Walk up to the terrace of the K-Star mall in Chembur and you are unmistakably in the middle of a maze of concrete. The skyline is jagged, broken by the hulk of buildings, a curve of a low hill and a few leafy branches. Down below, cars zip by on the Sion-Panvel highway, and senior citizens amble on a tiny patch of green, the only open space in a neighbourhood which houses close to 100,000 people. What would you do if you wanted to play ball in this urban jungle?
The thump of a football hitting the goalpost is your answer. Seven floors above the traffic, on a makeshift ground on the terrace, a football match is on. The surface is lush green and levelled, the goalposts are painted in bright, contrasting white and the ball rolls down without a wobble. The field is enclosed by a cage, with a huge cloth spread on top to protect the turf from bird droppings.
Twelve young men (divided in two teams of six), play a lively game, oblivious to the surroundings or to the people peering in from the buildings nearby.
With no standard set of rules and no referee, it’s a free-for-all. But there is a method to the madness. And some showing-off too. Having seen the Ronaldos and Messis on television, there is a faltering attempt to replicate the sublime step-overs and dazzling dribbles. “The smooth, soft surface allows us to perform those tricks. Here, even if you fall, you won’t injure yourself. It’s small but still an ideal place to play,” says Sunny Sidhwani.
Twice every week, the 22-year-old law student manoeuvers his way in the heavy evening traffic on his bike from his Sion home, roughly 8 km away . The journey is a small bargain, he says, to keep his fledgling dream alive.
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Sidhwani was on the youth team of a local Mumbai club, Karnatak Sporting Association, before the pressure from his family made him quit football for a steadier profession. He hadn’t kicked a ball in three years, till he discovered this turf. “It feels so good to be back. Apart from this place, there isn’t a ground to play football in a radius of 15-20km. So I come here with my friends and we play for an hour or two,” he says.
Kolkata has its maidans, and Goa its lush, green fields. But the maximum city has always had minimum space for football, its heart betrothed long ago to cricket. In Mumbai, every weekend, hundreds of youngsters and middle-aged men fill the pubs, catching up on the European football action on television — the only thing being passed around are beer bars. The city does not have a proper football ground, barring the Cooperage, which is an apology of a stadium. The other grounds are either not open to the public or are unaffordable (costing Rs 5,000 a hour). The few grounds that are easily accessible are barely fit for use. They are hard, uneven and littered with pebbles.
That was the reason 27-year-old Aakash Gambhir, along with two other partners, felt the need to launch Kick, a football facility bang in the middle of a business park in Powai, the heart of Mumbai’s call centre and IT industry. “While playing at our regular ground a few years ago, I got injured and had to undergo an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) surgery. My friends and I were tired of broken bones and twisted ankles. I have lost my footballing legs by playing on those uneven grounds,” Gambhir says.
Kick’s location makes it one of the most sought-after venues. Away from the noise and pollution, it is located on top of a hill, with a view of the Powai lake on one side and a cliff on the other. The glass-tinted business park that towers over the turf houses some of the biggest IT and insurance firms in the city.
Every weekend, youngsters from the plush locality take time off their gaming consoles and smartphones for an hour of strenuous workout on the turf. Whereas on the weekdays after hours, professionals from corporate offices keep the venue occupied. “We consciously chose this location as it is away from the main city. It’s quaint and perfect for football. We have made the most of the space allotted to us,” Gambhir says.
Around 50-odd such mini-sized artificial turfs have mushroomed across Mumbai, Navi Mumbai and Thane, according to Western India Football Association CEO Henry Menezes. They have sprung up on the rooftops of multiplexes and in empty parking lots and business parks. Every day, hundreds like Sidhwani and his friends, who are the reasons behind the boom of the official football merchandising industry, are seen playing snappy five-a-side games at the centres.
So lucrative is this venture that 21-year-old Rohan Punjani decided not to join his father’s diamond business after completing his graduation. The Napean Sea Road resident, instead, chose to set up the Chembur artificial football centre, Play, with his partner Ronak Daftary, who shelved his plans of joining an American university. “I have represented Cricket Club of India in local cricket matches and football is my passion. I had to convince my dad but it eventually worked out,” Punjani says.
The turfs require roughly around 5,000 sq ft space, meaning they can be fitted almost anywhere. They provide facilities to maximise the playing experience. The changing rooms are well-furnished and, at some places airconditioned. Matches can be played under floodlights. It has spawned the sale of football boots and branded jerseys, in particular.
At another playing turf on the terrace of Atria Mall in Worli, eight-year-old Sanil Thakore, who is wearing an Arsenal T-shirt, is cajoling his father, Brahma, to buy him a jersey. The father-son duo have just finished playing a match, their first together. But they won’t be back here for at least a month. Thakore is among the few Indians who’ll be traveling to Brazil for the World Cup. So without any hesitation, he buys his son a Germany jersey, and gets the famous yellow Brazil shirt for himself. “We’re going for the Germany-Portugal match. I really like Mesut Oezil and I hope he wins the World Cup for Germany,” Sanil says.
The business thrives on such bonds. And while it is generally slack on weekdays, you’d have to book well in advance to avail an evening slot on Saturdays and Sundays. Sunday leagues, a popular concept elsewhere in the world, are played over a period of three months.
Depending on how many players book the turfs, costs can range from Rs 300 to Rs 500 per head for standalone five- or seven-a-side matches. Tournaments cost approximately Rs 3,000 per head for 10-12 games with referees, and a prize money of Rs 20,000 plus. “It’s not much if you look at it. Today, you easily spend that much amount at an upmarket cafe. For those who love sport, this is a perfect alternative,” Gambhir says.
Like Venkatesh Subramaniam. Every Friday evening, when the rest of the city disappears into the fading light to welcome the weekend, the 49-year-old father of two makes a 45-minute drive to Kick. He trades his crisp formals for a Barcelona T-shirt, with “Figo” written on his back.
“This jersey,” Subramaniam says, firmly holding the club’s crest, “was lying in the cupboard for ages. It had gathered dust. But in the last few months, it’s the first thing to be placed in my office briefcase. These places are a boon. We have always complained of not having space to play. But there are no excuses any more.”
Subramaniam plays a game of five-a-side football, undeterred by his creaky knees. But he struggles to keep up with the pace of the game. Just 15 minutes into the match, he suffers a knock, a nasty one as he goes shoulder-to-shoulder with a player half his age. He lies flat on his back, unable to move a muscle. They try everything from the magic spray to a traditional massage. The game is over for him.
But not for long. Subramaniam, after all, will be back next Friday, sporting his trusted Figo jersey.
This story appeared in print under the headline Kick Off at the Next Level