Tamil word for a clay cup, in this context, used to feed little kids milk. But he has outgrown the thin, small frame for which he was given that name. He is now working his first job at an IT company.

About participating in the I-day tournament, Praveen says “We are not afraid to play against big players. We just play our game”.  

“We are not scared, and won't get tired”, adds 20-year-old Balasubramaniam, who plays in defence. Braving the challenges of bare-foot-football and perhaps everyday life, they say, “We don’t feel the little rocks and other things on the field anymore... we can play however it is.”

19-year-old Santosh Kumar, who plays defence, quickly adds, “We feel angry, but after the game we know it is for our good, and without them we will not be here talking with you.”

The ITC Colony is a closely knit neighbourhood. The young men of the neighbourhood keep a strict protective watch over the younger boys. Anyone out of line would be, in Bengalurean-English lingo, “pasted”. In short, act smart and you would be shown your place.

The 28-year-old Coach Gautam joins the conversation. There are jokes about players who cut practice, and the conversation shifts to those who’ve stopped turning up all together. “Some players had to find jobs to sustain their families. But some boys get into bad things, because they have nothing else to do”. He is careful to avoid naming those bad things. “We have to pull them away from that.”

The lanes of Jeevanahalli are always bustling with activity, with vendors announcing their wares, residents conversing with each other throughout the day as they go about their work. But these lanes are tough to negotiate for the young boys. Crime rates in the neighbourhood were high, and bad company often lurking around the corners. But the watchful eye of the seniors – the ones who’ve left college and are working – are also always around. Like Gautam, for instance.

He often buys the players juice or nutritious marrow soup after practice. “They need it, it will make them strong”, he says with a smile.

Gautam is the team’s manager-cum-coach, and comes from a family of sportspersons. His brothers have represented the state and continue to play club football. His uncle was a national-level Taekwondo player. All of them are role models and are held in high regard in the neighborhood.

Albert ‘Bob’ Dilip, a well-wisher of the team says, “Having this team also encourages children in the neighbourhood to come out and play, because they want to grow up and play for the club. Otherwise, they will be stuck watching TV or get into fights and other things.” Albert himself is a good player. He still plays when he gets the chance, and works at a sports brand analysis company.

Ask the boys why they play football and their answer is timeworn, but unanimous. “Because it is beautiful!”, says Balu. The others nod in agreement. “It has good rules and players have to follow it. If rules are followed it is more beautiful” adds 19-year-old stopper-back, Santosh Kumar.

The day of the match, is a big deal. A neighborhood contingent accompanies the team to the East Railway Station ground. After the warm up in a nearby park, the seniors hand out the new red-and-white jerseys and stockings they’ve bought for the team. It’s a ceremony: Everyone stands in silent prayer, surrounded by their entourage as a beam of light shines on them through the trees.

Some of the men sit on the slightly dilapidated cement bleachers. Others balance themselves precariously on the wire fencing on a wall that enclosed the ground, taking care not to hurt themselves.

Sudeep FC’s opponents have five African players and appear formidable. After a cautious start, Carlton glides past the defence to score and their supporters erupt with joy. The game continues, the ball shuttling between the two goal posts. The other team simply can’t keep up. With just a few minutes left for the game to end, the boys in red-and-white get a corner.

Praveen waits to take the corner, his toes not covered by his anklet. The referee’s whistle sounds, and Praveen takes two quick steps and kicks the ball with his right foot. His bare toes propel the ball past the goalie who stands near the middle of the net. The goalie shoots into the air, his arms raised high. But the ball flies past a few too many inches beyond his fingertips, towards the far corner of the goal post. As the ball curves, Carlton jumps up and heads the ball into the goal. A small section of the silent crowd burst into loud cheers, their hands in the air. Sudeep FC has won. They have qualified for the semi-finals.

After the game, they walk towards their supporters and are eventually lost in the crowd. They return to their neighbourhood, and celebrate in a bakery. The seniors split the bill between themselves, and warn the boys against missing college the next day. 

Postscript: Sudeep FC did not unfortunately make it past the semi-finals of the tournament.

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