Admit it: You wish you could bend it like Beckham. Even if you were raised on the cricket pitch from the time you could hold a bat, there’s something about the allure of football that gets under everyone’s skin right around the World Cup season. But, for a dedicated subset of the Capital city, that itch to play lasts more than just a few golden months—it’s a year-round need.
Luckily, for those diehard fans, there’s a multiplicity of venues to display their football skills—and they don’t have to be David Beckhams or Thierry Henrys to play. Intramural teams have sprung up through the sponsorship of corporations or embassies, or just through the dedication of some friends getting together for the love of the game. And a slew of new tournaments now offer those teams far more opportunities to get out on the field to play.
Intramural leagues have been around in Delhi for years but, for a long time, they resided behind the gates of Chanakyapuri, where homesick diplomats would take on other embassy teams on the greens behind the gates. But Sanjeev Frank, 45, the founder of Weekend Soccer, says the diplomat leagues didn’t mix well with local teams, so a few men decided to try a tournament league of their own.
Aashish Khanna, a sales representative for Adidas, started Delhi Diplomatic Soccer International League (DDSIL) with his friend Lance Hamilton. Soon enough, the diplomatic teams were signing up to play in his tournaments.
What started with one or two Indian teams, grew into 30 Indian teams, with groups from the media, such as the India Today Group and corporate teams from GE. Adidas started sponsoring the tournaments, and the biannual tournaments have become the Sunday activity for the players.
Khwaja Sayeed runs the Priyadarshini College of Computer Science, but comes out every Sunday to play with his friends when the tournament is on. He captains the team Red Devils and says it’s a stress buster. “You forget everything; you put your phone on silent and you play.”
Sayeed’s team, which is made up of his buddies, started with three friends who had been playing football together since college. Other teams, though, are formed through companies or embassies. The Italian team, for example, is called the Azzuri. Ace Honda sponsors a team, as does PriceWaterhouse Coopers.
Other teams are a mix of nationalities. The Farm House Kickers started with predominantly German players, but, as its captain Heinz Roth points out, it now also has team members from Russia, France, Sweden, India, Australia and Spain.
Roth, the chief of security at the German embassy, recently celebrated his team’s win in the quarter finals by popping German beers immediately after leaving the field. “We play some football, and then (do) some drinking. It’s necessary,” Roth says.
The game also happened to be Roth’s last, as his Indian tour of duty was coming to an end. This is bad news for the Kickers; Roth laments, “Without me they can’t play.”
And, it seems Roth was correct: In the finals, the Farm House Kickers lost 0-2 to the Bosta Axola.
The DDSIL tournament, played from October to April, draws in about 30 teams and costs each team an entry of Rs10,000. The price is a bit high, says Sayeed, but it’s worth it for the game, the exercise and the fact that it’s a way to meet all sorts of people on the field.
And the weather doesn’t dissuade the players. Ashok Damodaran, a deputy editor at the India Today magazine, says he’s on the field on a cold January morning or a sweltering summer day. At one recent game, temperatures reached 45 degrees Celsius. He says, “We had to play our game at 11.15am and I was a piping hot idli, but I drew some satisfaction from watching the Brits play at noon.”
At the end of the tournament, there is a huge bash, with around a thousand people, including the players, their families and friends, joining in.
Before the 2006 World Cup, Sanjeev Frank, a friend of Khanna’s, thought they ought to start a new tournament as a sort of warm-up to get people excited about the big World Cup games. They leased some land in Vasant Vihar with two fields, a concession stand and floodlights—perfect for evening practice. When people started calling to ask when the next tournament would be, he and his partner, Brian Wells, realized there was plenty of room and demand for more tournaments.
At the start of their venture, Weekend Soccer, only about 16 or 17 teams signed up. This year, 40 teams are likely to participate. Frank says that before these intramural league tournaments started, only about 30-40 matches were played in Delhi each year. Now, one tournament has around 90 matches.
Frank says that it started with a desire to have fun, but that’s changed: “Fun is secondary,” he says, “first we want to win.”
However, it’s hard to judge who’s in the lead in any of the tournaments, since every player claims his team’s at the top—even the organizers. “We have so many trophies,” says Frank, “(that) my whole living room is covered in them. My phone sits on one.”
For players not ready for the tournament big leagues, “friendlies”—matches outside of tournament play—are often organized.
Damodaran says he sends out a mass email to players on his tournament list announcing when a friendly will be played. “It’s not a problem for me to get 30 players,” he says. “Everybody wants to kick the ball around.”
“There’s the occasional punch- up,” says Damodaran. “But, at the end of the day, we’re all friends.”
(All photographs by: Sudip Majumder / Mint)
Tale of two tournaments
The low-down on two of Delhi’s top intramural leagues
October to April
The main tournament takes place every Sunday at Delhi Public School in RK Puram. The 6-a-side takes place every night at either the American embassy or the British school.
It costs Rs10,000 a team to join.
More information at www.ddsil.com
Open tournaments, four times a year, depending on public consensus; Corporate tournaments, twice a year, depending on public consensus; 11-a-side tournament in November.
23 Green Avenue, Vasant Kunj
It costs Rs6,000 a team to join.
Contact Sanjeev Frank or Brian Wells at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com