Football and filter coffee

Posted on December 18, 2014

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Long before Rajinikanth entered the realm of mass cinema, when he was on the path of being the populist persona that he is now there came a comedy called Thillu Mullu (1981). The movie, directed by K Balachandar, was a remake of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Gol Maal that had Amol Palekar in the lead.

Every remake, from south to north and vice versa, certain subtle changes are always made to cater to the specific audience. There was one stark change in the movie to reflect the cultural setting in Madras and differentiate it from that of Bombay’s. While Palekar bunks office on the pretext of tending to his sick mother to watch a hockey match, Rajinikanth attends a football match. The scene reflected a once popular trend in the city, I have learned. Madras/Chennai is now not known for producing footballers like it does of cricketers, paddlers and hoopsters.

With one of the two FIFA approved grounds in the country, it would be expected that Chennai homes a buzzing football culture. But what the city now has is a shadow of its past self. Over the last few decades, the city lost its passionate football fan base at the local level. Chennai has no I-League presence ever since Indian Bank pulled out in 1998. Currently, the sport is restricted to the Chennai Football Association League which has a senior division (12 teams) and four other divisions.

Simon Sundararaj, who scored India’s last goal at the Olympics in Rome, 1960, had told me that the standard of the game and its following was very high till the 1970s.

“After 1970s there was decline in football in the country and it affected (then) Madras. We did not improve at all while others did. There was no work done at the grassroots and the Tamil Nadu Football Association had its fair share of squabbles and did not promote the sport,” said the 75-year-old.

“The job opportunities also became scare. Banks and the railways including started to recruit less persons. In the west, clubs look after grassroots development but here that is not the case. If the quality of football is high, people will start following automatically. I have played to packed stadiums in the city,” he said.

Among the many noted teams was the Integral Coach Factory, the very same team shown in Thillu Mullu.

“The players after getting a job were more than happy to settle. To turn professional was risk, one had to give up a good bank or a government job,” former India player Raman Vijayan had told me. Vijayan left Indian Bank to turn professional and later turned out for East Bengal, Mahindra and Dempo.

“The only top-level football played here is the Chennai senior division. But apart from that there are no tournaments so the standard doesn’t improve. The lack of an I-League club also hurt the city,” said Vijayan.

As the quality came down, it seems to be evident that football lost its grasp in the city, at a time when the importance of sport evolved for good.

As I have observed in the city, it is cricket that is the primary sport played across all schools. My school did not have a football team until I was in 10th standard (2004/5). The interest in the sport grew rapidly thanks to the English Premier League and Champions League but not due to the local scene. We hardly played football during the games period and the intra-school tournaments were held only after persuasion from students.

Football has been popular in northern third of the city, where the demography is predominantly lower middle-class and the economically weak classes. This trend was prominently highlighted in Madras, a movie released earlier  this year that focused on a bitter political rivalry in north Madras.

The ISL impact

Chennai had lost out in the reckoning to home a team in the Indian Super League to Bangalore, where the sport is said to have a better set-up. But with Bangalore pulling out in the last minute, Chennaiyin FC came to existence. An official from IMG-Reliance, that runs the league, told me, “We were very doubtful of the following in the city. But as the league progressed the following reached higher levels. People thronged the stadiums, it was a response we didn’t expect.”

Chennaiyin’s impressive showing led by Marco Materazzi was the clincher in attracting the fans. The side finished first in the league stages and deserved to feature in the final.

I watched the second-leg of the semifinal between Chennaiyin FC and Kerala Blasters with a packed stadium that kept the decibel levels high through the 120 minutes of play. If the crowd impact is anything to judge by, football is a crowd favorite and here stay.

However, only two players from Chennai/Tamil Nadu featured in this season of the ISL – D Ravanan, Pune and N Mohanraj, Kolkata. But if the ISL keeps up its promise of improving grassroots we might just see more players take field.

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