Watching Ryan Giggs win, Ronaldinho lose and Mohammed Islam become the first Indian to score in Premier Futsal, Pradip Dutta couldn’t help but feel how similar this was to what he’s been playing for nearly 25 years now. Often, in the narrow lanes of Kolkata.
“What did strike me as different was that match was split into quarters, the ball was smaller and that substitutions happened without the referee being informed,” said Dutta, 42, now the goalkeepers’ coach for Calcutta Police while readying for Saturday afternoon’s league match in Kalyani, nearly 55km from here.
Like the Howrah Bridge and Victoria Memorial, small-sided games in the streets and on rectangular fields abutting houses have been part of the Kolkata. If the field, brown or sandy patches of land really, is next to a thoroughfare it usually has perimeter fencing to prevent traffic from interrupting a game. Day-long tournaments are organised, sometimes with makeshift lights too, on major holidays --- August 15 is a favourite --- or on Sundays on cordoned-off streets.
All in a day’s work
“The number of such tournaments has gone up now. I would say anything between 500-600 such competitions happen every year in and around Kolkata. Usually, though, six or seven-sided games are more popular and the rules are almost similar to 11-a-side football,” said Dutta. And though these are not held under the Indian Football Association (IFA) that helms association football in West Bengal, Dutta said there are many footballers making a living from them.
“You can make R 30,000 a month if you are good. The good ones often play three-four games a day. This is so lucrative that clubs playing in different tiers of the Kolkata league struggle to recruit players,” he said.
With most clubs hard-pressed for funds, only few players would get that kind of would be money in a competition that has nine divisions. “Also, playing for a clubs means there are a lot of restrictions, reporting daily for training etc, so freelancing always seems a better option,” said Dutta who spoke in Bengali.
The colloquial term for this is ‘khep.’ It defines a footballer who often plays for multiple clubs in one day and is paid at the end of each match or tournament. How do they get noticed? Word of mouth essentially because at some economic levels social media penetration is still low. There are ‘scouts’ who fetch up wherever such tournaments are held, spot a player and take his mobile number. There is also an all-African team which survives by playing only such tournaments. They won one recently at CCFC, a club that is over 220 years old and in one of Kolkata’s tonier areas, said Dutta. “We lost in the quarters.”
Dutta spoke of a five-a-side tournament in Sonagachi, said to be India’s biggest red-light area, which is played on the street. The winners’ purse is around R 25,000 and there are numerous individual prizes where players can win television sets or even a gold chain, he said. There’s another tournament quite popular among those who prefer small-sided games in Kidderpore, around 4km from city centre, that is played on a park with railings. “We won it last year,” said Dutta, a goalkeeper. A tournament in Howrah offers prize money of around R 1 lakh, he said. Most tournaments charge an entry fee of R 1000-2000 though for the one in Howrah teams must pay R 5000, said Dutta.
Of bounce and control
For Sourodeep Banerjee, small-sided games essentially meant ‘min-football.’ Like Dutta, Banerjee said he found the idea of quarters a novelty. “What I saw on Friday night was a game totally different from football,” said the copywriter over the phone from Mumbai. Growing up in Kolkata, he said he played five-a-side games often on basketball courts and was surprised to see the number of back-heeled passes that were completed. As opposed to street football, the artificial surface meant the ball bounced less and that facilitated greater control, said Banerjee.
“But the surface also calls for a different kind of ability to stay on your feet,” felt Kaustav Sinha who played futsal in college and six-a-side games in Haldia, nearly 120km from Kolkata, where he grew up. Speaking over the phone from Bhubaneswar, Sinha, who now works with a theater group in Mumbai, said the friction on the synthetic surface is more. Moreover, for us free-kicks usually meant a ‘wall’ of two players, five steps away from the kicker, he said.
The superior skills of Premier Futsal players meant the game was essentially played on the floor. In Kolkata’s street football competitions, it is usually a defender or the goalie who sets the move going with a chip or an aerial shot that sends the ball near the opposition goal. Also, the wall pass, literally, plays a bigger role here. It is called ‘dewal touch’, dewal being Bengali for wall.
Small-sided matches also forge temperament which helps when in an 11v11 game, said Dutta. “An opponent is always breathing down your neck. You need to learn to deal with it. Your close control too improves but you need to manoeuvre the ball in much less space here.”
It is faster, more exciting and there are more goals but just as there are people who prefer Tests to T20, Dutta said for him, the 11-a-side game that will remain the real McCoy.