Mumbai: For 14-year-old Aurochit Patnaik, a devout disciple of Spanish and Barcelona central midfielder Xavi Hernandez, and a keen follower of the English Premier League for the last three years, here is an opportunity that sweetly promises to blur reality with television.
Kick-off countdown: Mumbai school students practise for the Friendship Cup, which starts on Sunday and intends to bring the feel of the World Cup tournament being held in South Africa to the city. Shriya Patil Shinde / Mint
Patnaik will play in the red Spanish colours, just like Xavi, in the Friendship Cup starting on Sunday that coincides with the Fifa World Cup and intends to bring children closer to the tournament being held in South Africa.
The Friendship Cup, like the World Cup that started on Friday, will have 32 teams representing that many countries, divided into eight groups, with a final on 19 June. So Patnaik’s “Spain” will be in Group H, with Switzerland, Chile and Honduras. Each team will play just one knock-out match in its group—unlike the World Cup where every team plays the other before the group leaders advance to the second stage.
The other variation is in the names. “Spain” will joyfully be called “Spanish Idiots” and “Switzerland” is “Swiss Chocolate”, but the players will try and get their jerseys as similar to the countries they represent, including, in some cases, getting the name of the sponsor.
At a practice session on Thursday at the Goan Sports Association grounds near Churchgate, Patnaik presented a range of teenage contradictions. Dressed in a Brazilian yellow-green jersey bearing the name of Ronaldinho on the back, he says his favourite team was England, but since they could not get that team, he was happy with Spain, which had his favourite player Xavi. “I want to play like him, I want to be him,” says Patnaik, after a busy exchange of headers with a player in Argentine blue-white bold stripes.
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Organized by the Kenkre Football Club, the Friendship Cup invited school children from Mumbai to form their own teams of 10 players, with friends, schoolmates, neighbours or any combination that worked. There are 32 teams in each of the age groups—under-12, under-14, under-16, under-19 for boys —and two girls’ teams—under-16 and open.
The players then had to register their teams, picking the country of their choice usually on consensus, though in some cases it did not work to plan. Like Nipun Chauhan, who is rooting for England in the World Cup, but playing for Spain in the Friendship Cup because “at that time it did not strike me to pick England”.
Joshua Lewis, chief operating officer of Kenkre Football Club, says since India was not playing the World Cup, “we thought this would be a good way to build hype and hopefully, get more children involved. Children are so excited to see their icons on TV these days”.
The tournament is set to a cumulative budget of Rs5 lakh, the winning team would get Rs25,000 and the runner-up Rs15,000. Matches are to be played under floodlights at the Dadar Parsi Colony Gymkhana in central Mumbai from 5-10pm, which several boys say would add to the drama. “You play under lights, with the crowd backing you, it feels like you could be at Old Trafford,” says Chauhan, a X standard student of Bombay Scottish School.
Sambhav Jain, dressed in English colours, supporting Argentina in the World Cup and playing for “Germany” in the Friendship Cup, says unlike inter-school competitions, here you can form a team with “the best from each school”.
Apart from dealing with the obvious demand that they organize jerseys, parents have become involved, says Lewis, by becoming “managers” of the teams. “You get to scream from the stands in inter-school competitions. Here, you get to be on the field, making substitutions, which is so much more involving.”
Several boys have bought official merchandise for jerseys, some have just got them made, as close to perfection as the research from the Internet and the local tailor would allow. Most will have their own names on them, though Yash Mhatre, “probably playing for the Netherlands”, feels otherwise.
The student from Our Lady of Perpetual Succour (OLPS), Chembur, says he wouldn’t get his name on the jersey because “we don’t want to play for some other country. We want to play for India”.