Where have all the people gone?
On one of the rain-soaked walls of Delhi School of Economics, or D-School as it’s popularly known, there’s a barely visible poster, with some text printed on a deep blue background in a font size too small to be readable from the other side of Chhatra Marg. The text details the itinerary of the 15th edition of the Nehru Cup, an invitational tournament that is supposed to be the marquee event organised by AIFF, the governing body of football in India. Under new coach Wim Koevermans, India seems rejuvenated and on course for a title hat-trick, and there’s a metro station bang outside Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, the venue of the tournament, but not too many in Delhi University’s North Campus seem to care about either of those facts.
Near Delhi Gate, there are less than 50 people watching the home team, Delhi United, take on Air India FC on a balmy Sunday evening at the Ambedkar Stadium. It is a quarterfinal group match of Asia’s oldest football tournament, the Durand Cup, but history clearly is no longer a good enough draw for the legions of upwardly mobile youngsters who follow every move made by Lionel Messi and Wayne Rooney in La Liga and the Premier League, respectively on their TVs and laptops.
It wasn’t always the case. Kolkata (Calcutta back then), Kerala, Goa… over the years, as the Nehru Cup traversed the length and breadth of the country, so did the crowds. It remained the case from its inception exactly three decades ago right till it went on an indefinite hiatus in 1997, partly because the venues were known to be crazy about the beautiful game, but mostly because of the once-in-a-lifetime chance it offered to witness global stars – Uruguyuan Enzo Francescoli, for instance – showcase their skills. Ditto Durand. Till a few years back, the sheer prestige of it being the oldest running football tournament outside the British Isles attracted, without fail, top clubs from across the country like Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Churchill Bros – and, because of them, the people.
In the recent past, though, something’s gone amiss. It’s difficult to pin-point exactly what, but old-timers have their theories. In case of Durand, it’s not just the absence of the big clubs. Apparently, the increasingly cavalier attitude of the Army, the tournament’s post-independence custodians, towards the minorities has kept the Walled City regulars away. And Nehru? Well, 75 and 150 bucks, it seems, is just way too much to ask for a glimpse of players none of whom ply their trade in Europe.
The same JLN Stadium was reasonably packed during Bhaichung Bhutia’s farewell match featuring Bayern Munich; over 80,000 people paid good money to watch Messi in action during the Argentina-Venezuela at Kolkata’s Salt Lake Stadium. Clearly, it takes a lot of bling to satisfy the demands of India’s upwardly mobile youngsters who are fed on a weekly diet of top-drawer international football. AIFF and the Indian Army, it’s high time you throw open the floodgates.
By Kaushik Chatterji