July 4, 2004
“Line gol hai.”
That’s what you call an electricity cut in Kamptee, says 22-year-old Jawahar Ali. No power means the bakery is shut. So, bakery worker Ali lopes down to a placid nullah on whose banks kids smelling of last night’s masala chicken knock a football around, pouncing furiously on one another every time there’s a “phoul”.
Today’s ball-owner—and so captain—is nine-year-old Albino-blond Mohammed Zeeshan, who wants to be like Ronaldo. “Hou ka? (Yeah?)” hoots Ali. “At least I was in Rabbani School.”
Neither Rabbani School nor Rabbani Football Club has a Ronaldo connection. But in the 1950s, they kicked anonymous Kamptee, some 20 km north of Nagpur city, into eyeball-grabbing status in Indian football.
Decades later, the town’s star production has missed the big league despite the kickstart. But communally sensitive Kamptee, with three lakh Muslim, Dalit and Hindu residents, still worships the game.
Like Zeeshan’s team, scores of little boys play barefoot, on the slushy dirt tracks of this cantonment town, half sluggish village, half urban slum.
Every third wood-and-wiremesh balcony displays drip-drying jerseys. Everybody wants to give directions to the home of Kamptee’s sole Shiv Chhatrapati awardee, Mohammed Ali. Or accept delayed condolences for the recent death of Mohammed Nazir ‘Pagadoo’, India’s ‘‘goalchie’’ in the 1960s.
But tell district football association vice-president Harish Vora that a Mumbai filmmaker has crafted a documentary on Kamptee’s football legends and he snorts.
One of those four is now a skinny, bearded man bent over a sewing machine whirring in a tailoring unit past hundreds of tightly packed derelict houses. It’s Mohammed Salauddin, finishing a blouse—shirts are more lucrative at Rs 18 apiece—as quickly as his dimming vision allows.
At his home in Kamptee’s slummy New Yerkheda area, Salauddin remembers the Rovers Cup quarter-final at the Cooperage, Bombay, when minnows Rabbani Club drew with Andhra Police.
‘‘Three goalless draws. Then a wasted penalty kick in the fourth match. In the fifth, we won,’’ he says, waving fingers crooked from long hours at the machine and flashing a yellow smile.
By the end of the tournament, Mohammedan Sporting Club, Kolkata, was richer by Salauddin, Mohammed Ali and Mushtaq Ahmed while Narsaiah was picked by Mohun Bagan.
Ahmed went on to don the India colours, even scoring India’s first goal in the Test against USSR in 1954, at Jabalpur. Pagadoo, his senior from Kamptee in the Mohammedan Sporting team, played that match too.
In Bunkar Colony, peopled mostly by second generation migrant weavers from Uttar Pradesh, the strapping Qamruddin, 57, remembers every detail of those gruelling days. Known as Qamruddin ‘Ustad’ all over Central India, his team, the Kamptee Collieries, under him, remained unbeaten champs of the Nagpur league for eleven years.
As the clackety-clack of handlooms floats out from behind the dargah that Qamruddin just swept, the foreman with Western Coalfield and now team coach broods over the Collieries’ humiliating defeat last fortnight at the police-organised Quami Ekta Football Tournament in Kamptee.
‘‘No recruiting for years, even in the sports quota,’’ he grumbles. The average player is 35 years old. ‘‘How can we win?’’
Even son Sultan Salauddin, among the Collieries’ last big stars, didn’t make it past club-level.
Kamptee’s current exports? Air-India coach Bimal Ghosh, recently picked best coach in Mumbai’s Harwood League, is from Kamptee. Two Kamptee lads are playing for Central Railway in Mumbai, another for South-East Central Railway in Bilaspur. None in any of the big teams.
Some insist the graph dipped in 1990, when former Rabbani vice-principal and Mohammedan Sporting coach Haji Abdul Mateen, a Kampteeite, died. Mateen had been pivotal in picking even the likes of Pagadoo and Salauddin. But Rabbani coach Sattar Ansari sums it up in two words: ‘‘No money.’’
In poverty-rich Kamptee, jobs are scarce—looms, beedi units and log vendors in Lakadganj are family businesses struggling to break even. And just playing isn’t paying.
So it’s back to following the Euro Cup on TV. ‘‘Kitnee der tak chalti hai (it goes on for so long),’’ mock-grumbles Ansari’s wife Rehana. But she watches too.
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