Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Alive and Kicking

By Ajit Chaudhuri
Written in December 2003
Published in Simply Delhi of January-March 2004

Are you one of those who is bleary eyed at work every four years in June with your body clock adjusted to the time in some faraway country? For whom the World Cup brings about images of men in yellow rather than blue? Who, if invited by Aishwarya Rai to her home for a cosy dinner for two, would check if she has ESPN before accepting? If you are, then join the growing tribe of football fans in Delhi.

A love affair with football used to be painful for the urbane Delhi-ite. Play in school, and get yelled at by your parents on the need to “focus your energy on your future”. Play on in college and watch the cricketers, basketballers, badminton players and even the chess players get the girls. Join a job and that used to be it.

Initially Delhi had only two football tournaments, the DCM and the Durand. Though it was fun to watch JCT Mills play a Bengali or Goan team, the football was mediocre. You had to skip work to watch the game. And there was always the risk of being tear-gassed if some local team lost by a contentious goal. The only real options were to switch to golf or some racquet game, or to give it up all together. Either way, there was a void in life.

But not any more! Football renaissance is evident everywhere. Quality football from around the world can be viewed week in and week out. There is also an abundance of playing options available to the recreational footballer. The football facilities at the Siri Fort sports complex and the practice grounds outside the Nehru Stadium are hotbeds of activity. Tournaments for children and working people have started to catch on. Informal teams have sprung up. Corporate firms too have begun supporting players.

What is it that makes grown men become willing to bear the aches and pains, the prospect of serious injury, early mornings and a nagging wife to play the game? To play, despite being too fat, too old or too slow, even if it is more impressive at cocktail parties to say “I play golf”. It may not be logical, but the only reason is that they love this game. It is a love that cuts through age, gender, race, religion, ethnicity and nationality. It is a love that you either have or you don’t, and if you don’t you will never understand.

If you share the obsession and venture out on to a football field, there are some fringe benefits. The first is that football has a certain therapeutic value. Much of the frustration of staying in Delhi – driving in traffic, dealing with rude people, struggling with power cuts and water scarcity – get drained out of you in that weekly hour on the football field.

Second, the game itself is physically demanding and playing regularly ensures a certain level of physical fitness. In addition, the realisation that some daily exercise can reduce the chances of you making a fool of yourself at the weekend inevitably dawns, and one begins to wake up early and do some jogging and toe touching.

Third, the football field is still a man’s space. In a world in which women are coming into bars, cricket stadiums and late-night movie shows, there is a dearth of places where a man can be a man without being politically incorrect. On the football field, there is no one to impress with your metrosexual sensitivity or your sweet nature.

Fourth, you make new friends. Delhi, as we all know, is a place where friends (as opposed to acquaintances and contacts) are not easily made. And the phrase ‘come over sometime’ means don’t come at all. But your football team is a group that you meet regularly. There is no pretence, and your mates know a side of you that even your family is unfamiliar with.

Fifth, you impress chicks. Telling beautiful women that your interests include football, and that you play over the weekend, conjures up images of a David Beckham-like character. They don’t need to know that you are part of a group of middle-aged beer-bellied men kicking a ball around. However, it is advisable not to be too generous with this information – requests to come and watch you play are not easy to refuse and can be euphemisms for ‘I want to marry you and make you go vegetable shopping on weekends for the rest of your life’.

Lastly, you impress your children and their friends. There is nothing like taking your children for your football game and letting them see their old man doing the same things that are on ESPN, albeit at a slightly different level. If they are a little older, they can even play along with you. It is these memories that they will carry of you into the long-term future, not the fact that you grouched about their results and were miserly with their pocket money.

If, by some chance, you are now convinced about making that move from the seat in front of your TV to the ground in front of your house, there are a few things you should know. The first is that football is a contact sport, and you will have severe aches and pains until your body is used to the strain. This takes time. You will also be injured occasionally in places that you won’t remember from your schoolboy playing days, and you will take longer to recover. Playing on Sunday will mean walking into office on Monday and probably Tuesday looking as if you have an exotic sexual disease. The second is that should you continue playing, there might be marital strife in the offing. Football takes up free time – the game itself, and then the time rendered immobile with injuries, time that could have been devoted to the family and to socialising.

So just focus on going out and doing it! Find a team, or form one, start playing, and fall in love again. You will never be the same.

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