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'Little Brazil' laments lost football glory

Boys in area of India's Bangalore, where game is a religion, are being encouraged to study as sport offers little hope.

Last updated: 11 Jun 2014 13:47
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Gowthamapura boasts of more than 25 football teams the oldest being Bangalore Mars FC [Keshav Vitla/Al Jazeera]

Gowthamapura, India - A statue of the legendary Brazilian footballer Pele in the main square offers a clear clue about the passion that fires Gowthamapura in southern India.

This area of single-room houses and narrow lanes at the heart of India's IT capital, Bangalore, is known as "Little Brazil" because of its fervour for football.

This year's World Cup is set to kick off in Brazil in less than 24 hours and football fans around the world await with excitement. But where talent with the ball once meant a job for life, economic change is ending dreams of glory on the pitch and forcing Gowthamapura to give its boys new, educational goals.

"Our boys believe in football and lose out on education. Now, we are forcing kids to study," M Satish Babu, a local dalit activist, told Al Jazeera.

The beautiful game

On a narrow street in Gowthamapura, a motley gang of boys is having an animated discussion but breaks off abruptly when Peter, football in hand, makes an appearance.

As if on cue, they sprint to the "stadium", passing the ball to each other as they run along the crowded street.

The stadium is a little more than half the size of a regular football pitch with a couple of dug-outs lining one side and a concrete stand the other.

Three other football "matches" are in progress, but only the players seem to know where their respective goals are. Peter and his friends carve out a space in the middle of the confusion, pick five-a-side teams, and set up makeshift goalposts with their footwear.

Two players from a neighbouring match engaged in an intense battle for the ball dash through their midst, but Peter and his cohort hardly notice.

These barefoot teenagers, many sporting Cristiano Ronaldo haircuts, display every skill in the book - trapping, checking, faking and side-stepping with ease, before scoring in a tiny goal with precision.

Their agility and control makes one forget that this is not the Spanish League. It is truly the beautiful game.

Talent in the blood

Every tiny house in this lower middle-class locality has a footballer who can execute a good "bicycle kick".

"It is in the blood," said Sampath Kumar, a midfielder with the Karnataka Police team.

Kalaivannan Thanikachalam, who represented Indian Railways in his prime, said: "It is as if our boys have no use for their hands. After a mango has been eaten, its seed becomes a football at our boys' feet."

The area is known as "Little Brazil" because of its fervour for football [Keshav Vitla/Al Jazeera]

Gowthamapura, known as Gun-Troops during the colonial era, evolved as a settlement of servants for the British comprising people from the depressed castes of Indian society.

They picked up football and when the British left India started to play in their own inimitable style - inspired by Brazil. To this day, the area is known as "Little Brazil" - hence the statue of Pelé.

No other locality wears its identity - Dalit, Christian and football-crazy - on its sleeve like Gowthamapura does. Lined up alongside Pele's statue are those of Mother Theresa and Dalit icon Dr BR Ambedkar.

The tiny settlement is surrounded by a thriving metropolis and, while most of India has embraced cricket, Gowthamapura boasts of more than 25 football teams, the oldest of which is the 58-year-old Bangalore Mars FC. Every street has a team: IVth Cross Football Club, Nagamma Nagar Friends FC, Modern Boys, Likku Friends, Ambedkar FC, Jeevan Blues.

Gowthamapura has the best football talent per square-metre in India and has produced players by the hundreds, including several stars during the 1950s to 1970s, the "golden age" of Indian football.

In those era, football talent was considered more important than a college degree and the public corporations that thrived in Bangalore under the socialism of former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru were the chief promoters of sport.

Companies such as Indian Telephone Industries (ITI), Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), Coal India Limited (CIL), LRDE, Bharath Electronics Limited (BEL) and Hindustan Machine Tools (HMT) all built formidable teams that dominated the national league.

In pockets of talent like Gowthamapura - where football is a way of life - skilful local players once gained employment in these industries easily.

Turning point

C Ravi Kumar, 55, a former international who represented India six times in the 1970s and 1980s and now coaches the HAL football team, said that 1990 was a turning point in Bangalore's fortunes.

"Industries stopped recruiting, and our footballers were badly hit," he said. "Now, our boys don't get jobs in industries on the basis of the game alone."

Many now find work in new sectors such as call-centres and malls - jobs that give no scope or time for a sporting career.

Two decades ago, Sampath, now 40, landed a job with the Karnataka Police solely on the basis of his midfield prowess. "As children, we believed that employment was assured if you could play good football," he told Al Jazeera.

"I studied only up to Standard 10, but got a job. Now a degree is a must."

His protégés, who are now in their 20s, feel they missed the bus by a couple of decades. Karthikeyan Janardhan, 28, is one of the finest players in Gowthamapura, and like Sampath, did not study beyond high school - but all his talent has gained him is a contract job with HAL. "Every year, they renew my contract. If I have an injury or grow old, I won't have a job," he said.

For 15 years Vinod Gerard, now 36, played for Karnataka State's Under 16, Under 19 and Under 21 teams before he went on to play for industries like LRDE, ITI (juniors) and Telecom. But when he fell ill with kidney-stones, his professional career was over - and now he coaches local boys.

Similarly, Sridhar Junior's meteoric rise as a young footballer took him into India's premier club, Mohun Bagan, but the 24-year-old has been out of the game nursing an injury since 2012.

"My brother is supporting me now," he said.

Educational goals

With the football dream fading, activists in Gowthamapura are now impressing upon its youth the importance of higher education to their future.

Industries stopped recruiting, and our footballers were badly hit. Now, our boys don't get jobs in industries on the basis of the game alone.

C Ravi Kumar, a former international player

"Only those who are studying are allowed to practise football at the stadium. If they are not studying, we ask them to find a job. You cannot bank on the game alone," M Satish Babu said.

At the stadium, all the coaches echo his sentiment. Watching youngsters practise from the sidelines, player Suman Kumar, 23, said he had applied for a driver's job with Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation.

"Even those who played at the national level cannot get a job. I am a small fry," Kumar told Al Jazeera.

Another opportunity for the talent of localities like Gowthamapura to shine also appears to have passed the area by with the latest development in Indian football.

The I-League - which was conceived on the lines of cricket's Indian Premier League - expects franchisees to be commercial entities and excludes the public sector organisations that have played a crucial role in developing players.

"The football federation is following a suicidal path," Veteran football writer SS Sreekumar told Al Jazeera.

"The licensing policy is such that it leaves out industry teams like CIL, 515 Army Base Workshop, LRDE, MEG etc, because these industries are in the public sector and cannot be commercial entities."

Had industrial teams found a place in the I-League, the best of Gowthamapura's football would now be on show at the national level.

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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