It was the evening India lost to Sri Lanka at the 2007 World Cup. By 8pm, as the Indian line-up crumbled, people in Bandra started streaming out onto the streets with the hope of redeeming the rest of the Friday evening.
On my way to the neighbourhood fruit vendor, I stumbled on Venetia, my neighbour, mother of five-year-old Carl. I see her taking Carl to school every day, picking him up from the playground, carrying her vegetable bag from the market. This evening, I had to stop and look. Venetia’s head was covered by a round, shiny, metallic helmet. She carried a pair of long boots with flat soles and some more strange gear that looked like a snorkelling jacket. I had to ask.
“I’m part of Sea Views now, darling,” she said.
“An aqua sports club or something?” I asked.
“You don’t know Sea Views? It’s the best rink football team in Bandra now.”
So, I discover that like a large number of women in Mumbai, mostly from Bandra West, Venetia is passionate about rink football. She is not a professional, but is part of the vibrant soccer culture that exists in the suburbs. Bandra loves cricket too, like all neighbourhoods in India, but it’s safe to say that here, football enjoys a far greater following.
The Compenaroes, the Bandra Packers, the Naughty Growlers, the Sea Views and 14 more teams participate in the annual rink football tournament that the Bandra Gymkhana has been organizing for the past two years. Venetia says it’s tough to get into the rink team of these old Bandra names; especially for men, the competition is stiff.
Cricket-crazy people, think county cricket, if you don’t get it. The difference is: In county cricket, elite clubs attract professional players from all over the world during “off-season”, and rink football or just football is played in Bandra throughout the year for virtually no money (the prize money for the three rink tournaments hasn’t yet gone beyond a few thousand rupees). It’s just a bunch of goal-hungry men and women.
I get the game’s rules from Sydney Alexander, the 45-year-old coach of the Compenaroes. Unlike regular football, rink football has seven players, four on field and three substitutes, and it’s always played at night, under tall neon floodlights surrounded by a swarm of insects. Mini goalposts and a small, elevated, metallic court make it resemble an ice hockey rink. The game lasts for half an hour, with a five-minute break midway. In case of three corners, a penalty stroke is awarded. The ball cannot rise above shoulder level during the game.
There’s something magical about the floodlights, the screaming, the loud whistle of the referee going off incessantly. When a rink football match is under way at the Mount Carmel Church grounds, the venue nearest to my lane, Veronica Road, I always have to stop while passing by, and be part of the jostling, cheering audience that stands around the rink. Nowadays, of course, I look to cheer for my friend, Venetia.
Football came to Bandra from Goa, one of the few Indian states where the sport is played seriously—with more than five dozen football clubs registered with the Goa Football Association, in a state with a population of barely 1.3 million.
Many Catholics in Mumbai have their roots in Goa, where the Portuguese colonizers left behind a strong tradition of football. Footballers from Nigeria, Brazil, Ghana, Sudan and Nepal thrive in the stadiums of Goa. Coaches are from Brazil, Scotland and Portugal and clubs sponsored by local industry and politicians fight for the top positions.
Sydney Alexander’s roots are in Goa. The last two generations of his family have lived in Bandra, and each generation has produced at least three soccer players. “The Compenaroes is the oldest team, and the best also. Standards for fitness are very high, and I’m taking personal interest in the players I’m coaching.” A lot of his students are women, but according to him, “they play just for fun”. Rink football has attracted a lot of women in Bandra, perhaps because, as Venetia says, it is a short version of the 90-minute game. “But it’s intense, because you have only half an hour to score,” she adds. And a lot of violent jostling, if you ask me.
A local newspaper recently quoted Sea Views captain Luiza Misquitta, who works in a BPO: “We don’t have the privilege as men (do) who get paid to play. We have a family life, social life, we work and play too.” She was interviewed after Sea Views won a prize at the Bandra Festival, the annual jamboree of music, sports, food and street fairs. The festival included rink football last year.
I meet Alexander on a weekend morning, after he has returned from the St Xavier’s Grounds at Parel, where he coaches some of his boys. He’s been with the Compenaroes for 35 years now, and has seen football evolve in Bandra— from two or three unofficial teams playing on local grounds to 18 teams at present, all aspiring to national fame. He hasn’t taken to rink football as well as his son would like him to. He has a purist’s love for the game: “Anyway, it’s cricket, cricket and cricket on TV. If Indian football has any chance of reaching global standards, you have to play it the way the world plays it, not dilute it into these abbreviated versions.”
On my way back from meeting Alexander—the half- hour was spent largely listening to the coach lament the neglect that Indian football suffers from the government—I cross the St Peter’s ground on Hill Road.
The Bandra Packers are gearing up for practice (I had to ask the name of the team). It won the measly Rs2,000 prize money at an annual tournament last year. But the body language of the players and the decibel level of their collective voices, it was obvious: Rink football is here to stay in Bandra.
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