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June 27, 2020 Saturday 11:55:52 AM IST

Let's Football

Sports & Games

This is Football is an emotionally charged, six-episode documentary that explores football’s impact on the planet. Through a series of stories from across the world the film tells the story of football, its power to unite nations, inspire generations, and captivate billions. The episodes are overseen by noted director James Erskine and the episodes are titled Redemption, Belief, Chance, Pride, Love, and Wonder. The film has an array of legendary players, presidents of countries, managers, priests, poets, mathematicians as its cast. It is a must-see for anyone who loves football, anyone who loves sport.

Every episode is fascinating but the one titled Love is sure to tug your heartstrings. It follows Roy Turnham, England’s Blind team’s striker as they prepare to take part in the World Cup. It tracks Fezile Hlophe, of Soweto, South Africa, who turns the world’s youngest professional referee after a long fight with cancer, Wen Ba of China who built his own pitch in the rooftops of his bustling home city and 16-year-old Rakshanda Sonekar of Nagpur who despite all odds pursues her dream of playing the game she loves at the highest level. These are the lives of ordinary people united in their love for football, who chase their dreams and find solace in their achievements.

This is Football presents just four from a myriad of football fans who have gone the extra length to fulfill their dreams. Here is my pick from a long list of exceptional football buffs that lived and breathed football. 

Father of Indian Football

There was a time in India when football was more popular than cricket. Of course, it is still a firm favourite in some States. But how many know Nagendra Prasad Sarbadhikari? This name crops up rarely only when someone talks about the history of Indian football. Though debated, there is a majority consensus that Nagendra Prasad is the father of Indian football, one who introduced soccer among his friends back in 1877.

The story is that young Nagendra Prasad saw a group of Europeans playing a game that he had not seen before. At some point the ball that the gentlemen were kicking rolled to where he was standing. Nagendra Prasad kicked it back into play. He thus became the first Indian to ever kick a football. 

Nagendra Prasad did not stop there. He and his friends formed the Boy’s Club, the first football club for Indians. Almost singlehandedly he led this mission of popularising the game, founded the Wellington Club in 1884 and the Sovabazar Club in 1887.The latter was the first all-Indian club to participate in the British instituted Trades Cup in 1889 and three years later, registered a first ever win for an Indian club against foreign opposition when they beat East Surrey Regiment.

The game spread quickly and clubs mushroomed all over the country. Nagendra Prasad mysteriously withdrew from football and disappeared into obscurity. It is said that this happened following his joining the Calcutta High Court as an attorney. But there are other stories behind the egress of this football aficionado.

Celtic’s Indian Wizard

In 1936, an Indian footballer, Mohammed Salim, played professional football for a European club. But Salim remains unsung. In fact, when Salim died in 1989 the newspapers dismissed his obituary in just a paragraph ignoring the feat of having played for Celtic FC.

Salim was born in Metiaburuz, Calcutta, to a lower middleclass family. He was bad in academics but excelled in football. He played for various clubs before joining the senior team of Mohammedan Sporting in 1934. In his years with the club Sporting achieved unmatched success, winning the Calcutta League title five times in a row.

After an impressive season in 1936 Salim was invited to play two matches for All India XI against the Chinese Olympic side. Salim was superb and drew praise from all quarters. Before the second match Salim simply vanished. Advertisements were placedin newspapers asking him to return before the start of the match. By then Salim, along with his cousin, were in Britain. His cousin urged Salim to try his luck in European football. They reached Glasgow and Salim was introduced to the legendary manager of Celtic, Willie Maley.

Maley was impressed when he saw the bare-footed Salim play in the trials. Salim was signed after he got the nod from the coaches and a few members of the club who watched him demonstrate his skills. In the friendly games for Celtic Salim excelled and even scored. He was the first Indian footballer to achieve this feat. It took nearly 63 years for another Indian, Bhaichung Bhutia, to emulate this feat when Bhutia scored for a second division English club. A week after the ‘friendlies’ Salim left Glasgow despite Maley’s efforts to sign him for the next season. The manager even offered to conduct a charity match with a percentage of the ticket sales going to Salim. But the player longed to be home. In Calcutta, Salim helped Mohammedan Sporting win back-toback League titles before retiring in 1938. Salim kept his ties with Celtic and the club always remembered this wizard from India. When Salim was seriously ill and in need of medical treatment his son wrote to the club. To his surprise Salim’s son received a letter and a bank draft of 100 pounds. Salim died in 1989. Football is replete with such amazing characters many of whom have disappeared into the gauze of memory; others plough a lonely furrow.

Football on the Battlefield

The National Football Museum in Manchester is a treasure trove of priceless exhibits. One that stumped me was one of two footballs used by Captain Wilfred Percy Nevill and his men at the Battle of the Somme, July 1916. Nevill of the East Surrey Regiment was the originator of the famous ‘Football Charge’ on the first day of the battle. The English captain launched an attack on the German forces by kicking a football. ‘He leaped out from behind the parapet that had offered some cover and cleared the ball towards the enemy trenches. His regiment, hesitant at first followed. The captain was cut down by gunfire, but England conquered the no-man’s land and celebrated the battle as the first victory of British football on the front lines.’ (From Football in Sun and Shadow: Eduardo Galeano).

Kochi’s Football Mentors

P.M. Hameed has been single-handedly organizing the C.H.Mohammed Koya Memorial Tournament in the city for the past three decades. This becomes significant when the number of tournaments has dwindled. This one-man army collects funds, invites teams and referees and arranges chairs at the venue. For the first four years it was a Sevens tournament. It has now grown into a full-fledged event. Some of the top footballers have graced the tournament that has been a breeding ground for young players. The money he saves from each edition goes into running of his own club, Blaze Cochin. He still goes about his mission with a cheery smile, unshakeable confidence.

Rufus D’Souza must be in his nineties. He has been teaching football for kids for the past five decades at least. Every day, morning and evening (except Sundays) he is there at Parade Ground, Fort Kochi. For one who played football and hockey with distinction, coaching children is an undying passion. The list of players trained by Rufus runs long and includes many who have played for the State and country.

A bachelor who retired from a nationalised bank Rufus’ life revolves around this sport. A disciplinarian he insists that his trainees follow him. Ask him about his coaching principles and Rufus will say that he teaches them punctuality, personality, behaviour and fair play.

Rufus who started off with Youngsters Football Club is the sheet anchor of Santos Club that has produced many fine players. His coaching career received a fillip when he was invited to be part of Fit India Movement, in New Delhi, a nationwide campaign that aims at encouraging people to include physical activities and sports in their everyday lives.

Seena C.V. is mad about football. She has played for India in the Asian Championship in 1997, is the first Malayali woman to play for East Bengal (2001), and has played the Federation Cup and Senior Nationals every year from 1991 to 2009 for Kerala.

The journey was never easy for Seena who had to endure poverty, discrimination and an orphaned youth. Her early career was fraught with financial difficulties. She had to train barefoot and often use bushes as changing rooms. However, she remained focused and determined. Football gave her a sense of freedom, responsibility, and an identity. Seena works as a sales tax officer and is also the main coach at a football training academy in the city. Football remains her only love. It has given her everything -- her life itself.

And we have P. Sudhakara Varma. He must be in his early seventies. When he pedals through the streets of Tripunithura in his football attire, a football on the carrier and a hand pump in tow there are many who make fun of him. But Varma is simply not bothered. Football is an integral part of his life, a very private, intimate passion.

It took a lot of time and effort for Varma to get a band of youngsters together. Many a time he came back from the ground as the ‘players’ played truant. But he remained unfazed. Varma spends a lot of money buying footballs, boots and jerseys for promising players. Many never returned to play but he goes on.

Varma was the motivating spirit behind Bhagat Soccer and later went on to launch Top-Notch Football Academy. The club, galvanized by Varma’s selfless contributions, has managed to attract a good number of young players. Till the launch of this club Tripunithura was known for cricket. The club has done fairly well in the district league and other tournaments. And today Varma, who is the club’s head coach, is satisfied by the turn out of players.

These are some people who believed in their dreams, in their potential, kept searching, kept believing, not losing faith in them. Look around you’ll find many others.

K Pradeep

Sports Writer and Former Senior Deputy Editor, The Hindu Read more articles..