A rich but overlooked legacy

There have been many lives, as the author neatly documents in his book, but the overriding tale is that of regression. The sobering reflection drives us to cherish the better days of Indian football.

Barefoot to Boots:

The Many Lives of Indian Football

Penguin Random House India

Price: Rs. 399

There are many in Indian football circles who want to be in Novy Kapadia’s place. It is a spot you find at the intersection of journalism, commentary, football fandom and scholarship. Very few, after all, can bring their skill set together for an exercise of significance. Kapadia’s latest book, Barefoot to Boots: The Many Lives of Indian Football, is a story of the many lives he has lived.

More than 50 years ago, it was Novy Kapadia who wanted to be like the people in Indian football. His stars, like for many young boys, were footballers. When he saw players arrive at the Old Delhi Railway Station for the 1961 Durand Cup, he saw them as heroes. The adulation that came with playing football was an instant draw.

Since then, Kapadia has seen the best of football. His work has taken him to World Cup finals, no less. Kapadia has also seen the worst of it, in the by-lanes and alleyways he still frequents. “People are amazed when I tell them that we had to queue for hours on end to enter the Ambedkar Stadium in New Delhi,” he tells me. Anybody who has visited the venue in recent years would be justifiably amazed. Most football matches there are now watched in the company of old men looking to do something with their time and stray dogs finding a shelter from the busyness outside.

Many of these men will instantly recognise Kapadia. Much before he became a frequent presence on our television screens, the sexagenarian was a regular at the local games. This is where his journey started. The book travels Kapadia’s pathways in Indian football.

This journey brought him close to his heroes and the process came fraught with worries. “It is very difficult writing about friends. You know so many things about them. That is a problem all journalists face. How do you draw this shadow line? There were lots of very personal things that I shared in the original draft, but they were edited out,” he reveals in the course of our chat.

The fine editing allowed the book to become more than a memoir. It was set out to be a social history of Indian football. This is where Kapadia’s scholarship came in handy. A now-retired Associate Professor of English at the University of Delhi, the journalist is also a keen student of history. “This brought everything together that I have done, my life-long passion and work. It was very satisfying collecting thoughts and anecdotes for the book. The collection of photos took two months of going through archives — The Hindu, Ananda Bazaar Patrika, photos from people. Many of the family members are not net-savvy, so the photos arrived by post. Another challenge was to identify the players. We had to ask their sons and daughters to identify them.”

Indeed, the photos inside the book traverse a wide timeline. While his nous as a historian came in handy to form a narrative for the book, the journalistic tendencies which are deeply entrenched within Kapadia brought the benefits of his enduring dedication.

“One of the motivations for me was that the little-recorded history of Indian football was dying out. Amal Dutta passed away last year. Many have died from the 1956 Melbourne Olympics team, also from the 1962 Asian Games gold medal-

winning side. The records are not available on film. Maybe there are two-minute newsreels. It would have been all lost.”

But why does it matter? Kapadia is insistent that people need to learn about India’s “rich legacy”. If not rich, it is certainly an overlooked legacy. Kapadia often likes to cite India’s 1-2 loss to a ‘full-strength’ Hungary in the 1960 Rome Olympics group stage. However, only one of the Hungarian starters in that match made it to the first-choice XI a month later when the national team met the USSR in the inaugural European Championship’s first qualifying round.

But the point remains. There is little doubt that football’s drive to professionalise left India behind.

To offer perspective on the country’s history in football, Kapadia casts the net wide. The democratisation of his book was a deliberate attempt to not make it “Bengal-centric”. The legacies of Indian football are more diverse and enriching. There was more that he could have brought to the book. There were players and friends who failed to find a mention.

The absence of women’s football is glaring, he readily admits. But this book, by no means, is Kapadia’s goodbye to writing on Indian football. There are more stories. They will be told.

The Indian football team before its departure for Jakarta for the 1962 Asian Games. Standing (from left): Ethiraj, Chandrasekhar, Yusuf, Thangaraj, Barman, P. K. Bannerjee, Rahim (coach and manager), C. Goswami, A. Ghosh and Jarnail Singh. Kneeling: Trilok Singh, Afzal, Rambahadur, Arumainayagam, P. Sinha, Franco and Balaraman. The team won the gold medal at the Asian Games.   -  THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY


Kapadia, to his credit, continues to be sceptical about the direction Indian football has undertaken. Interestingly, even the administrators who have earned his criticism in the past have been happy to endorse the book. Kapadia, though, maintains a healthy dose of scepticism. “I wonder whether they have read it. Praful Patel promptly gave the endorsement when the publisher requested it. But I don’t know if any of them have read it in detail… But for the shrewd reader, the hints are there in the book.”

It is a measure of Kapadia’s honesty towards Indian football that he does not shy away from criticism. It is arguably even more important now as we face faux optimism following India’s maiden World Cup campaign. While being appreciative of the awareness created by the FIFA under-17 tournament and the upgrade of infrastructure, Kapadia maintains that the chasm between the Indian football side and the rest was there for everyone to see. And it is unlikely that things will change soon.

“Milagres Gonsalves, who played in the first ISL final, now works for a courier company. As long as football can’t provide a basic livelihood, how will it sustain?”

This, for now, is the question which marks one life of Indian football. There have been many lives, as Kapadia neatly documents in his book, but the overriding tale is that of regression. As one partakes in the joy of Kapadia’s anecdotes and thoughts, the sobering reflection drives us to cherish the better days of Indian football. And that might be the most significant contribution of Barefoot to Boots.

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