'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Soccer Memories - Local

I grew up in a Kerala which used to love soccer way above any other game. I myself played the game quite ardently as a schooler - and continued playing it long after I came to realize I wasn't physically up to it.

1. Some of my earliest memories were listening to radio commentaries (in my native Malayalam) of Santosh Trophy, India's inter-state football tournament. A typical sample went something like this: "Basheer has just given a pass forward, yes, *Doctor* Basheer...and there is Sankaran Kutti, but he has lost out to Bhaumik... the ball is with is Prasannan, no Jacob but no, the ball is lost again! It is now into Kerala's half, Shyam Thapa advancing menacingly ... past Jaffar but then, we have under the bar Victor Manjila, the ever dependable Victor Manjila, Kerala's fortress of steel, our international Victor Manjila, he gathers the ball like a flower dropping from the heavens, as simple as that, and now he has kicked it far ahead into the Bengal half, and yes...Kerala is on the attack again, like ocean waves... and now, I hand over the mike to my friend... " It would go on and on ... And every now and then, the commentators would remind us of the golden year of 1973 when Kerala had won the Santosh trophy for the only time (I used to feel bad I was not old enough to remember that historic occasion!).

2. "City gripped by Soccer fever!"
Cochin. Late 1980/early 1981. The newspapers would not stop raving about the *Junior* National Football tournament being held at the Maharaja's College Ground in the heart of the city. This was the first time I saw serious soccer up close.

We were there to watch the inaugural match between Kerala and Gujarat. Just before the match began, a bunch of young fellows in soccer uniform - but all in same colors - entered the ground and proceeded to the centre to generous, general applause. They placed a ball at the center, waved to the crowd smartly and suddenly broke and ran outwards and took positions around the playing area. Then some folks in the crowd guessed: "Out Perukkikal!" ("Ball Pickers!"). This 'event' featured in the next day's papers. For a few matches thereafter, the crowds booed the 'Pickers's' entry - and thereafter, mostly ignored them.

Kerala duly beat Gujarat in the opener, and egged on by very partisan crowds - and huge local media hype - went all the way to the final before crashing to Goa. But even our parochial crowd was very appreciative of a diminutive Railways player - 'Krishna Dey'. He looked much below his 19 years and played with such touch and skill that he totally upstaged local heroes like Peter Wilson and Ricky Brown and even the 'Shooting Star' from Goa, Baptisto Fernandes... Then the leading local daily came up with a piece of news: "Krishna Dey's real name is 'Kishanu Dey'". Many of us were puzzled. What kind of a name was 'Kishanu'? An English paper printed his name as 'Krishnau' causing further confusion. It was a few years down the line when 'Krishanu' stabilized across the country's newspapers, English or otherwise, as the young lad grew into a major national star. And yes, his name has continued to retain its mystery to self ( decades later, I heard the phrase "Danujana Krishanu" - from the context, "Victor over Asuras", in a prayer to Hanuman. But many websites show the word to mean 'Archer' or 'Fire'!).

After that edition of the tournament, I never saw anything about BC Roy Trophy in any newspaper. It probably continued(s) to be held but the spike of interest generated by the Cochin 1981 was a one-off thing.

3. Come 1982-83 and Santosh trophy came to Trichur. The excitement was unprecedented. Somebody came up with the idea of having a mascot for the tournament and some other body proposed an elephant with a soccer ball nesling in its coiled trunk - this utterly prosaic design was printed and painted all over the place - even cakes and pastries with this design on the icing sold like ... well, hot cakes!

Some Seniors fron our school who had just entered the college came up with this idea: "We will grab seats near the (Radio) commentary box in the stadium and during matches, we will yell out our names and make ourselves heard to folks at home!". Although I did tune into most matches, I never heard any of their names - the roar of the crowd was overpowering.

Those roars were to be almost the last gasps of an era which would soon be history. The 'Nehru Trophy' of 1985 (which I wrote about in the last post here) was the ultimate show of the real Kerala Soccer Mania. TV and the 1986 world cup made us realize what the 'beautiful game' really was about; and nobody really bothered anymore about its local manifestations (nowadays, the new generation of Kerala soccer lovers fight proxy wars between Brazil and Argentina during World Cups). Kerala did win the Santosh Trophy a few times in the 1990's but the average Mallu sports lover wasn't terribly excited.

The other day, I saw a report on Punjab winning the Santosh trophy 2008 in a National daily - the space the paper devoted to the occasion could have been covered by 4 revenue stamps. And now, the coach of the National team, which has steadily 'moved' in world rankings from around 100 a few years ago to around 155 ("Well, it is not all such a bad slip, so many new countries have come out of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia so..." is *an* explanation) is said to have demanded Santosh Trophy to be ... scrapped!

And sadly, Krishanu Dey, on whom our leading sports scribes lavished phrases such as "artful dodger" and "an asset to the country", passed away in 2003.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Soccer Memories - International

Euro 2008 Football is on. The Russians, playing in the 'zone' have just packed off the more fancied Netherlands. Memories rush back a round 20 years to yet another match between these two countries - the Euro Final of 1988; Russia was then USSR. More than Marco Van Basten's brilliant winning strike for the Dutch, I remember being the only one in my then class supporting 'Orange' against 'Red' ...

Still earlier. The year is 1985. India used to host a soccer tournament - the so-called "Jawaharlal Nehru Gold Cup International Football Tournament". (I used to find the word 'Gold' more revolting than the 'sycophantic' Nehru bit). In '85, Cochin was chosen as the venue. The Maharajas Ground had no proper stadium so immense temporary galleries were built (from the stems of 'choola' trees; the newspapers used to say the temporary stadium deserved an entry in the Guinness book).

Our neck of the woods was just beginning to receive TV signals. And Doordarshan was NOT covering the 'Nehru Trophy' at all. With great effort, Pop got tickets for our family for the match between USSR and China. We reached Cochin (50 km from our place) about 2 hours before the match was to begin. The entire area around the stadium was teeming with people. A good percent of them were in red shirts, outnumbering the hundreds of khaki clad cops. We found the queue to enter the stadium was about a kilometer long.

Slowly we progressed in the queue towards the gate. A swanky bus drove up. There was a buzz: "The teams!", "Russia!" ... The bus paused right before us and several white and blonde faces peeped out. The crowd - self included - yelled "Russia! Russia!" and waved enthusiastically. The pale faces looked down at/on/through us with no visible emotion. Then the bus moved on, into the stadium...

The "China!" bus came soon after. I did not wave at our "Old Enemies". But plenty around us did - and exactly one player actually waved back at us.

A hundred of so meters from the gates, the queue gets stuck. There is a commotion up ahead. People around us say "The stadium is full. Maybe they wont let in any more people!". Pop asks: "But how? We have proper tickets!" Minutes later, there is a huge roar from near the gates and the crowd breaks and runs - cops seem to be baton charging them. There is general panic. Pop says: "Let's get the hell out of here!". We leave the scene, tickets and all.

Rumors fly thick and fast: "Far more tickets than there were seats in the stadium had been sold. The local Congress party leaders (CongI was in power in those days) distributed thousands of free passes to their chamchas. These chaps filled all the seats, and so folks had to be kept out, else the galleries would have caved in...!"

For the record, the Soviets won that match - we came to know that from the next day's papers.

A few days down the line, Pop again bought tickets - in the more expensive chair class - and we went to see USSR play Yugoslavia (another historical entity). This time we reached 3 hours before the match and could get in rather painlessly. I had never before seen such an awesome crowd. Vast stretches of the galleries were filled with swarms of red-clad youths. Presently, groups of hefty men in khadi and wearing 'Volunteer' badges started entering and occupying the chairs. The galleries greeted them with loud roars of: "O.C! O.C!!"(*). Some khadi wearers smiled sheepishly at the crowd, some waved and a few did mock 'Namaste's. And there was one chap who bravely faced the crowd and lifted his dhoti...

Yugoslavia won the match, playing on the whole, better football.

Another few days later, the same two teams faced each other in the final. Only Pop and I went this time; we could get only gallery tickets - and they came at an obscene 80 rupees apiece. We reached the ground by 2 pm for the 6.30 pm match and squeezed in. So packed were the stands that we could not so much as stand up for several hours! There were again huge numbers of red shirts around - some with the letters "CCCP" printed - and again, groups of khadi-wearers were greeted with deafening yells of "O.C!"

The teams trooped onto the field and the officials were introduced. A linesman was introduced as 'Natarajan'. Now, Natarajan is a more common name in neighboring Tamilnadu than in Kerala and the crowd greeted the man with loud yells of "Edaa Paandi!" (approximately, "Hey, you Paandi!", 'Paandi' being a slang word for Tamilians). Note: This Natarajan was also darker than the average Mallu and fit the stereotype of the "black Pandi" rather well.

The match kicked off and this time, the Soviets were dominant right from kickoff. Then, a threatening Soviet attack was flagged for offide by Natarajan (he was posted near where we sat) and the red crowd erupted: "Edaa, parappaandi!" (approximately, "You filthy Paandi!").

Yes, the Soviets eventually won 2-1.

The very next year, the world cup was held in Mexico. Doordarshan, rather surprisingly, gave in to public demand and started telecasting all the matches live. We, especially Pop and I, used to brew black coffee and sit up almost overnight to watch some serious soccer and yes, the awesome 'Mexican Waves'. In one of the more exciting matches, we saw Kerala-sized Belgium beat back the mighty Soviets. Of course, Maradona won the Copa for Argentina.

I have seen every world cup since then and most Euros - and a fair bit of Premier League as well. And I used to play soccer off and on until just after 2000. But 1985 was the last time I watched any sport in a stadium - full or otherwise, built of choola stems or otherwise....

(*) - "O.C" is an acronym dating back to British Raj days and is an adjective applied to any service obtained without payment (and usually thru shameless 'chamchagiri').