Among the manifold reasons for the death of football in the Capital is the waning interest of the average spectator. Where stories abound of a packed Ambedkar Stadium applauding the silky moves of Shanker Mukherjee, Aziz Qureshi, Arup Nandy and many others, the alacrity to flock to the iconic stadium next to the Ferozshah Kotla is exemplified by the dwindling numbers embracing a historical gem like the Durand Cup.
Football culture in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, when the sport was at its vibrant best, had two large groups — the old Delhi faithful and urban middle-class gentry of the new town. The footy files
Young Men, Indian Nationals, City Club, Youngsters, Mughals and Usmania were a few of the clubs that had their support groups dotting the meandering stone gullies — associated just with whipping up delectable biryani nowadays — while Raisina Sporting, Simla Youngs, New Delhi Heroes, President’s Estate were patronised by denizens of New Delhi. “Everything back then centered around the community. The fans knew the players personally and they were treated like heroes. Chanda (donation) would be collected from the neighbourhood to help the clubs,” said NK Bhatia, vice-president of the Delhi Soccer Association (DSA).
“The old Delhi crowd was a big chunk and there were the Bengali and Punjabi communities. After matches, players would be treated in the respective ilakas (areas), lavishly, if they had won.”
The Manchester United and Barcelona jerseys were invisible back then, but locals knew their game. Nuances were appreciated, a cutting pass applauded and an aimless clearance booed. Colourful figures became legendary — Ramzani, a bhishti (water carrier), became an enduring figure for children whom he regaled with his tales of City Club and Hyderabad Police while serving iced water to the teams and spectators for two paise at matches and during the rare practice sessions.
“He’d be there at five in the morning, the big leather water-bag by his side,” said DK Bose, working president and director of Hindustan FC.
“At any time, there were 15,000 experts present during a match,” he continued. “It helped that there were well-to-do supporters who embraced football, often providing cash prizes as money was scarce.”
DCM and rivalries
The DCM Tournament began in 1945, with the conglomerate lending its name making it a truly international experience for the television-deprived masses.
“It was a carnival right before Diwali. For most of us, it was our first exposure to foreign clubs. Television was not an option and clubs from Iran (Taj Club lifted the trophy thrice in a row between 1969 and ’71), North Korea, Australia and Germany came and entertained us,” said Novy Kapadia, football historian and commentator.
“Great Indian clubs from the era — East Bengal, Mohammedan Sporting and JCT — would make their way here. The Durand was held around the same time, so there was always enough to watch.
“In the 1960s and 70s, there was a regularity in the timing of the Delhi league — always played in summer and matches started 5.45pm, so people came after office. Traveling to the stadium at Delhi Gate was easier as the city was smaller then and by the 1980s, the old Delhi population had begun moving out to the fringes of the Capital as real estate prices soared which made the journey more expensive and so attendances declined,” said Kapadia.
With quality football available, getting a crowd was never an issue. Prices for local league matches were just four annas (25 paise), two annas for children below 12. Bhatia explained, “The demand for tickets at Durand and DCM was such that, at times, so-called VIPs would be refused entry!”
Former India junior representative and poster boy of the 60s and 70s, right-winger (and theatre enthusiast) Aziz Qureshi, who played for City Club, also attributed the quality of inter-club rivalries to people making their presence felt. “City against Indian Nationals was the mother of all derbies. You could feel the tension as the crowds came in the four-seaters from Daryaganj. As the players made their way to the pitch, the noise was deafening . These classy rivalries bred competition.”
As the years went by, the DSA’s inability to professionalise the local league structure resulted in gradual erosion from the stands. Couple that with the lack of green spaces to kick a ball and the increased exposure to western standards for the impressionable age-group of 6-14, and it isn’t surprising that League matches invoke little interest.
“Families used to grace the stands, do you see any families now? The focus is on cricket and other sports. The Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) is to blame because of the lack of parks and areas where one can play. We had the Moghal Ground, Government of India Press Ground and many others then,” ranted Qureshi. He added, “The associations fight away while the game dies.”
It was not just football that drew folks to the Ambedkar. Bhatia reminisced, “Delhi’s power problems aren’t a recent phenomenon and back then, families would come to the Young Men’s Ground (as Ambedkar Stadium was known then) to watch films in the evening (when households sat in the fading light without electricity) and socialise.”
The legendary Hyderabad City Police and Gorkha Brigade teams used to practice on grounds opposite the Red Fort while the likes of Inder Singh, Surojit Sengupta and Mohammed Habib practised on fields behind Daryaganj. Youngsters would dot these sessions and emulate the heroes in the city’s parks that have now made way for parking lots and malls.
Bose believes that the decline was the DSA’s own doing. “The state association has to be involved the whole year, not just when tournaments are to be hosted. Is there any talent hunting? How else is one supposed to recognise players and the quality of the clubs?
“People will come only when conditions at the stadium will allow them to. The basics are missing — tickets, food, bathrooms,” he said. Financially stretched, maybe, but it begs the question as to why the state association has failed to evolve, when, as Bose put it, “The Kolkata league has managed Rs 3 crore by way of sponsorships and TV rights.”
Fingers may be pointed but for the near future, the cemented Ambedkar terraces will have few feet tapping in anticipation. A hark back to the days of the late Shujaat Ashraf and Robert Samuel are as far removed presently as the thought of using dial-up to log on to cyberspace.