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The Missing Class in Indian Sports

India has the talent to be a contender in international football. What’s lacking is a framework to nurture it

By VINOD K JOSE | 1 July 2010

ANYONE WHO FOLLOWS FOOTBALL will know how skilled a player must be to score a goal straight from a free-kick. It gets tougher as the wall created by the defenders gets thicker, and the distance between the goalpost and the point from where the kick is taken increases. Often, such goals are scored by banana kicks.

The ball must swerve in the air, an arc in the shape of a banana—circumventing the wall of defenders, and misleading the goalkeeper of its direction and pace—and end up in the net. The player who scores such a goal tricks the entire opposite squad, all by himself, and no doubt must be a talent of superior grade, both physical and technical. He should know how to exercise enough pressure and spin on the ball, and just enough.

Brazil’s Roberto Carlos scored such a goal against France in a warm-up match for the 1998 World Cup, Zinedine Zidane against Spain in the 2000 Euro Cup, David Beckham against Greece in the 2002 World Cup qualifier, Ronaldinho against England in the 2002 World Cup, the list goes on. These men are some of the geniuses of the game, and the world enjoyed watching their magic.

Now, there is a reason these banana free-kicks to come to mind. For every World Cup, the story of someone I studied with for three years in college reminds me that India’s absence on the sport’s world stage is not a lack of talent, but the utterly flawed approach we have toward the game. Most of the raw talents from states where the Western European influence was greater, such as Goa, Kerala, West Bengal, Punjab and the northeastern states, turn away from the game as soon as they realise there is really nothing in it for them. Two things ward these talents off.

First, there is the absence of a football culture that should excite them as boys and teenagers, a culture that promises a future, one that conditions them with coaching, schooling and sponsorships. Second, in the vacuum of such a culture, a framework which runs on nepotism, networking, and godfather-ships fills in. The destruction becomes complete.

That classmate I had in college was exceptionally talented. He was the son of a subsistence farmer, came to college after four hours of slogging in the paddy field, and went back to the soil and spade after class. In between, he would study English literature and political science, and play football, irregularly. Binu was his real name, but he was known as Ronu, playfully named after Ronaldo of Brazil for his skills, and for his athletic, hairless body (for a Malayali the second characteristic is a rarity). He played the game with such an ease; and he was a free-kick specialist. He often used to score from areas nearly 50 meters from the goal with those famous banana kicks—as rare as his body-type back then. He once even scored an Olympic Goal (which is when you score directly from a corner-kick, from a zero-degree angle.) Ronu was a real raw talent—he exhibited tremendous stamina, his bulgy thighs and calf muscles were the result of his working-class upbringing.

Ronu was selected to represent the University. But he had to travel to the University campus, 100 kilometres away for practice sessions, with no stipend whatsoever, and he had to pay for his food and travel. Our star decided to be realistic. He stayed back in the village to help his father plant banana trees and plough the field for rice paddies.

Ronu symbolises the lack of a football culture in India. If he was born in São Paolo, Buenos Aires, or Marseille, he would have been noticed as a pre-teen, rewarded and appreciated and been given free balls and cleats. Word would have spread, clubs would have come calling. He would likely have been given free education, training, food and perhaps even a stipend for his family. He would have had a chance.

When it comes to cultivating potential talent in sports other than cricket, India fails. Our sports management is corrupt and inefficient. Our school principles and PE teachers are uninterested and unmotivated. And above all, the government does not have a vision for sports in this country. Primary to these mammoth tasks must be an understanding on where to find potential talent. Before we can actually begin developing world-class players, we need to have a framework to do so.

Football has always been a movement strongly rooted in the working class. It is from the streets of the blue—sometimes less than blue—collar suburbs, plantations, and smelly, dirty beaches where the world’s top talents come from. Consider this:

David Beckham—son of a kitchen fitter and a hairdresser in a London suburb.

Roberto Carlos—son of coffee plantation workers in São Paulo.

Ronaldinho—son of a welder from an impoverished ward of Porto Alegre.

Pele—son of a sweeper. Grew up in a slum in Tres Coracos.

Diego Maradonna—son of a mason. Lived in a slum outside Buenos Aires.

Ronaldo—son of a factory worker in Rio de Janeiro.

Luis Figo—son of a seamstress in a working class district of Lisbon.

Zinedine Zidane—son of a warehouse worker in the deprived immigrant town of La Castellane in southeastern France.

And this year’s star, Argentina’s Lionel Messi, is the son of a sweeper in Santa Fe.

That tells us something about the game.

Now, there are reports that Manchester City and Liverpool are coming to Pune to start football schools. It is probably a way to tap into the growing popularity of the sport in upmarket urban centres more than to create a genuine football revolution. There have been past efforts of foreign coaches coming to famous schools in urban neighbourhoods, running a workshop for a few weeks, earning goodwill for their local partners, and catching the next flight out of town.

But the class where this movement should have stronger roots, in the working class and Dalit areas, there are no motivational factors such as a promising career, nutritious food, social security, or fame. A proactive sports culture is absent. Coke and Adidas won’t do work at this level. They will be around when the game becomes big. But the primary responsibility of spreading a healthy football culture should be a movement with a 20-year plan. The body that has to do this job, the All India Football Federation, is only interested in managing the existing framework, which has only presided over the demise of whatever football tradition we received from the British, Portuguese and French colonisers. So there has to be a visionary-level effort from someone higher up in the government, someone to go ahead and implement it, like what African countries and China have done in the last few decades.

Now one may ask, what about cricket? First, it is a game where players come from the middle class, upper-middle class and elite backgrounds. It is more a matter of technique, and less of physique. So a 57-kilogram Rahul Dravid or a 58-kilogram Suresh Raina can excel with no prominent muscles, even rise to be world-class cricketers. It may be another story if they were made to run ten kilometres every day. That is the difference between cricket and other sports. Cricket originated as a pastime for children in Europe while doing their main job, grazing sheep. It was thus a game well-suited for the relatively non-labouring and socially and economically well-off sections in India. If you examine the class and caste backgrounds of the Indian cricket team, you will see this. So the methods of cricket, the ways and reasons it became so popular in India cannot be applied with football, or in many other sports for that matter, such as basketball, volleyball, etc.

With a population of 1.1 billion people, every time an international sporting event takes place, Indians feel embarrassed at their non-participation. This year, it’s football. Countries as small as a district’s population in India send their teams to the World Cup. And we are ranked 133rd in the world. Another event where we get embarrassed regularly is the Olympics. Except in a few individual events such as shooting or boxing, India shows no spark. Athletics expose our flawed approach to sports. We are yet to earn a medal in athletics, even a bronze. The person who came closest to an Olypmic bronze was PT Usha in 1984, in Los Angeles, who missed out on it by a hundredth of a second in the 400-metre hurdles. I asked her recently why we don’t get these things right. “Everyone, especially people in the government and companies who can sponsor, think short term, and sports is something you need to think long term with a protracted approach. But who cares,” she said. Today, Usha runs a sprint school for pre-teen talents in Kozhikode, Kerala, the Usha School of Athletics, and says she has received little help from New Delhi.

Postscript: On 15 June, Brazil’s Maicon scored an unbelievable banana goal from a zero-degree angle against North Korea. On the very same day, Ronu lost many of his  banana trees in the monsoon storm.

Vinod K. Jose is the Executive Editor of The Caravan and an award-winning journalist. He has previously worked as a producer from South Asia for public radio stations in the US and Europe. Jose has an MA in Journalism from Columbia Journalism School, where he was a Bollinger Presidential Fellow. He also has graduate degrees in Communication and English, and a PhD in Sociology.


5 thoughts on “The Missing Class in Indian Sports”

hi! I liked the article not because it says what we all know by now, (that why a few sports are more favoured in India than others) but because the writer has taken the trouble to remind the forgetful Indians, that India despite having talent is going through a phase of almost no representation in most of the international events. The article raises the obvious yet shadowy questions that the government (and we) often ignore. I am not surprised if a few do not agree with the article as a myopic outlook (and be satisfied without any desire to change for the better) is always preferred over a proactive and self-critical one by most of US.

I disagree with your characterization of cricket. This article follows the standard formulation – sport in India is not supported by the government, cricket is pampered, cricketers are not physically fit, hence…. well, hence nothing. The facts are that cricket is not, has never been supported by the government. The BCCI is a confederation of local associations which in turn are formed by local cricket clubs. Cricket is played by clubs, schools, offices, regional teams and age group teams, and for a very long time (until the 1980s) playing cricket was not a lucrative assignment. Yes you got a job, but it did not make you a millionaire. People look at cricket in the last 20 years and then comment as though there was no cricket played for the 80 or 90 years before this time. Cricket has strong roots in India because generations dedicated people have put time into it for very little (or in most cases, zero) money. Yes, Cricket was lucky in that the one group of people in India with the means to be patrons of sport – Princes, took to the game. I’m afraid your comment about cricketers not needing to be fit is plainly ridiculous. Cricket requires a different kind of fitness – to bat for six hours with making an error (as Rahul Dravid has done on a number of occasions) is something very few people in the world can do. It takes a combination of mental and physical fitness that is unique in sport. To bowl 25 overs a day at 85 miles an hour, requires tremendous fitness. To concentrate in the field for 6 hours and not miss the one 3/4 chance that may come your way at the fag end of a long day, takes fitness. To bowl a 15 over spell of off-high quality spin bowling, without letting your arm drop and without giving the batsmen anything easy to hit, on good wickets, takes enormous fitness and preparation. The problem with other sport in India, and more accurately about writing and lamentation about other sports in India is the perenially envious eye cast towards cricket. Even Chak de India could not be made without a gratuitously foolish cricketer character who was only very loosely based on an actual India cricketer. Other sport in India is not flourishing because India don’t have top quality talent in other sports. This may be due to the fact that the quality of domestic competition is poor. The 1.1 billion dollar line is also fairly silly. For the record, i don’t think most Indians are stupidly nationalistic enough to "feel embarassed" everytime an international sporting event takes place. Sport should remain sport – not a vehicle for you to feel good about yourself Mr. Jose. Instead of casting an envious eye towards Cricket, maybe people who wish to champion other sport should study how BCCI has run cricket, instead of buying into the usual general nonsense that is perennially abusive towards India’s only successful sporting association. Given the quality of writing in Caravan, I’m surprised by the poor, well-worn arguments in this article.

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