Yesterday, I had a first-time experience. Most of my sports viewing has happened on the idiot box and the internet, mobile, print and radio are strong support media in my sports experience which really leaves one viewership/audience channel that is relatively unexplored and that has to be on-ground presence. Wherever else you may witness sports, there is no denying the fact that watching people play in front of you is a completely different experience all together.
Going with dad to the lovely Keenan Stadium in Jamshedpur to watch a domestic cricket match is my first memory of watching live organized sports. Over the years, I have been to the occasional international cricket match at the Keenan and at Kotla in Delhi, a trip to scenic Alleppey for the Nehru Trophy boat race was another divine experience and more recently I have had the privilege to watch football games at the Parc du Princes in Paris, Emirates Stadium in London and the Olympic Stadium in Barcelona. But it was not until yesterday, that I had my first experience of club level football in India and what a delightful feeling it was.
The Bangalore Super League kicked off yesterday and Anshu and I had discussed the idea of catching some games this season. So when Anshu called late afternoon proposing that we catch the season opener, there was not much thinking to do.
Kickoff time was at 4:00 in the evening and the venue was the KSFA ground which is located near the heart of Bangalore. Vohra and I had been there once, when our wives were shopping in a mall opposite the ground and I vaguely remember that a game was about to start or had just finished. What I do remember is that we never did see any action that day but that the stadium looked decent and the fact that it had one covered stand and fairly decent seating on three sides was impressive.
And so Tullu and I reached the ground around five minutes late and Anshu was waiting for us having already bought the tickets. Tickets came in two denominations of Rs. 5/- and Rs. 20/- and we had tickets for the privileged gallery. Funnily, the man behind the counter only gave Anshu two tickets insisting that it would not be a problem for us to enter the ground, obviously pocketing the twenty on the third ticket. Scams in Indian football could hardly be expected to be of a bigger scale!
Anyway, so our two tickets did turn out to be sufficient to let three of us enter and we reached the seating area to see the last few minutes of a lower division league game, where Anshu noticed a couple of his friends playing.
The KSFA ground is quite satisfactory as a venue to host games at this level and it’s three stands should comfortably hold a couple of thousand spectators if ever so many turned up to watch local football. There were about 150 to 200 people present with everyone sitting on one side of the ground and a few plastic chairs probably differentiated the twenty rupee seating from the five rupee seating. Anyway, nobody was checking or bothered. The audience consisted of youngsters and a handful of veterans who may have been ex-players or KSFA members or something similar. A set of four occupied chairs and a table roughly in the center of the seating area was marked “Press” and four journalists sat there waiting to scribble the proceedings in their small notebooks. The pitch looked green and welcoming and though the grass felt a little heavy and unevenly cut, I have seen enough worse quality pitches in Indian football games on TV to be disappointed. It will be interesting to see how the ground holds up as a frenzy of matches takes place over the next couple of months.
All preliminaries done and we headed for the Super League kick-off and the score board kept at one lonely corner of the ground told us for the first time exactly who is it that we had gone to see play. ASC versus BHEL was the verdict of the score board. A club representing the Army and one a public sector engineering company! And then out stepped the teams – one in Orange and one in Yellow but for a while it was difficult to say who was who. That was until the ASC goalkeeper’s jersey thankfully gave away the secret that the men in Orange were ASC and ergo, the Yellow team were BHEL.
The teams lined up and pictures were taken and a group of veterans were felicitated. Microphone announcements in Kannada indicated that they had represented India in the 1956 Olympics, though my knowledge of Kannada and the quality of the loudspeaker (as well as the speaker) may mean that I might be mistaken. While all this happened, Anshu chose to support ASC, I decided to back BHEL and together we decided that Tullu should cheer for the referee.
ASC looked smarter as a team, thanks partially to their tall and very athletic looking and smartly attired goalkeeper. They also looked to be significantly more experienced with the BHEL team consisting of a number of players who were almost pre-puberty. The ASC line up also looked more cosmopolitan than their public sector counterparts, whose team seemed to consist almost entirely of local boys.
And then they kicked off. Around fifteen minutes after the scheduled time but nobody seemed to mind that, us included. The first couple of minutes were tentative for both sides but ASC quickly got into the groove and the tone of play was set early. The ASC right back carried the ball forward and played it to number 18 who was the right midfielder in ASC’s 4-4-2 and the wide man crossed the ball into the box. This process was repeated over and over again with a few similar moves from the left being the only variation.
Every cross that sailed into the BHEL box, so their keeper flaying arms and their defenders completely losing track of the ball and yet ASC could not find the net. Within the first twenty five minutes they had missed 5-6 sitters and had hit the post twice or thrice. The chief culprit for ASC was one of their strikers, a short fellow from the north east who clearly had never learnt of the term “finish”.
The words horrendous and hilarious come to mind while trying to describe the spectacle. BHEL were pathetic! They couldn’t kick, pass, defend or hold possession. Their goalkeeper would wave to the skies on every cross and they simply seemed to have no idea of what to do. He also walked funny, but that I noticed much later.
ASC were playing well and they had a clear strategy to attack from the flanks and put crosses in and they had a clearly identified creative force in their number eighteen. They seemed to be superior and accomplished but in front of goal they turned out to be entertaining rather than clinical.
After a number of mis-kicks and blunder-heads, they did suddenly have a very decent shot on goal, but the BHEL goalkeeper who had looked a no-hoper till then, suddenly pulled off a spectacular save.
The drama went on till about the thirty minute mark, when finally true to the spirit of the
encounter, a goal that led to much laughter in the stands was conceded by BHEL. One of their desperate clearance attempts after yet another mis-kicked effort on goal by ASC, rebounded off an attacker and the ball cannoned back into the goal. In a way, it ended the misery for BHEL who were almost looking embarrassed at not having conceded till then.
And from then on the goals kept coming for ASC. Three came in the first half, including one for the short mis-firing striker, which really was the most spectacular piece of play for the evening. He collected the ball, turned, beat the challenge of two defenders and shot from the edge of the box into the corner of the goal for the “play of the day” moment. Meanwhile the second goal had been equally comic with the BHEl defense setting up a finish for ASC by meekly playing the ball to them when they were under almost no pressure.
Three nil at half-time and it finished five nil after ninety. After the break ASC changed tactics and played a lot more through the middle. That allowed us to get a glimpse of their number 7, who looked like a very decent midfielder. Towards the end they relaxed a bit and let BHEL put some passes together, but for whatever little possession, they had, BHEL never came close to scoring.
So the game was done and we got back to the world outside, with strong commitments to be back soon enough. HAL is playing next week and that is a game I would definitely like to watch.
The fun and games were not just restricted to football. Anshu managed to get an offer to play for a lower division club. We suggested that he should charge 25,000 pounds a week and Anshu suggested that the guy who approached him may not have seen 25,000 rupees in his life. Then there was the only ball-boy for the game. A twelve-ish year old who would disappear for long times and then magically appear to change the scoreboard after every goal. And who was found sitting comfortably in the stands well after the second half kicked off.
So that was my first experience of league football in India. Not really top-level even by Indian standards, but these are the foundations on which are 150th rank is built. It is pitiful yet entertaining. The characters involved are few but colorful and I’m happy to finally be a small part of it. Will get back with more on the Bangalore Super League later and will remember to carry a camera next time so that I can also post some pictures.