Football as a religion transcends nations, economic boundaries and personal differences. India, a cricket crazy nation, often comes across as a country of billions of people worshipping Sachin Tendulkar, who burst crackers with a vengeance whenever India wins a cricket match. But behind this mask of cricket fanaticism, there exists another band of football rebels for whom no weekend night is ever complete without the English Premier League and no day is ever complete without a friendly sledging related to match days on social networking forums.
I would like to draw your attention to Mumbai, India’s commercial capital. The sprawling city is home to a motley group of people who trace their roots back to different parts of the country. Amongst all the Indian states, three are regarded highly for producing football fanatics and players of the highest quality. First comes East Bengal, the home of Indian football, a state where the walls of buildings are still adorned with murals of Pele, Ronaldo and Zidane. Next in line is the South-Indian state of rice eaters, Tamil Nadu, the state producing footballers with great tenacity and physical endurance. Last but not the least comes Goa, the Indian holiday capital, the land of many beaches…credited with producing the flair players, the ones who produce step-overs without accidently burying their boots into the turf and comically falling over.
I am luckily associated with a group of individuals who come from the states mentioned above. For them Mumbai is a melting pot, an amalgamation of their football passions. Since the founders of this football group are Malyalis who originate from Tamil Nadu, our Sunday League has forever been branded The Mallu Premier League (abbreviated as MPL) (P.S : Mallu is short for Malyalis).
The Mallu Premier League attracts the best talent (or so we think naively) from across Mumbai every Sunday. Every member passionately supports a Premier League Club and tries to emulate his favourite player on the pitch often resulting in hilarious situations.
A typical MPL Sunday starts at 4:30 PM, with two ardent, die-hard and obsessed Manchester United fans in me and my good friend Arun Basker inspecting the pitch (a ground belonging to a local school that is open to the public on weekends) and shooing away any kids that might be playing cricket there with great gusto. The process usually involves us demolishing their stumps by aiming free kicks at them. After pulling the goal posts into position, we wait for the other members to grace us with their presence.
Next to arrive is Humayun (aka the Indian Lennon, aka the horse). Bearing searing pace, a mean right foot and an inexplicable habit of kicking the ball hundreds of miles into the air while attempting a pass, he proceeds to warm up by zipping around the ground like a horse whose tail is on fire. He is followed by a Chelsea fanatic Mayur, clad in the blue jersey, bearing a scowl on his face not unlike the one that Carlo Ancelotti possesses. Arun and Mayur are always involved in a battle wherein Mayur alleges that Manchester United influences the referees and linesmen and Arun suggests Mayur’s “intellectual footballing capacity” resembles a two year old crying for a lollipop.
While the other members arrive, we warm up by having a punt at goal, which annoys Arun to no end. “Learn to pass first, instead of kicking away like mindless zombies”, he mutters. Nobody pays heed to him and proceed to thrash the skin off the ball, often missing the frame of the goal by thousands of yards and conking the noggins of old grannies crossing the street opposite to the ground.
Post this ludicrous warm up session, the teams are split up — the Mallus on one side and the rest on the other. I look around me and grin at Arun before every game. We always end up in the same team which pleases us to the core. Arun is our answer to Vidic and Valencia combined. Possessing a lithe frame and a terrific turn of pace over 30 yards, he is often seen marauding down the flanks at incredible speeds and putting perfect balls into the box. He is also seen battering the opposing strikers by putting in crunching tackles and a strong shoulder barge. Arun’s younger brother Allen is the David Silva / Shinji Kagawa of our team. Diminutive in height and blessed with exceptional dribbling skills, the youngster ghosts about the mid-field, scurrying past defenders and setting up chances for our strikers.
The Mallus are infuriated to no end whenever we score. Their leader, Varghese, is a picture to behold whenever they concede. Starting with a customary “Aeeeee !!!!” and a verbal volley aimed at his team mates, he proceeds to emulate Ryan Shawcross and tackle dangerously often scaring our strikers off the ball.
The Mallus possess a Steven Gerrard in their team by the name of Tenny (Uncle). Often seen launching counter attacks with a diagonal ball and scoring delightful free kicks, he encourages all of us regardless of which side we are on, to “keep stamina” and to “set the offside trap”. The most comical character in this weird group is a gentleman by the name of Roy. Shorter than Wright Phillips, he always invokes images of a hammer in my head. His lower body and legs are thin while his upper body is so bulked up, that, I sometimes have a problem believing how he can see his toes. Always moaning and complaining a la Suarez he is the perpetual cry baby. Often seen counting the goals they score (which again pisses Arun off to no end. His philosophy is that we shouldn’t see who is winning / losing), he wears the tightest Manchester United jersey available for his size and cries whenever somebody does not pass the ball to him.
I would like to think that I am the Scholes in the entire setup (it would be a great dishonour to the great man, but nevertheless, here I go). I have a penchant for cross field balls and the simple passes. I would like to believe that I am a decent volleyer as well, but then, if wishes were horses, pigs would fly. After the match is over, we all sit together and discuss how Walcott could have played better (this discussion been carrying on since two years), how Ashley Young could have done by not passing the ball back to Evra everytime he was in a one-on-one situation, how Rafa Benitez could have tried a tie other than the red one he continues to over-use, how De Gea could have tried catching flipped pizzas in the kitchen before attempting to paw feebly at balls in the box.
This I believe is the essence of the English Premier League. It is our great love (my girlfriend has promised me that she’ll marry me the day I swap a Manchester United match for a date with her). It bonds us, stirs us up and drives us on to emulate the fantastic group of individuals that are stars in the galaxy of perhaps the greatest football league in the world. Far far away in a tiny ground in one corner of India, there exists a zoo, the Premier League Zoo.