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.
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 continued…