Screams of joys of fans at Ambedkar Stadium near Delhi Gate resounded for miles. As the players stepped out to cycle their way to the match venue, locals followed them, carrying milk and almonds to feed them during half time.
The city was football crazy and local players were featured regularly in newspapers for their outstanding skills. That was Delhi, 50 years ago. Far from the glamour of cricket, life of the people in the city revolved around football. The Walled City produced some of the best talents and football evoked pure love.
Delhi of 2014 only has faint traces of that era.
“The city had open spaces where boys from Old Delhi practised. There were five to six playgrounds just outside the Walled City. The decline started with the shrinking of these grounds,” said Novy Kapadia, football commentator. “Many of these boys came from Jama Masjid, Ballimaran and Chitli Qabar. That talent pool has dried up,” he added.
Old Delhi had legendary clubs like Young Men, City Club, Youngsters and Indian Nationals run by hoteliers and businessmen who organised matches and gave a glass of milk for every player in return. “There were no kits and most boys played barefoot. People collected donations for the game. Schools like AngloArabic at Ajmeri Gate and DAV, Daryaganj acted as feeders,” said 66-year-old Sharaftullah who played for City Club and Delhi between 1967 and 1975.
He was picked up by City Club while he was at Aligarh Muslim University. Today he runs the City Club as its secretary. “There is no focus on grassroots. Officials do not make any effort to fish out talent,” said Sharafatullah.
Delhi does not have any major football tournaments today. “Ambedkar Stadium remains empty. Only officials or their guests fill the seats,” said Pearey Lal, who played centre forward for President’s Estate.
Remembering the golden boots
Delhi, 50 years ago, revolved around football. The city was football crazy and the Walled City produced some of the best talents. Delhi today has only faint traces of that era
Aziz Quraishi, 70
Active years: 1957-70
Position: Outside Right
Played for: India, Delhi, City Club
Occupation: Theatre actor/director, manages DD Urdu
He was the first football player from Delhi to represent India abroad. Quraishi was one of the best players Old Delhi has ever produced. He played for India (Junior) in the Asian Youth Football Championship in Tokyo. He also played for India against Russia in Bangalore the same year. “I started playing by chance. A player in my school team had not showed up and so I was asked to step in. I played better than the others. People were passionate and our matches often witnessed clashes,” he recalled. He once performed so well that a family residing near Delite cinema insisted on gifting him a buffalo so that he could have fresh milk. “I had to plead with them to drop the idea,” he laughed. He later joined TV and appeared in ‘Hum Log’ series.
Syed Shakir Hasan, 60
Active years: 1970-83
Position: Right Half
Played for: Delhi, Nationals FC
Occupation: Retired as ACP, Vigilance of Delhi Police
Following in the footsteps of his elder brother Syed Nasir Hasan, a respected Delhi state player, Shakir learnt the tricks of the game practicing at Ramlila Maidan. He started playing in Anglo Arabic School and later became the captain of Delhi University’s football team in 1973. He went on to play for Delhi in various national tournaments and his performance finally landed him a job in customs and central excise in 1974. "I was selected for the job for being an outstanding sportsperson. I joined Delhi Police two years later and became its team captain. Earlier, government departments had quotas for football players. There were many opportunities. We also had five-six playgrounds where we could play from morning till night," he said. It’s the lack of open spaces which has led to the decline of interest in football. "Today Ramlila Maidan is full of potholes. That era is gone," he said. Shakir though still has a compilation of old newspaper clippings that helps him connect to that glorious period.
Pearey Lal, 70
Active years: 1961-88
Position: Centre Forward
Played for: Delhi, President’s Estate Club
Occupation: Retired as senior assistant from State Bank of India
In 1963 when he appeared on the cover page of an Asian sports magazine, little had he known that it was just the beginning of an era of widespread recognition for him. He practised at the President’s Estate Ground where club secretary Mir Sahab would gather children to teach them football. That’s how he also began and his seven goals, including two headers against Bengal and Kerala, in BC Roy Trophy some years later made him a hero. "There was no kits. We would fetch shoes from somewhere, shorts from somewhere else and get ready for the match," said Lal. As a school boy, his son too showed interest in the game. But Lal asked him to stop playing. "I told him football has no future," he said.
Manzur Ahmad Khan, 72
Active years: 1959-73
Played for: Delhi, City Club
Occupation: Retired as Senior Manager, Traffic from Delhi Transport Corporation
His talent was a collective effort of residents of the Walled City. A dairy owner gifted him half a litre of milk every day. A dry fruits trader would grind almonds for him and supply them at the stadium. People recognised him everywhere. “Dekho, Manzur goaly aa rahe hain,” they would scream. “If our club ever lost, people would not eat that day. A ticket cost 10 paisa and the stadium would always be packed,” he remembered. As a resident of Turkman Gate, he spent hours at Ramlila Maidan practising. Khan played in the Santosh Trophy for eight years besides DCM, Durand and Rover’s Cup, Bombay. He still has a collection of newspaper clippings applauding his reflexes and passion for the game. “I have received trophies from three Presidents of India. But I don’t even go to the stadium now. There is no talent left,” he rued.