Maybe this time next year, convictions about #FootballTakesOver will seem terribly naïve. Or maybe, against all odds, incredibly prescient. © AFP

Maybe this time next year, convictions about #FootballTakesOver will seem terribly naïve. Or maybe, against all odds, incredibly prescient. © AFP

“Isn’t it a better sport than cricket?”

… is the text that pops up on my phone after I’ve informed a friend that I went to watch the France v New Caledonia and Japan v Honduras FIFA Under-17 World Cup matches in Guwahati.

This isn’t the first time, or the last, I’m asked some variation of this question. I’ve come to realise that choosing between football or cricket isn’t apples and oranges; it’s pineapple on pizza. You have to have an opinion.

In fact, the FIFA equivalent of this text was probably sent to Guwahati last year in the form of football’s governing body declaring the city one of six venues for the marquee event.

Which brings us to the happy coincidence that is the scheduling of a Twenty20 International between India and Australia in the city. The first international cricket match there after nearly seven years. Pencilled in two days after the FIFA double-header.

Assam is prime real estate. And Guwahati is not only its biggest city but also the biggest city in the north-east. Not for nothing is it referred to as the gateway to the region. But in Assam, unlike the rest of the north-east, interest in football and cricket is split evenly. A “swing state”, if you will, where both sports are jostling for attention, and willing to spend time and money to get it.

It’s true both can co-exist, but there is no better time than now, with India having successfully hosted a youth-level World Cup in their backyard, to promote football and energise a new generation of followers, even lure away some of cricket’s. Maybe this time next year, convictions about #FootballTakesOver will seem terribly naïve. Or maybe, against all odds, incredibly prescient.

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The total attendance at the six venues across India was 1,347,133 – making it the most attended FIFA U-17 World Cup ever – but the event showed India could be a sporting nation. © Getty Images

The total attendance at the six venues across India was 1,347,133 – making it the most attended FIFA U-17 World Cup ever – but the event showed India could be a sporting nation. © Getty Images

First, a history lesson: Football was Assam’s first and only love during the early part of the 20th century, after it had been introduced to the region, and other regions across India, by Christian missionaries and the East India Company.

It would be remiss of me not to point out that Assam then was not the Assam we know of today. Before British independence, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland were all part of Assam Province, whose capital was Shillong, while Manipur and Tripura were princely states under British rule.

Football was taken more seriously when the Independence Cup Football Tournament kicked off in 1949 in Nagaon, 121 kilometres east of Guwahati. Then came the Bordoloi Trophy, which began in Guwahati in 1952. It was named in honour of Gopinath Bordoloi – freedom fighter, the prime minister of undivided Assam, and later the first chief minister of the state – and grew very popular in a short period of time.

But before football could take greater strides in Assam Province, the region ceased to exist. Meghalaya, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland were recognised as separate states in the 1960s, and cricket’s rise in the 1970s meant newly-demarcated Assam, along with most of India, found a new sport to be enamoured with. It makes you wonder whether it was pre-independence Meghalaya and Mizoram that were the heart and lungs of Assam football, and their subsequent departure that caused it to be put on life support for a while.

Things are improving, though, if the crowd for Guwahati’s first double-header at the FIFA U-17 World Cup is anything to go by. The Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium, where the matches were held, has a capacity of 23,850. It’s been announced that 13,225 was the total attendance, although the tickets were never scanned by any electronic device while entering the stadium. That number is rubbished by a friend who has dutifully tagged along and, taking into account the people waiting at the food kiosks outside as well as the people seated inside, he guesses only 10,000 were present. A journalist covering the game suggests it was lower, maybe 7000. The correct answer is: A lot.

It’s more than for any U-17 cricket match in India. And definitely more than for any U-17 cricket match in India that didn’t even involve India. [An U-17 cricket World Cup doesn’t even exist; the closest thing to it would be the U-19 World Cup, which, since its inception in 1988, has never been hosted by India.]

Even the one-sided nature of the games (France beat New Caledonia 7-1 and Japan beat Honduras 6-1) didn’t dampen the mood. When New Caledonia finally scored one goal, in the 90th minute, to France’s six, everyone switched sides to cheer on the underdog. There were also chants in an all-too-familiar tune: “Jaa-pan, Ja-pan! Jaa-pan, Ja-pan!” And later, to everyone’s bemusement: “Hon-du rah-rahs, Hon-du rah-rahs!”

One thing is for sure. If India is serious about becoming a footballing nation, we’re going to have to think of cleverer chants.

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Neither rain nor internal issues at the ACA can deter the Guwahati cricket fan as cricket returned to the city after nearly seven years. © BCCI

Neither rain nor internal issues at the ACA can deter the Guwahati cricket fan as cricket returned to the city after nearly seven years. © BCCI

A different sort of chant is heard adjacent to the newly-inaugurated Barsapara Cricket Stadium, on the outskirts of Guwahati, at a temple dedicated to the Hindu goddess Kali. She is known as the destroyer of evil forces. I’m told that the temple was initially inside the stadium premises, but was later relocated. Nevertheless, her presence nearby is fitting, especially for a stadium that required a bit of exorcism.

From 1983 to 2010, the Nehru Stadium, on the centrally-located and aptly-named Stadium Road, had been Guwahati’s international cricket venue. Then one day, international cricket just came to a grinding halt, and the Nehru Stadium was turned into a football ground. It now hosts the Bordoloi Trophy, and was most recently used as a FIFA training facility by the teams based in the city. Football takes over, indeed.

Try calling the secretary of the Assam Cricket Association (ACA) to demystify the situation and after many calls go unanswered, CR Phukan, the ACA office assistant, picks up and explains that the Nehru Stadium was “getting complaints” and the “outfield was getting slower” so ACA decided to develop a new ground.

But that still doesn’t explain the seven-year hiatus. Shashi Prabhu & Associates, the architectural firm that constructed the Barsapara Stadium and other cricket facilities around India, is more helpful. Prashant Samant, one of the architects involved, says ACA made plans to construct a new stadium as early as in 2002. The state government allotted the land in 2004, but no work was done for three years. By 2011, when Samant joined the project, there was still 70% of work left to do. Though the stadium began hosting Ranji Trophy games in the 2014-15 season, the construction was only finished “a month before the match”, which is a month after the Board of Control for Cricket in India announced it as the venue for the India-Australia game. Thirteen years to build a stadium!

“Actual construction should not take that long, wherever, but there were a lot of decisions (to be taken) and there were issues of funds,” offers Samant. The total cost of the project on the firm’s website is listed as Rs 105 crore, but that was when the task was scheduled to be completed by 2010. The actual cost is believed to be triple that amount. This, despite the stadium requiring further touch-ups.

Word in the corridors of the ACA is that certain officials looted some of the money set aside for the construction, accusations which were backed up by the Deloitte audit report. The audit, carried out by the BCCI in 2015, exposed misappropriation of funds by several associations, including the ACA. Local police later conducted raids on the premises and Bikash Baruah, the then ACA secretary, was subsequently banned for life.

None of this, though, deters the cricket fan in Guwahati. The 40,000-capacity stadium records an attendance of 38,132. Some of whom have walked in the rain, which makes an appearance before the scheduled toss, to get there. The weather clears quickly but even if it doesn’t, the fan will be pleased to know that the Barsapara Stadium has the second-best drainage facility in India. Keeping in mind the heavy rains in Assam, sand was used in the soil in addition to an intricate subsoil drainage network. “Let it rain for two or three hours, heavy rain – a game can start in 15 minutes,” boasts Phukan. “This is featured in only two of the stadiums, one is the (M) Chinnaswamy Stadium (in Bangalore) and the other is over here.”

Later, the Guwahati cricket fan’s reputation is unfairly tarnished after Australia’s eight-wicket victory due to one bad apple in the bunch. Blanket statements of how people from the city are “unruly” and “rough” don’t do them justice.

The Guwahati cricket fan can be extremely affable as Pranjit Kalita, my cab driver, demonstrated on the morning of the game. Instead of going from Point A to Point B, he graciously accommodated my request to see a cricket ground (Latasil Playground) and a football ground (Judge’s Field) that was out of the way and allowed me to get out and take pictures. All this, at no extra cost. Later, he made it clear his preference was with cricket, adding that he was wrapping up as early as 6pm to watch the cricket match on TV.

It occurs to me now that his day wasn’t particularly productive. Not only did India lose, he lost out on potential customers too. Worse, he refused my offer to remunerate him.

Then I remember his parting sentence: “Atithi devo Bhava (The guest is equivalent to God).”

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Kids play football at the historic Judge's Field in Guwahati, where the first Bordoloi Trophy was held. © Wisden India

Kids play football at the historic Judge’s Field in Guwahati, where the first Bordoloi Trophy was held. © Wisden India

The boys playing cricket at Latasil are in their late teens or older. They are dressed casually, some in nothing but an undershirt and shorts, all barefoot. They are playing even more casually; it’s a seven-man team (six if you don’t include the designated umpire) and there is no non-striker.

The boys playing football 350 metres away at Judge’s Field are a study in contrast. There are around 35 of them, most look about 10 years old. They’re all dressed in colourful football uniforms, each one is wearing a unique pair of knee socks. All have football cleats on, telegraphing their seriousness to everyone watching.

Why then does it appear that cricket has the numbers in the city?

The answer lies in how the media covers the north-east. There are over 200 tribes, but they find scant, if any, mention. But it is in the rural pockets of Assam that football prevails over cricket.

Rupam Bori, a third-semester sociology student at Gauhati University, paints a vivid picture. He is originally from Badulipar in Golaghat District, a six-and-half-hour drive from Guwahati, and from the Mishing tribe, the second-largest tribe in the north-east. Lachit Club, which was established in 1951, is where they host several football tournaments, their most famous being the Invited Football Tournament. A few people play cricket and they hold a tournament for that too, but it isn’t as popular as football. He says the kids watch the I-League and Indian Super League, but prefer the English Premier League, La Liga and Bundesliga. If the family believes their son is talented, they send him to Jorhat or Guwahati to get better training.

Dr. Vijay Patil, owner of the DY Patil Stadium, explains how you turn a cricket ground into a football stadium:

Matches held at DY Patil Stadium:
Seven ODIs
IPL (including 2008 final)
ISL
FIFA U-17 World Cup (including Spain-Mali semifinal)

Ground-wise, what’s different?
The requirements for football are quite different from what is needed for cricket in terms of how you manage the length of the grass. In football, you need the grass to be around 24mm in height. In cricket, you need the grass be to be only 5-6mm. The bounce parameters for a football game are also specifically defined. It involves turf management — watering, irrigation, fertilisation — All of that helped us put together the optimum playing conditions.

What modifications needed to be done for the stadium to be compliant with FIFA standards?
– Four training sites: DY Patil Football Ground, DY Patil Cricket Ground, Yashwantrao Chavan Maidan, and Navi Mumbai Sports Association Ground
– Relaying of turf and effective turf management
– Upgraded individual bucket seats
– Two new team dressing rooms of international standards
– Doping, technical rooms and medical rooms redone
– Cantilever roof, leaving unobstructed view for all spectators
– New safe evacuation gates/emergency exit bridges for spectators and improved contingency plans
– Renovation of washrooms
– Stadium floodlights or high mast altered to suit the uniformity required for a football pitch
– A large amount of civil and architectural changes
– State-of-the-art media, hospitality and broadcast centre
– Renovation of swimming pool
– Electrical fittings
– Additional equipments for gym

The upgrades that took place will only enhance our ability to successfully host cricket matches in the future and make it a more ideal stadium.

Are pure football stadiums a possibility?
Given the following in football, I’m sure there will be interest in developing football-based infrastructure within the country. The FIFA U-17 World Cup has given it a boost.

Pranjal Loying is one such example. He is doing his masters in Assamese at the Institute of Distance and Open Learning, a school for students who can’t pursue higher education through the conventional mode of education, in Gauhati University, and also pursuing football.

Joy Bhattacharjya, project director of the FIFA U-17 World Cup, understands the potential that exists in these rural areas and hopes to get the ball rolling with Mission XI Million, a programme with an ambitious aim to reach a total of 11 million boys and girls across the country and promote football in their schools. “Less than 0.01% of Indian kids go to a sports academy so the schools have to be partners in this,” he says of the Indian government and All India Football Federation initiative that has already surpassed its target.

The message is ridiculously simple: “Play gully football just like you play gully cricket.” That is, don’t be constricted by the fact that you don’t have a proper football surface or 22 players.

A typical 100×68 football pitch, he says, would involve 30 people, at best. “What we are proposing is that same pitch gets broken into eight small pitches where small 5×5 games are happening. There’s much more contact with the ball, kids are much more involved. In one pitch, one kid kicks the ball. Ten year olds, 11 year olds, they can’t run four-five kilometres a match which is what you need to run to play that. If you have eight 5×5 games, that’s 10×8, 80 (kids) and you have three substitutions (in each team), you have 130 people really enjoying themselves in the same place where 25 kids were not having that great a time. So those are small things that we’re telling people they can do – play smaller games, play more games, involve more kids, get everyone playing – it is making a difference.”

As you travel further north-east you start picking up on how cricket is conceding ground to football. Ranchi’s attitude to cricket and football was an eye-opener. Guwahati’s, further still. Bhattacharjya says he’s noted that too and offers another observation. “Cricket is the great Indian middle class,” he says. “Football was always there, right at the top tier – the Arsenal supporters, Manchester United supporters, Manchester City supporters – and right at the bottom, the tribal areas, the north-east, Odisha, Jharkhand, because it was easier for them to play; all you need, literally, is a bunch of rags and four stones.

“The whole middle class used to be cricket, that is being squeezed slowly by football. The lesser affluent are getting into football now and I think (Lionel) Messi now is a hero not just among the Sri Ram Schools in Delhi (a high-end private school), but he’s also a hero among government schools and institutions. I think democratisation has also happened in football. The middle class getting into football is a big stride forward.”

At the same time, cricket is belatedly reaching out to the north-east. The Guwahati T20I is just the start with the city expected to host some Indian Premier League matches and possibly be the home ground for Rajasthan Royals. Moreover, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Sikkim, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh are all set to take part in next year’s Ranji Trophy.

Bhattacharjya applauds the court-mandated move, stressing that it isn’t counter-productive to football but good for sport overall. “You cannot have a situation where only two states play from the north-east, just Assam and Tripura. Every state should have representation because you have a situation in cricket where you have Saurashtra, Baroda, Gujarat playing from Gujarat and similarly you have Vidarbha, Mumbai and Maharashtra all playing from Maharashtra.

“It’s not fair for (people in the north-east) to get up and suddenly become great cricketers overnight because the culture’s not there (Assam, however, did surprise everyone reaching the Ranji semifinal in 2015-16) but it’s good governance. These were very obvious anomalies which needed to be addressed and I’m glad they have been addressed.”

Bhattacharjya believes more individual heroes, as is the case in Indian cricket, will help football flourish. “People will tell you no one person makes a game and all that but if you just see one simple thing – the last north-east person to represent India in a football tournament was (Talimeran) Ao, captain of the 1948 Olympic team,” he says. “After him, it’s only after Bhaichung Bhutia that the floodgates opened but today if you see 60% of our senior national team, 13 of the 21 boys or 10 of the 21 boys who played in the (U-17) World Cup, they’re from the north-east so where did that start?

“It really did start with Bhaichung Bhutia coming out and playing and kids looking at him and saying ‘Oh I can make a career out of this, this could be a job, this could be a way out of poverty, a way to fame’. All that started with him.”

Bhattacharjya is familiar to cricket fans as the erstwhile team director of the Kolkata Knight Riders in the Indian Premier League. His decision to leave IPL for FIFA in November 2014 was a step into the unknown. “At that point in time. I thought why should I give up a champion team for a youth tournament? But the more I thought about it, I was there when the IPL started, and I thought it would be worthwhile to be a part of the first football World Cup,” he recalls.

It’s a decision he can now say was the right one. The numbers back up that claim. The total attendance at the six venues across India was 1,347,133 – making it the most attended FIFA U-17 World Cup ever. Even when heavy rain in Guwahati forced the England-Brazil semifinal to be shifted out of the city to Kolkata, the response was immense: Over a million fans had logged onto the ticketing website creating a frenzy.

But it’s about more than just numbers. The past month has shown India can be a sporting country. A football-watching country. And maybe a football-playing country.

Someday.

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In 2009, Zinedine Zidane, participated in a football clinic in Tokyo, but the children were more in awe of Tom 'Tom-san' Byer. © Tom Byer

In 2009, Zinedine Zidane, participated in a football clinic in Tokyo, but the children were more in awe of Tom ‘Tom-san’ Byer. © Tom Byer

That day might come a lot sooner if more people listened to Tom Byer.

He’s the guy who revolutionised football in Japan. He’s also a character in a leading Japanese manga. Both things, it turns out, are interconnected.

When Byer moved from USA to Japan in the 1980s, Japan were no-hopers on the world stage, just like India. He decided to change that. He started off running some football clinics and later football schools, went on to star in Oha Suta, Japan’s No. 1 children’s TV show, and got two pages every month in KoroKoro, Japan’s No. 1 manga. Japan adores him, nicknaming him Tom-san.

“Every country does clinics – on cricket, baseball, football, ice hockey, etc – but the difference for us was we were zeroing and completely focussing on the technical component of the game,” Byer explains to Wisden India.

Tom Byer, grassroots coach, says age 10 is too late for football:
“If a kid starts playing football only at the age of 10, it’s almost impossible to become a very top player. This is because of the foot coordination. All other sports we play with out hands, but all day long we use our hands. The only time we use our feet is for standing and walking. Unfortunately, football is an extremely technical sport that takes a ridiculous amount of practice to become good at it. To me, if you even have kids starting football as early as ages seven, eight, nine and are trying to develop top players for a national team, that is way too late.”

“Most countries don’t understand how and what to teach young kids. That’s why in football there’s only a handful of countries that repeatedly win World Cup tournaments. Brazil, Germany, Italy, that’s it. Argentina twice, Spain once, France once, England once, Uruguay once [twice, actually]. If you look at what’s happening in those first four countries, there’s no specialised training or coaching going on, but the cultures are very conducive for developing players. They’re very focussed on the technical component and making sure that the entry level of the sport is purely technical.”

Byer believes kids should be playing football as early as age three and believes parents can play far bigger roles than any foreign coach. What he is proposing isn’t radical. “Countries are spending billions and billions of dollars to unlock this mystery on player development and are on an endless treadmill going nowhere,” he says. “You’ve got countries like India and China that have millions of children and can’t really figure out how to develop players because for the past 50-60 years football is seen in a one-dimensional way and nothing is really modernised when it comes to teaching children.

“This isn’t theory; I have two boys who are nine and 11 years old, who are technically above average, and the theme of my program is football starts at home. For any technical sport, if you see tennis, golf or football, the best players in the world, more often than not, attribute their success to their parents or a guardian figure.

“When you understand that, the power of a parent to engage their young child who is three, four, five, six-years-old, it’s a major game-changer. I’ve been to India a few times and when you drive around, all of the kids are playing cricket, whether that’s on the street, at the park, after school, after dark or wherever. It’s the culture in India that allows that to flourish. My philosophy is all about the love and interaction between a child and a parent.

“For a child as young as three, the parent will be 100 times more powerful than any coach. If India wants to become a world power in football, they might want to educate and engage the 100 million families in India that have children under the age of six. That’s the key market. It doesn’t matter how many coaches or professional players you bring over from Europe, you need to have a system or a culture that understands the role a parent can play.

“Most of the federations in the world approach football purely from a coaching standpoint. Coaching is important, of course, but technical skill is rarely the result of coaching. That usually happens playing in the neighbourhood, in the backyard, with friends, with family.”

Asian families tend to prioritise education over sports, a fact Byer is well aware of, but he argues that can prove detrimental. “The foreword and afterword for my book (Football Starts at Home) was written by a famous doctor from Harvard University, Dr. John Ratey,” he says. “Dr. Ratey has done all the research that shows that children who exercise and play sports are smarter and do better academically. Most parents limit the access of their child participating in sports because they look at it as a distraction to education. In actuality, they’re doing their child a disservice.”

Byer explains what happens if a kid takes to football at a later age – which is almost always the case in India – with the Relative Age Effect: “If a child is six years old and born in January and another child is born in December and has to play football with the same group of kids born 11 months older than them, that child will be behind. That’s a fact of life. They’ve done research that shows that the kids that get selected for elite player development and do better academically, around the world, are usually born in the months of January, February and March.

“If a kid starts playing football only at the age of 10, it’s almost impossible to become a very top player. This is because of the foot coordination. All other sports we play with out hands, but all day long we use our hands. The only time we use our feet is for standing and walking. Unfortunately, football is an extremely technical sport that takes a ridiculous amount of practice to become good at it. To me, if you even have kids starting football as early as ages seven, eight, nine and are trying to develop top players for a national team, that is way too late.”

Joy Bhattacharjya, FIFA U-17 World Cup project director, on how football is catching up with cricket:
“The whole middle class used to be cricket, that is being squeezed slowly by football. The lesser affluent are getting into football now and I think Messi now is a hero not just among the Sri Ram Schools in Delhi (a high-end private school), but he’s also a hero among government schools and institutions. I think democratisation has also happened in football. The middle class getting into football is a big stride forward.”

Bhattacharjya bought into the idea too, and wants India to introduce football leagues for kids playing from five to 12. “One of the things our teams discovered when we were travelling was that internationally, kids would have played 50-60 matches a year since the ages of six-seven in small leagues and our kids would have played that many competitive matches only by the age of 15-16,” he says. “The difference is huge. Like in cricket, all the net practice you can get, it’s different from match practice.”

Byer is now working with the Adidas China to create a TV segment in China similar to the one he had in Japan. David Beckham opens the beginning of the show and he provides a one-point lesson every day. Byer urges Indian broadcasters to take note.

“There should be a corner in Indian TV by one of the major, major broadcasters that is empowering and reaching millions and millions of Indians, that is showing them the importance of technical training,” he recommends. “One player, one ball, what you can do, stop, start, turn, change direction of the ball so kids can practice on their own. There needs to be more people that understand how you can use resources, how you can use the media, how you can use the sponsors, and all these multimedia platforms to engage and educate the masses of people.

“Football development can happen in any country in the world as long as there is a collective understanding between the people in positions of power and influence about how to develop talent.”

Byer has visited Mumbai and Hyderabad, but hasn’t explored the north-east. Of course, neither have most Indians. He knows only as much as them about the region, that football exists in its most undiluted form there and, by the same token, that it’s geographically isolated.

He believes football can be used in positive ways to bring people together by sharing experiences and successes.

“Football or cricket,” he says upon reconsideration.