An actor, an engineer, a wicketkeeper-batsman, a nomad and a village boy. These five disparate characters are the unlikely cast of this football story. And, with all their heart, they made a nation fall in love.
By Siddhanth Aney
Part 1: India gets Hooked
The Faceless Fan
At a nondescript corner of Eldams Road in the heart of Chennai sits the Velu Military Hotel. History, or lore if you prefer, traces these military hotels back to World War II, when the influx of, presumably, non-vegetarian military men led to the sprouting of these restaurants serving the most delectable Chettinad delights. From the regular mutton, chicken and fish to the more exotic variations of crab masala, prawns, liver and lungs, these military hotels are a meat-eater’s delight. And so it was that, soon after we checked into our hotel in nearby T. Nagar on the day of the second leg of the ISL semifinal between Chennaiyin FC and Kerala Blasters FC, we made our way to Eldams to sample what was on offer. We were late, for the meal at least. All that was left was a stupendous mutton biryani and mutton sukha (dry). Disappointment turned to delight as we began to make our way through the meal; served on a banana leaf by akka (elder sister) who doubles as the post-lunch cleaning lady. Names are strictly on a need-to-know basis. She is akka and we are thambi (younger brother). The relationship is preordained. Good as the meal is, the best is yet to come.
“Are you here for the football match, saar,” was the half-question. We clearly didn’t belong. Dressed in jacket and trousers in the 30-degree heat, speaking in Hindi and arriving for lunch when almost everything on the menu had already been consumed by hundreds of appreciative locals who came at the right time. Our responses were monosyllabic, to begin with. Food was the priority. But when the meal ended there was more time to talk.
This thambi, it turned out, was a football fan. He was also a civil engineer from Madurai who had just moved to the big city in search of a job that befitted his education. It hadn’t been easy, and that’s why he was a manager at this Chennai institution. “It is just a day job to earn some money to pay the rent,” he says. He also makes sure to ask us not to print his name when we tell him we are journalists. “Soon I will find something so that I can support my family and make a life of my own. Do you have a ticket to the game?” The question is slipped in without a pause and there is hope in his eyes. Fortunately, we do have a ticket. And, since it is the end of his shift, thambi offers to show us around. He is the proverbial faceless fan. Of little means, in love with the game and in search of a good time. Football is his escape from the drudgery. At the game, he is a fan. Not an engineer working at a restaurant because he can’t get a job. There, the pride is reserved for his team’s performance—not for his social standing or how much money he manages to send home to Madurai.
The tour begins at the “bar” next door. Thambi is reluctant at first. We manage to convince him that the people in the joint care far more about the level of their glasses than the clothes other patrons are wearing. It doesn’t take long. He downs the quarter of rum with a dash of orange soda in one thirsty gulp. The evening is looking up. Work hours are over and a number of daily-wage earners troop into the establishment. There is an air-conditioned section upstairs where we can sit for the princely sum of `20, but the section smells of stale urine and sweat. Little wonder it’s unoccupied—apart from the three staffers taking a break and watching Bollywood songs on the flat-screen TV.
“In one hour, after they have spent all their money, most of these men will go to a TV and watch the game,” thambi informs us. The talk in the bar is already of the game. Chennaiyin are down three goals after a first-leg drubbing in Kerala and there is little hope of a turnaround. We wonder if there will be anyone at the stadium. “You’ll see,” is the cryptic reply. The gleam is back in his eyes. He’s going to the football game—with a `600 ticket in hand. It’s a Tuesday evening. We aren’t too hopeful.
All that changes as we cross Chennai Central Station. We take a right and suddenly there are hordes of young men—almost exclusively men—walking, jogging, on bikes, hanging out of buses. Everyone is wearing the blue jersey of the local club. We spot former India cricketer Robin Singh driving an SUV, headed in the same direction. Maybe people are interested, after all.
At the junction opposite the stadium is a mosque. It is time for the evening prayer and there are hundreds of the faithful sending their messages to God. Across the road are thousands more, lining up to pray at a different sort of temple. It is a sight that makes the heart leap. On the streets we find the only girls involved in the evening’s proceedings—aggressively hawking Chennaiyin FC jerseys. There are plenty of takers. Boys all around are pulling the synthetic T-shirts over whatever it is they have come wearing. It is hard to refuse.
“One more stop before we go inside,” thambi says. The street parallel to the mosque is Nabi Khan Subedar Street. At the end of that street is the Central Park Hotel and the bar that fans have no choice but to attend for a pre-game tipple. All the tables are packed with men in blue. Beer is the drink of choice, but with half an hour to kick-off, there is no time for all that. Thambi, now emboldened, asks for a large scotch, waving away the waiter who wants to know how much we paid for our jersey. “Good price, saar,” he says, grinning ear to ear and piling the table with an array of bar snacks that range from puffed rice to idli and sambar. “Chennai will win today, saar.”
Win or not, this sleepy seaside town masquerading as a big city had done more than enough to convince us that football had taken hold. Two months since its glittering, Bollywood-inspired and scepticism-laden opening game, the ISL had gripped the nation.
All The World’s A Stage, This The Most Glorious
Cut to earlier that afternoon at the Hyatt Regency on Anna Salai. It is home to the two teams playing and the list at the check-in desk offers a rare (understatement of the year) occasion when our names are on the same list as
Amitabh Bachchan—the undisputed
king of the Hindi film industry and
father of Abhishek, who owns the home team along with Vita Dani.
Abhishek’s is an unenviable existence—although he betrays no impact of those pressures. Son of the most famous Indian alive (no offence to Sachin Tendulkar or Rajinikanth), there is no doubt Abhishek had a privileged and protected childhood. That he chose to walk down the path where every milestone is covered in giant billboards bearing his father’s name is in equal parts brave and foolhardy. His Twitter profile reads, “Actor…well at least some say so!” There is no way Abhishek is foolish enough to have ever believed his films would not be compared to those made by his father. He also isn’t foolish enough to believe he could have ever matched up. If that wasn’t pressure enough, Abhishek went ahead and fell in love with, and married, Aishwarya Rai, considered among the most beautiful women in the world. If nothing else, we know this about Abhishek from the outset—he is self-deprecating in good measure, appears to have balls of steel and has more (by about 1.3 million) Twitter followers than the official account of the Indian prime minister’s office. Oh, and he has a thing for sport. “Even becoming an actor wasn’t very socially acceptable in India,” says Abhishek, dressed in his match-day attire of team jersey and jeans. “And, while I grew up in the West, where sport was as viable a career choice as any other, in India that has never been the case. Years ago I met Dhanraj Pillay, who was then [hockey] captain of India, and he wasn’t complaining but he was telling me about the conditions under which they play and I was totally flummoxed.”
For the past few years Abhishek had been thinking about getting involved in sport but didn’t do anything towards that till a meeting with Charu Sharma led to an involvement with the first season of the Pro Kabaddi League. “I thought it was a bit left field at first. My father taught me the sport when he played it in one of his films, Ganga Ki Saugand, but I really hadn’t kept in touch with it. So Charu took me to a game, and I was hooked. When he mentioned the league, I instinctively said yes. That’s when I realised, okay, I’ve said yes, now I have to figure out what this means.”
The name ‘Pink Panthers’ is a mix of the obvious—Jaipur being the Pink city—and the personal. His wife acted in a Pink Panther movie and, as a child, when his father referred to him as “tiger”, Abhishek recalls responding by calling his father “panther”. Not knowing too much about his acting career, the thought in our minds at that point was that either this man is the most brilliant actor in the world or he really is into this gig.
Kabaddi unfolded like a Bollywood script for Bachchan’s team. From going into a player auction where he knew none of the players and had to rely solely on the judgement of his coach, to losing his best players because the Army later decided not to allow them to compete, to going and winning the league. But that story is for a different day. Kabaddi gave Abhishek the roadmap for what he wanted to do with football and today is about Chennaiyin. Here too the personal links are immediately established. Abhishek is a Chelsea fan. Is that why the colours, we ask. “What do you think?” comes the response. Followed immediately by, “There isn’t only one CFC.”
“I had initially bid for an ISL team but didn’t win because I guess it was a bit out of my league,” he says, not feigning modesty so much as realising the difference in the depth of pocket of an actor and, say, a steel company. “Then I was at the World Cup in Brazil and met Sepp Blatter and he said something like, you guys have 1.2 billion people but you can’t put 11 on a pitch… That really upset me and reignited the fire. When I got back, the Bengaluru team had fallen through so I called Vita and the ISL and asked if there was a team. And then we went for it.”
Chennai wouldn’t have been Abhishek’s first choice. It wouldn’t have been anyone’s. Compared to every other franchise up for grabs, the city, on the face of it, was the most football-unfriendly. “The night we won the kabaddi, I went from dinner to the airport and to Rome to meet Marco [Materazzi]. We were meant to sign Ronaldinho at that point but missed out on him by about 15 minutes. But Marco was on board and I really liked him. He has the credentials and he had this air of calm about him that I thought we needed. It didn’t hurt that he trained under José [Mourinho]. And then came the countless hours on Skype with the three of us filling in the team roster.”
Clearly, he had a little more background on football than kabaddi. He goes on to talk about tactics and his players for the next 20 minutes—including the Indians. It was more than mildly surprising that this star knew of the versatility of Harmanjot Khabra, that he knew Jeje Lalpekhlua and
Balwant Singh were a strong striking pair and that Gouramangi Singh was an influential player in the Indian set up. A year ago, perhaps, his knowledge of European football might have been as sound as it is today. But it seems highly unlikely that these Indian names would roll off his tongue with such ease. Here was a team owner talking to us hours before his side would line up to try and overcome a three-goal deficit in the hope of making it to the first final of the ISL. And he spoke of his boys with nothing less than love and respect. He was one of the boys at Chennaiyin FC, not just the boss. Abhishek Bachchan is not the greatest actor on the planet. But he is a fanboy. And he is living every fan’s dream.
The match itself was epic. Kerala did their damnedest to throw away what seemed like a done deal. Chennai pulled three goals back and sent the game into extra time. At half-time Abhishek wrapped a blue lungi over his jeans and spent the next 15 minutes revving up the crowd. The lucky lungi, he calls it. When his boys drew level we had our eyes on the man in the stands. Amitabh Bachchan stood in the owners’ box next to his son and daughter, Nita Ambani and her husband, Mukesh, and the Kerala Blasters’ owners, screaming, “CFC, CFC.” It looked like he was going to pop a vein. Abhishek met our glance and yelled over the crowd, “Lucky lungi, baby!”
This was the story of the ISL’s opening season. From faceless boys belonging to mofussil towns struggling to make an honest living in the dirty mess that is urban India, to the mind-numbingly rich—who flew in for games on their private jets and drove from the airport in a fleet of Bentleys. Everyone was hooked. India could do football. Heck, India was doing football.
Part 2: The Boys Who Got us Hooked
Chennaiyin FC lost the semifinal that day. They lost to Tendulkar’s boys. They lost to a team that played with as much heart and they lost to a goal from a man who is no stranger to scoring big goals. Stephen Pearson, the redheaded Scottish midfielder who played for Glasgow Celtic, has scored in the Champions League. He has also scored in what is perhaps the most valuable game in all of football. In the 2007 Championship playoff finals, Pearson scored the only goal in Derby County’s victory over West Bromwich Albion, earning his team promotion to the Premier League and the millions of pounds that come with it. On Oct. 16, 2014, he made history again, sending the Kerala Blasters through to the first final. The question “who will be the first champion,” would be decided between Kerala and Atlético de Kolkata.
Ishfaq Ahmed was born and raised on the banks of the Jhelum in Barbarshah,
Srinagar. The son of a BSNL employee and one of three siblings—his brother is a software engineer and his sister a homemaker with two young sons. Like every other Indian boy, he used to play cricket. A wicketkeeper-batsman, Ishfaq played cricket in school and at the club level. But his heart wasn’t really in it. “When I wasn’t batting I used to get quite bored,” he recollects, sitting in his parents’ home on a chilly winter’s day in Srinagar. His nephews are on holiday from school and spend all their time in their grandparents’ home, seeking indulgence over their mother’s tough love. They are sleeping near the hamam (warm room) as Ishfaq takes us though his eventful career.
Life changed for him when he was selected to captain the Kashmir side that represented the North Zone in the national Under–21 championship. In the zonal finals, they beat a Delhi team led by Sunil Chhetri, current captain of the national team. “I remember Priyaranjan Das Munsi presenting me the best player award for that tournament,” Ishfaq says. “It was the first day of the rest of my life. After that, the offers from clubs started coming in and I knew football would be my career.”
Peter Vales, the much-liked Salgaocar coach, made Ishfaq an offer, but the 19-year-old thought it better to pick a smaller club, one where he would feature more in the starting line-up. He went to HAL, in Bengaluru, along with teammate and close friend Mehraj Wadoo. At HAL he gained confidence, playing as a striker, and scored regularly in the Karnataka league. “I was young and strong and quick then. I loved scoring goals. But playing in the middle of the park was a natural progression.”
Soon after, he was picked to play the Olympic qualifying tournament by then (and perhaps now, once again) national team coach Stephen Constantine. In his first game in India colours, Ishfaq scored against Turkmenistan. He did enough to merit a call-up to the senior national camp. It seemed the world was his oyster.
“Things were so different back then,” Ishfaq recalls. “It was the first time India had Adidas as the kit sponsor. We were just happy to get the kit. And there were so many great players in the squad. Ashim Biswas was one of the most talented of the younger lot. Bhaichung [Bhutia] was at his peak. Then there were guys like I.M. Vijayan and Jobhai [Jo Paul Ancheri] and Renedy [Singh]bhai. For a 19-year-old, just being in the same camp and watching these guys play and training with them was a dream. Of course, we all wanted to play, but you understood if you weren’t first choice.”
Since then, Ishfaq has played for Dempo, Mohun Bagan (including, captaining the Kolkata giants for a season), Salgaocar and Mohammedan Sporting. He has won two I-League titles and four Federation Cups. “Not bad, eh?” he asks. Yet, Ishfaq has always been on the fringes of the national team while his statemate, Wadoo, went on to represent the country several times.
“We all dream of playing for India,” he says. “You must have had the same dream. So, yeah, it’s disappointing not to have played for India. Particularly in the 2009–10 season, and then again in 2012, when I had really good runs in the I-League. But, I guess, there have always been players ahead of me in my position and it’s a team sport. I just thank God for what has been and try not to worry too much about what could have been.” Hard men in midfield can also possess wisdom.
“Forget Ishfaq Ahmed, before the ISL, no one knew any of us. Today, my phone wasn’t working so I went out to get it fixed. Every shop I went to, the guys behind the counter were saying, ‘hard luck, losing the final’, or ‘you played really well’. For an athlete, that is what it is all about. You do your best for the team but more so for the fans, and for the first time in India, we have had fans to really play for. Shopkeepers in Srinagar watching a football game? If you told me that even three months ago I would have laughed at you. But it’s happening, and it’s going to be great for the next generation of Indian footballers.”
Talk to any Indian who played the league and he will say the same thing. They have never seen crowds like this, they have never had hotels like this, they have never had this kind of medical attention. Sure, there are one or two clubs that work the same way in the I-League. But this was universal. And the grounds. “I don’t know how they did it,” Ishfaq says. “We couldn’t believe we were playing on Indian grounds. Even the practice venues were superb.”
Being from Kashmir comes with its own burden. One of them is having to entertain reporters’ questions on politics. Like Wadoo, Ishfaq is unequivocal. “I am not political and neither is Mehraj so much, but I am very attached to Kashmir. I have only received love from the people here and I care deeply about them. We have a saying in Kashmiri that translates roughly as ‘If you get cut, people can tell you it will be okay. But only you can feel the pain.’ That cut is what the people of Kashmir feel. I am not talking about the rich. They go out and live their lives. But when we have curfew and hartals, it’s the poor who suffer. The young who want to play and go to school, the old who need to get to hospital. The lack of opportunity makes the young, educated class angry. The middle-class is seething, and suffering. What happens to the poor hawker who sets up a roadside stall for a day to feed his kids? What does he do when there is a curfew? We need a permanent resolution to Kashmir but there isn’t one coming anytime soon. There is a new government now, but like the old one they too are in it for themselves, not for us. Ummeed pe duniya kayam hai.”
Hope springs eternal, particularly when it comes to sport. Ishfaq, Wadoo and their friend, cricketer Parvez Rasool, are the brightest sporting talents in the state. Watching them is an inspiration to the younger lot. Wadoo once said that, if it weren’t for football, he too would be on the streets, throwing stones at the security forces. Everyone needs a channel. And just like that we move back to football.
One of Ishfaq’s new best mates is English striker Michael Chopra. The 31-year-old was Kerala’s first pick in the international player draft. “When David [James] called me and asked if I wanted to join his team I said yes without a hitch,” says Chopra. “I had been planning to move to India to play the I-League because I wasn’t sure the Super League would take off, but, when the offer came, I jumped at it.”
The former Newcastle, Cardiff, Sunderland and Ipswich striker has had a difficult, yet rewarding career in football. He was picked up by current caretaker-manager John Carver to play for the Toon when he was just nine. This was all before the time when the English FA was actively looking to involve the South Asian community in football. He became the first player of Indian parentage to score in the Premier League. And it wasn’t easy.
“My parents backed me but it wasn’t like that for other Indian kids of my generation,” he says. “Their parents wanted them to be professionals—doctors, solicitors, lawyers—not professional footballers. That is changing now. And when people watch the ISL and see how big football is in India, it will be a catalyst.”
When Chopra first joined up with his Kerala teammates, he wasn’t too impressed with the Indian boys. “I don’t know if it was because I hold myself to a higher standard but the seriousness just wasn’t there,” he recalls. Players would be too casual when they lost the ball, goalkeepers would laugh when they conceded. “Sure, it was practice, but I couldn’t understand how you could play competitively if you couldn’t practise competitively. You look at the European players, when they lose the ball they get upset. They work hard to win it back. I just couldn’t figure it out.” So in the first few days Chopra would hang out with the “English lot” in the team—Iain Hume, Colin Falvey, Stephen Pearson. “I asked Renedy why they were like this and he just laughed. He told me not to be so hard on them, that they would change and that it was only because they were used to a certain standard. They hadn’t seen anything else.”
Within a couple of weeks, that change was underway. The Indian players realised they had to play harder, do more, get noticed. The world was watching and they would either come off as foolish, amateurish or talent not worthy of the big tamasha. “Boy, did they do well,” Chopra says, with not a little sense of pride. “They did so well that there were times we chose to play with five foreign players and six Indians rather than the other way around.” By the time he left India, Chopra’s nightly coffee was shared with Renedy, Ishfaq, Sushant Mathew, Nirmal Chhetri and Godwin Franco. He was one of the local lads. So much so, that after years of it being in the works, Chopra has now formally begun the process of giving up his British passport to chase the dream of international football with India. “It’s the full circle as far as my football life is concerned,” he says.
And then there was the final. Chopra was ridiculed by sections of the Indian press for being too fat and unfit to play. In response, he managed to overcome a hamstring and an ankle injury and played all 120 minutes of the semifinal second leg. He was also pulling all the strings for Kerala in the final. When the ball fell to him inside the six-yard box, Chopra swivelled and unleashed a vicious strike that seemed destined for the left side of the goal. Yet, somehow, Edel Bete in the Kolkata goal got both hands to the ball. It was a save he will probably not make ever again. Chopra can only shake his head in resignation. “I have been on the other end of it in a Welsh derby,” he says. “Swansea had a great chance that somehow our keeper saved and then, a couple of minutes later, I went up the other end and scored the winner. Now I know what being on the receiving end feels like.” In sport, you’re never always on top.
But sport does change lives. Few know that better than the man who made Chopra, and all of Kerala, taste the salt of their tears. Mohammad Rafique started playing football at the Milan Sangha training camp in Kolkata where the poor send their children to play. From there he went on to Rainbow Academy in Kolkata’s second division, Tollygunge Agragami in the first division, Prayaag United in the I-League, Atlético de Kolkata and now East Bengal. “Aapko maloom nahin hai kitna,” he says, when we asked him how much had changed since he realised he was good with the ball at his feet. “I grew up as an Argentina fan, but Ronaldinho was my favourite player.” Traditional rivalries be damned. All Rafique cared about was the sport. His father, the only earning member of the family, worked in a jute mill. “He never let me know how difficult it was for him to feed me and my two sisters and brother,” Rafique says. “He also never let me feel like I needed to do anything other than play football.”
Back in his neighbourhood Rafique is a hero. To his family, he is a legend. His parents didn’t come to the final because work is on to finish their new house. The house their son is building for them. To them, the grand finalé didn’t matter. Nor would the result. Win or lose, Rafique is the son who changed not just his life, but all of theirs.
“My sisters don’t let me lift a finger when I go home,” he says shyly. “I get so much love there and I think it is also because I listen to whatever my family tells me.” But the best part? “It has to be playing with the kids back in Milan Sangha,” he grins. “Everybody in my neighbourhood knows me. The kids want to play with me and when I go back, that is what I do. Their love is pure. It feels great.”
Ishfaq didn’t feel as great after Rafique’s glancing header beat David James (53 caps for England, 170 Premier League clean sheets) at his near post just as the referee was about to blow the whistle, signalling 30 minutes of extra time. “After the final, I was talking to [Alessandro] Del Piero,” that’s when we cut him off. He laughs, “Yeah, imagine that. Del Piero was watching a game I was playing and after the game he came up to us and told us he couldn’t believe we hadn’t won it. We should have won it. But it has been incredible. After the match we lost in Goa, Zico came to me and told me how well I played. When I met André Santos and told him I am an Arsenal fan, he gave me his shirt. Forget me, even the really great Indian players couldn’t have imagined anything like this.”
Ishfaq and Mathew were in tears when Tendulkar walked up to console them. “He said, ‘In all the years I’ve played cricket I’ve been through a lot worse. I had never won the World Cup. All you can do is your best. The result is upto God. I don’t care about the trophy. You won hearts’.” And that goes not just for Kerala.