Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Football in Austin Town, Bangalore: In Motherland Issue #16

I love everything about Motherland, the magazine. I love the size, the themes they do, the articles they carry and the whole wide indie-ness of it. The latest issue is on Football and carries some very interesting articles, including one of mine. I write about the neighbourhood of Austin Town in Bangalore which is home to a lot of footballers at the state, national and international levels.

Read it here or see below. It is a long read.


Mother Mary is not brown skinned. Neither is the child perched on her hip. But in her bright pink sari, garlanded with plastic flowers and real marigolds and standing atop a blue pedestal, she is reminiscent of an Angelo da Fonseca painting. At home in an Indian landscape, and similar to those around who wear colours like her, to those that dress their children in frilly dresses like the baby Jesus she carries. This shrine sits by the road that leads to Nandan Football Ground. At 7 am, the neighbourhood is just waking up for business.

The only ones out and about are the trash collectors, the odd auto rickshaw, a drunk, unsteady on his feet and stumbling home, but sprightly enough to salute me good morning. Everyone here knows Nandan Football Ground. Even if they haven’t been among the line-up of boys kicking the ball on the field themselves, they have likely, over the decades, been the ones that cheered on sons, brothers, or neighbours. Football is a community thing here, but it is also the cult that has kept this, and the surrounding neighbourhoods, firmly in its thrall.

In official municipal papers the neighbourhood is called F Kittel Nagar. This area, in central Bengaluru, was re-named for Reverend Ferdinand Kittel, a German missionary to India in the mid-1800s who finds a firm place in the history of the state and its language for his study of Kannada and the eponymous Kannada-English dictionary that he compiled. No one calls it by that name though, as is the case with many neighbourhoods and cities that are rebranded for political purposes. It remains Austin Town, a throwback to the sepia toned era of the Cantonment, and continues to retain an association with the world of Indian football.

Austin Town is home to a large working class population. Many of them are Tamil-speaking, a majority of them belong to the Christian faith. It is set in the heart of city, just a long stone’s throw from Mahatma Gandhi Road, the aging, swishy neighbourhood that houses boulevards, second hand book stores and restaurants that retain an old world charm. New affluence sits adjacent to what urban planners would deem slums. A glance around either side of the road reveals congested little pathways that give way to one-room homes with zinc sheet roofs, places where the business of living and socialising is conducted on the outer side of the threshold. But every so often there are bigger houses as well, some painted jarringly bright colours, others more quiet and elegant. Cars parked outside narrow gates hint at how financially diverse the residents are.

This neighbourhood (along with Gowthampura in the Ulsoor lake area, Murphy Town, and scores of other roads and clusters grouped under the Shantinagar municipal constituency) is what sports history calls the nursery and the cradle of some of the best football players India has seen. From S Raman, the first player to net a goal for India in the Olympics in 1948, to Shanmugam Venkatesh, currently an assistant coach with the Indian team, to P K Nandan (after whom the football ground is now named), former captain Carlton Chapman, ‘Black Pearl’ Ulaganathan, and many, many others in between, over the last 70 odd years, Austin Town has sent players to every single football club and team in the country.

That morning, I walked past the Mother Mary shrine onto Nandan Grounds. It is flanked by a bright fuschia building and coconut trees, and, in contrast to the sleepy neighbourhood outside the compound, boys in jerseys of various hues crowd the length of the ground. I hear commands to attack here, defend there, run straight. Even to my very untrained eye, the footwork of some of the boys is impressive, their control of the ball is natural, meditative.

I am there to meet Mary Victoria. A coach employed by the Sports Authority of India (SAI), she is an institution in herself. Every summer she conducts a camp for the boys and (some) girls of the area, and every summer forty promising youngsters are cherry picked and coached for free. They practice six days a week, in morning and evening batches. The coaching at the Nandan Football Grounds includes a match every Saturday morning, either one batch versus the other, or one team from Austin Town versus a team from either a school or another part of the city. On the morning I visit, Arun and Nancy are the two volunteer coaches, and their trainees come from thirty different schools, from government schools to private, more expensive ones. They range in ages from children in the fifth standard to those in pre-university classes. Their fathers are maintenance supervisors, painters, and small storekeepers. I didn’t ask, but Victoria pointed out that they come from all faiths, perhaps to assuage a demographical stereotype that is often ascribed to this area.

Victoria, her hair closely cropped, is fierce, funny, and visibly beloved by the boys. She started off kicking a ball around with her brothers in the 1970s, she told me, before becoming a ‘spotter’, a talent scout who travelled to different towns and tournaments to find fresh talent. The boys love football and would play all day if allowed, she said, although the fact that most aren’t equally keen on academics is something that makes her worry constantly.

I told her that I am trying to understand how Austin Town became such a hotbed of football talent. Over the course of researching this story, I heard a variety of answers. The shortest was just that it has always been so. The fathers and grandfathers of these boys played football before them and it was just natural that they picked it up as well. These children will be seen kicking a stone as if it were a ball, so by the time they turn eight or nine, they’ve already ingrained some of the fancy footwork that is crucial in the sport. Add to this the easy access to watching and learning from former Olympians and national level players and the fact that this is a poor neighbourhood where families cannot afford to send their children to the more expensive cricket and tennis camps, and what you get is a ‘nursery’ for football players, where, along with a genuine love for the game, there is the sense that for these boys football is a gateway to get out of the ghetto. It is their way to get famous and get rich.

References to the financial background of the boys are constant. Although the community, and most of their parents, are happy about their children playing, enriching their skills, and winning accolades, they are well aware that they cannot really afford to provide the sort of support that an athlete requires. “I can train them, teach them the best strategies…but what they eat once they go back is very important. Nutrition is very important, but most of these boys cannot afford good food,” Victoria said. For her part, payment arrears she received at work went right back into buying twenty jerseys for her trainees. A friend of hers contributed another twenty.

When she hands out a form that every student has to fill in, she makes them photocopy five more to give to newer trainees, corners are constantly being cut thus. The day I visited she was happy that she had finally managed to get a fixed goal post. Victoria, the children and Bhaskar, a former referee, measured the ground that morning to lay the goal post down. It’s all very hand-to-mouth. At Nandan Grounds girls don’t train, for the simple reason that there are no changing rooms or toilets for them to use.

Victoria knows everyone that comes to the ground by name. I am introduced to Arjunan Shanthakumar; a midfielder who played for the country, went to three Olympics, and was in some of the best clubs - Mohun Bagan, Mohammedan Sporting Club, Dempo Sports, Mahindra and Mahindra, to name a few. He grew up in Viveknagar, next door to Austin Town. “I grew up either watching or hearing about Raman, Kannan, M Arjunan (his father), Pusami and many others. They coached us, we followed them,” he told me. This year Shanthakumar got his ‘A’ coaching license from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), the governing body for Asian football, and one of the six confederations that make up FIFA. This coveted license qualifies him to coach any professional team in Asia, and he said he was waiting for the chance to do so.

The boys in this area are most often picked up by the state teams, good at the game even before they began more rigorous training. The Secretary of the Bangalore State Football Association (BSFA), E Krishna Narayana, told me that players have always come from this area, the neighbourhoods under Shanthinagar constituency. “Football is a poor man’s game,” he said, “poor people play it more. Not like cricket.”

Austin Town has this big fancy ground. Gowthampura, some distance away, lays claim to a Pele statue. Frazer Town is home to the old stars, Ulaganathan included. During the World Cup large screens are set up at every playground and everyone watches the matches together, sporting their favourite team jerseys. Unsurprisingly, the sobriquet of Little Brazil sits happily upon Gowthampura. I imagine little boys on their way to practice passing below the Pele statue and dipping their heads in salute. It is a very plausible scenario in these parts.

Right next to the Bangalore East Railway station, an annual ‘black tournament’ is conducted, so called because they are unregulated. The players sometimes play barefoot and the matches are often rough, the spectators always ready to start a fight. This tournament is called the Independence Cup. Spectators spill over and out of the grounds, hanging from trees, perched on tiny bits of walls, crowding on an over bridge. Thousands attend, just like in the case of every match and tournament in Austin Town and around.

These black tournaments, once scouting grounds for football clubs, are no longer so, specifically not for Bangalore Football Club (BFC). Pradhyum Reddy, the assistant coach at BFC told me, “The boys from these rough areas are more street wise compared to others. They have skills that come in handy. But they are often malnourished.” It is the inevitable curse of a poor household. Reddy continued, “There is rampant ‘age-rigging’, where, owing to poor diets, a lot of the boys can get away with lying about their ages because they look younger.” But the club now prefers more disciplined, professional players. “If a player is genuinely good, we will hear about him. We have our own networks and will see him play in a more structured environment,” Reddy added.

Everyone I talked to reeled off the names of all the players that have called Austin Town their childhood home. Gautam Roy, media officer at East Bengal Club and a football historian, went further and could even detail which year which player scored how many goals for which team. He presented a different theory too, one I had not heard so far. Roy told me that after India won the cricket World Cup in 1983 the stadiums in Bengaluru began to be used more for cricket. The leagues shut down, the very popular Stafford Cup tournament stopped. After a golden period from 1955 till nearly 1970, football became sidelined, he told me. The British showed much interest in developing football and cricket, but one ended up becoming the biggest phenomenon in the country, along with Bollywood, at the cost of the other sport. “BFC has been generating much interest, it might just be the hope for the ‘revival’ of football,” Roy added.

Devoid at least as yet of the glitz, glamour and gloss of the gentleman’s game, it might be a quieter revival. The proverbial road to Brazil is strewn meanwhile, with stones and balls of many shapes and sizes.

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