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Friday, July 20, 2018

Eye on the ball

Football expert Novy Kapadia’s latest book, Barefoot to boots: Many Lives of Indian Football, is an eye-opener is many ways. But it also surprises you with tales beyond the football pitch, underlining the cultural influence the sport had before it went into a freefall.

Written by Mihir Vasavda | Updated: November 18, 2017 12:06:39 am
Barefoot to boots, Novy Kapadia, Penguin publication, Novy Kapadia book Dilip Kumar being introduced to East Bengal players during a Rovers Cup final. Penguin Random House India

Book- Barefoot to boots: The many lives of Indian football
Author- Novy Kapadia
Publisher- Penguin
Pages- 345 
Price- 399

Hyderabad has unearthed some of Indian football’s biggest superstars. But its contribution goes way beyond the football field. If not for a local team from the city, Delhi’s most famous eating joint might never have been discovered.

Football expert Novy Kapadia’s latest book, Barefoot to boots: Many Lives of Indian Football, is an eye-opener is many ways. But it also surprises you with tales beyond the football pitch, underlining the cultural influence the sport had before it went into a freefall.

Back in the day, Karim’s was just another restaurant in Old Delhi that served Mughlai food and provided cheap, basic accommodation for those who couldn’t afford a more luxurious stay in the capital — until it was made famous by Hyderabad City Police, the erstwhile heavyweights of Indian football.

Since 1950, when they were in Delhi for the Durand Cup, the team’s players stayed at the Karim Hotel due to its proximity to the Jama Masjid. The fans flocked to interact with their heroes and while waiting for them, they would order food from the restaurant. “The reputation of its mouth-watering dishes spread far and wide by word of mouth… Creditably, the owners of Karim Hotel acknowledge the role played by the Hyderabad City Police football team in popularising their restaurant,” Kapadia writes, adding that the former players of the team get 50 per cent discount even today.

As former India captain Baichung Bhutia says in his foreword, Kapadia is “the grand old man of Indian football”. As a fan, journalist and commentator, he has followed the sport for close to 60 years, writing for multiple newspapers and appearing on television channels as an expert. He belongs to the rare breed of followers who can remember the right back from India’s 1962 Asian Games squad and even the wingers from Bengaluru FC’s AFC Cup final last year.

Kapadia has experienced first-hand the heady days of the country’s dominance in Asia to the current dismal state where they struggle to qualify for the continental championships. But this book isn’t a rant. Instead, it transports you back to a time in Indian football where the players were treasured and there was genuine passion for the local game. It drips with nostalgia, reminiscing about famous players, matches and tournaments but also takes a pragmatic look at the current state of affairs.

My first meeting with Kapadia was on the upper tier of the Ambedkar Stadium where he sat under the harsh summer sun commentating on an under-16 boy’s match. Even today, Ambedkar — earlier called the Delhi Gate Stadium — has an old-world charm to it, which Kapadia beautifully captures in his chapter on the capital, once the hub of national football.

Kapadia recalls the celebrations that followed City Club’s remarkable victory over Indian Nationals in the Old Delhi derby of July 1964. City Club’s main man, Aziz Qureishi, “was given free glasses of milk by happy supporters for the rest of the year; for a fortnight after the match the team was invited for sumptuous daawats by delirious fans.”

There are personal stories of Kapadia attending Mohun Bagan’s Durand Cup quarterfinal against Bangalore’s Chief of Inspectorate Lines in 1965, hours after the death of his grandmother. Kapadia snuck out without informing anyone, but when the family got to know he had skipped the funeral for the match, his father, uncle and even the priest were curious to know if Bagan had won.

Through the 345 pages, Kapadia marvels and mourns the rise and fall of the sport in traditional pockets such as Goa and Kerala through a series of anecdotes. But at the same time, this isn’t just a recollection about the good old days.

Indian football is going through an identity crisis like never before. The brash, in-your-face Indian Super League (ISL) has shaken the old, established order and created what AIFF president Praful Patel called a “disruption” that has left the country without a proper domestic league.

The ISL, de facto first division, kicked off on Friday without East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, who will continue to play in the I-League, the federation-organised league that is kicked into oblivion. Kapadia warns it would be “a catastrophe if these two clubs and therefore this derby match declines…Indian football with a downgraded or non-existent East Bengal or Mohun Bagan would be like Agra without the Taj Mahal.”

Such warnings, alas, have fallen on deaf ears. In the last few years, hundreds of players lost employment as the clubs stopped competing in major tournaments such as the Durand Cup while the once-glamorous Santosh Trophy has lost its relevance. And, even though the national team is steadily rising in international rankings, India’s dream to reclaim its lost continental glory remains just that — a dream.

At a time when it is easy to be cynical about Indian football, Kapadia’s infectious optimism leaves you with hope. This book is a must-read especially since everyone, including the federation, seems hell-bent on erasing every last bit of football history.

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