Archive for September, 2005

Football Friends

The first full moon day after the sun completes its annual journey across   the equator   is Vishu, the Malayali New Year day. It is a day when children are dressed up in new clothes, the shops burst with goods and families sit down for a traditional lunch- a time for new beginnings.

       It was on one such day in Kannur, a small town some 100 kms north of Calicut, seated with my parents, my sister and little brother for the traditional Vishu lunch that I announced:
      “I am dropping out of school from today to devote my life to being a football star.”
       My sister giggled but then I didn’t expect her to understand a man’s passion for the game; my brother was too small to understand such matters.  My doctor father glanced up from his lunch:

     “You want to be like old Kanaran, who once played for a famous Calcutta club and now limps around rolling beedis at the beedi factory?”, he asked.

“But I will be a star!” I protested.

      My mother stepped in to defuse the situation.

“Here, have some more fish curry- you can decide about being a football star when you finish high school,” said my mother, closing the topic.

      Though I could not drop out of school and do it full time, I spent the next few years of school preparing to be a football star, which at that point to meant getting a place in the local Brother’s Club football team. . It meant rising at dawn, jogging a couple of miles on the Payambalam Beach sands, rushing to school and then rushing back after school to Fort Maidan for football coaching: dribbling the ball through a row of stakes set 12 inches apart from each other as fast as you can, balancing on one leg and tapping the ball dozens of times without it once dropping to the ground…

     Vasco paused in Kannur on his famous  voyage of discovery  and pushed on to Calicut but on his way back stopped by to start work in 1506 on a fort –  that still stands at the edge of Kannur maidan- watching football players in the maidan, Coming to think of it,  the Pilgrims had yet to  land in America and  it would be a dozen years or more after that  for  Babur  to fight  the battle that set up his empire.

      As the sun continued its relentless journey around the equator and the years went by, my dreams of being a football hero gradually gave way to more mundane ones such as academic and corporate success.

     The sun had made many more such trips when I found myself once more in Kannur. It was a Vishu day, again-children dressed in their new clothes, shops  bursting with goods, when   I decided to  go visit Karunakaran-attan and Kunhiraman- attan, the 70-something men who run Football Friends, the free football coaching camp for boys in Kannur..
     It is 6.30 in the evening, there is a power-cut on at that time, and the tiny shack that is their office, huddled in the shadow of the Municipal Football Stadium, is darker than usual. 
     Karunakaran-attan and Kunhiraman- attan are seated at a wooden table littered with papers. They are dressed in white khadi dhotis and shirts. Behind them is a sign with moveable letters that said ‘9095’, the number of days their free coaching camp has been in business, roughly 24 years.

     The walls of the shack are covered with photographs of past graduating classes, commendations from FIFA, Asian and Indian football functionaries, photographs of visiting politicians and action pictures of legendary players like Pele and Maradonna cut out from magazines.

      There is also a photograph of me flanked by Karunakaran-attan and Kunhiraman- attan; for the past 10 years I have been underwriting the cost of the boots and jerseys which are issued free of cost to the 50-odd kids who train here every year. Karunakaran-attan and Kunhiraman- attan believe that this way, kids from relatively affluent families (who can afford boots and jerseys) and those from impoverished families (the vast majority) are on a level playing field.

      A dozen kids are selected from the several hundred 12-year olds who apply every year and coached two hours every evening for the next four years. Graduates from this school are the mainstay of the Kerala Santosh trophy teams and several of them have even made it to the Indian national football team.

     To be a football player or fan in India is a heart-breaking endeavour, football in India being in great disarray since the mid- 80’s. That’s when India won the Cricket World Cup and since then virtually all available sports funding has been sucked into cricket leaving very little for any other sport. As Karunakaran-attan and Kunhiraman- attan once explained to me, a country’s success in a sport is dependant on the per capita spending on that sport and not as much on talent and aptitude as it is often believed.

“How are things going?” I asked as I entered the shack.
“Everything is fine,” they said. “We are busy organizing a souvenir a special-issue publication which we hope will bring in at least Rest 20,000.”
“Are advertisers responding?” I asked
“Nobody we’ve approached so far has said no”, they said.
Karunakaran-attan and Kunhiraman- attan then filled me in on events since the last three months that I had visited them.

While I waited for their account to finish before I set off on the one hour trek back to my mother’s house I could see in the fading light the Do’s and Don’ts painted in big white letters on a black board posted prominently at the entrance to the shack:

“Beat the opponent by skill not by unfair means”, said one.

“When an opponent helps you with a free throw, never take advantage of his being out of position”, said another

“Accept victory modestly and defeat cheerfully”, said a third.

Dribbling, ball-passing, shooting and heading skills are what the kids work on for a grueling two hours every day for the four years that they train at the FootballFriendsFreeCoachingSchool. The one’s that work really hard at these skills make it to the State or National teams and with that to jobs in   institutions that field football teams for the National Football League and provide these players with real jobs when their playing days are over and with pensions when they retire.

Football is a young man’s game and one’s playing days, even in non-competitive football, are over by one’s early 20’s.

Maybe the true lessons that will stay with these boys long after their football playing days are over are the one’s written on that black board.




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