There was a massive ship. Twenty-four elite players, including Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Thierry Henry and Luís Figo, motored up to it in rubber dinghies to take part in a secret tournament. They stepped into a cage in teams of three and on a ground made of artificial turf, began playing a sexed-up, trick-heavy version of football to Junkie XL’s remix of Elvis Presley’s A Little Less Conversation. The rules were brutal: First goal wins, and the losers get thrown overboard.

The Secret Tournament, or Scorpion KO, Nike’s advertising campaign during the 2002 Fifa World Cup, cost an estimated $100 million (around 670 crore now) and sparked a craze of rink and turf tournaments across the football-watching world. An estimated one-two million children are believed to have competed in matches with the Scorpion KO rules from the television commercial.

When we first visited The Arena, one of the first turf grounds built for five-a-side football in Mumbai, and the first indoor one, it felt very much like a tournament straight out of the Nike commercial. The team we were playing against had brought its own speaker dock and a playlist of electronica and hip hop songs. It was 2013, and playing football in Mumbai still usually meant scrambling for place on a puddle-filled mud ground or a filth-laden beach. Quite different from this haven of lush turf, readymade goals, painted lines, a Gatorade stall and changing rooms.

It’s easy to understand why a place like The Arena, located in Andheri (East), would become popular. There are enough football lovers with enough disposable income to afford booking rates, which range from 1,000-3,500 for an hour, for the city’s few turf grounds.

At the time, it would have been difficult to believe that two years later, there would be around 50 turf football fields in the Greater Mumbai area. “There are new turf grounds opening up all the time," says Gracian Moras, founder of the website Bookmyturf.com. It was less than 10 in 2013; the number shot up to around 30 a year later, says Moras. His site, launched last year, provides detailed information on turf grounds in Mumbai, including booking rates, addresses, photographs, parking options, etc.

The idea is to build a bookings page so people can browse through the turf grounds in their area, check the slots available and reserve one. “It will be like a Bookmyshow for turf grounds," says Moras. When I ask him if the field is big enough to warrant a website, he begins showing me messages from new turf-ground owners asking him to list their spaces. “One company, Dream Sports Fields, alone is aiming to build 50 turfs around India. So there is definitely going to be a massive boom in this space," he says. Mumbai certainly has been witnessing the mushrooming of turf grounds—on the rooftops of malls and office buildings, in the corners of poorly maintained grass fields and even in parking lots.

These new spaces are serving not just those who have a passion for the sport, but a new clientele, which, hooked by the excellent packaging of the English Premier League on Indian television, is now looking at playing the game as a form of exercise and entertainment.

“There is very little for people in Mumbai to do apart from going to a mall or for a movie," explains Abhishek Bangur, co-founder of The Arena, which has shifted from an indoor location to the terrace of an office building near the Chakala Metro station. “So, when my cousin (Mohit Maheshwari) and I decided to open a turf ground back in 2013, after seeing how well the concept had worked in Singapore and Dubai, we knew there would be a wide market."

Certainly, growing numbers and a varied clientele are evident at the turf grounds. When my friends and I first went to The Arena, in 2013, most of the players we saw were highly skilled. They had clearly been playing all their lives—many wore jerseys of the local club teams they were playing for.

When we began playing at the slightly larger, and more expensive, Dribble turf ground on the rooftop of Wadala’s IMAX Adlabs movie theatre and mall, the jerseys on view were those of English and Spanish football clubs. The group that had booked the slot before us had brought its own small troop of cheerleaders, and a GoPro camera had been set up on a tripod in the corner of the field to capture the game.

By the end of 2014, middle-aged office-goers lugging themselves across the field, or sitting down in exhaustion, had become a common sight at a number of grounds, including the KICK arena in Powai, and Footbrawl and The Cage (named, perhaps, after the ground in the Nike commercial) in Vile Parle.

“We see young kids who are supporters of international football clubs, expats who are used to having turf grounds around them, and young and old office-goers coming to our facility," says Bangur. Many large companies, including HDFC Bank, Vodafone and Hindustan Unilever, have taken six-month or year-long bookings at The Arena, he says, so they have a particular slot on one day of the week reserved for their employees. “They view it as a team-building exercise," he says, “and everyone from the CEO to lower-level employees comes."

In effect, watching and playing football has become a fashion statement among the urban middle and upper class. It’s cool.

And its popularity now extends beyond the posher areas, says Neha Prasad, director at Dream Sports Fields, the pioneers in this space. They now have 14 turf grounds around India; two of these are in Thane district and four in Navi Mumbai, areas not known for a footballing tradition. “We never thought a place like Thane would have so many people keen to play football," Prasad says. “But the grounds there have been among our most successful."

An entire industry is coming up around these grounds. Tournaments with cash prizes are held regularly, some leagues run through the year. Coaching academies are renting these spaces so young players can experience what it is like to play on turf, which is the closest you can get to grass.

Moras and Bangur are both convinced the turf ground revolution will eventually lead to an improvement in the quality of footballers coming out of Mumbai. But not everybody agrees. Prashant Godbole, head of marketing and media for Mumbai FC, the city’s only club in the I-League, India’s top domestic football competition, says these turf grounds pander largely to the urban elite.

“These are purely commercial propositions meant for people from affluent families," he says. “To see an improvement in standards, you need to see young kids playing football in every corner, whether it be on turf, grass or mud."

Whatever the long-term impact, a city once known for the strip of land in Shivaji Park that produced so many great cricketers is evidently now more cosmopolitan, more affluent—and in constant search of new trends. The “turf football" boom reflects that.

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