Barefoot and badass in Bangalore. The Independence Cup is a tournament with a difference.
Legend has it that the only time India qualified for the Football World Cup, in 1950, the team withdrew because they weren’t allowed to play barefoot. It had worked well for them in the maidans back home, they argued, and studs didn’t suit their style. The actual reasons were far more symptomatic of Indian sports– selection issues, lack of funds and internal squabbles. But why let the truth get in the way of a good story.
Every August in Bangalore comes around a tournament that brings alive an ignored football subculture in a city that’s not generally predisposed towards the game. The Independence Cup, or the Black Tournament as it’s called on the street, is an unofficial tournament that does more than keep that delightful barefoot urban legend alive. Set in a pretty but nondescript ground that’s nestled in Bangalore’s Cantonment area, once the largest South Indian military cantonment in the days of the British Raj, it is independent India’s oldest unofficial football showpiece. It’s not exactly a Fight Club that plays out in the shadows that no one can talk about, but is an underground event in every respect. It’s been going strong for over 65 years now. It’s not sanctioned by the football powersthat-be. The teams are a rule-book defying seven a side. There are no ticket sales involved. There are no seats, no changing rooms, no prize money, no scoreboards, no press and no advertising. And it’s played barefoot.
The tournament pits more than 60 teams from the slums and lower income areas of Bangalore against each other, and the popular theory that’s often cited for the barefoot style of play is a lack of funds for some teams. Playing barefoot makes it an even playing field. But one does get the feeling that, over time, the tournament has used this card to maintain its identity outside of its mainstream middle-class football compatriots. The altering of the rules feels a little like a deliberate promotion of the often ignored identities of the main players in this cast.
The teams, as well as the are predominantly from Bangalore’s Tamil Christian community. One of the largest surviving ‘converted’ communities since the British missionary days, there are over 1.5 million Tamil Christians in Bangalore, and a majority of them sit in the lower middle class to the below poverty line range. If one generously generalizes, it’d be fair to say that they are, for the most part, avid church goers and highly patriarchal, with a penchant for cheap liquor, loud fights, and drama. The new lot, with gelled hair, studded ears, tight shirts pulled taut across their bodies, are tough, blue-collar workers and cocksure. They love their movies, their superstars, Tamil music, their ‘areas’, their language and their identity. And they love their football. The cantonment is generally the domain of Bangalore’s upper middle class, and the ground itself is flanked by posh apartments and large villas. But on every Sunday, for four weeks leading up to the finals on August 15th, the roads outside the ground are transformed into chaotic parking lots, densely packed with rickshaws, cycles, low budget bikes and soupedup scooters with film star stickers. It’s like a Hell’s Angels run on a sleepy little town that leaves the residents shaking their heads The atmosphere around the ground evokes both intrigue and dread for what might follow. Vulgar team songs, drunken threats and loud opinions swirl in your ears. The smell of cheap alcohol permeates everything, and bright shirts and even brighter gold glints off your eyes. Unsurprisingly there’s not a woman in sight, although that doesn’t stop the MC from beginning every sentence with a polite ‘ladies and gentleman’. Most of the teams in the fray come from areas that are vice turfs, run by drug lords and rife with gambling and prostitution.
This tournament is their playground to settle scores without knives and guns, although it is quite rare for a match to end without crude weapons making an appearance. The money stays behind the scenes and bragging rights for a year is the biggest prize on offer. Even before a ball is kicked, the best players from the slums are poached to play for rivals with offers they can’t refuse. Players are shipped in, mostly expatriate black students with intimidating physiques that play for the highest bidder, and it isn’t rare for the odd, uncooperative superstar to suffer an unfortunate pre-game accident. On match days, the premium seats- a snaking slab of granite that runs around the ground – fills up fast, occupied by the local goons, a few beat policemen, the old timers, the tournament organizers, ex-players and those that are deemed worthy. The rest, a few thousand, make do with solid tree branches, the walls surrounding the ground, the mud floor and the railway overbridge at the station that borders the ground. There is, invariably, some delectable pre-match entertainment on a show before each game. It’s not exactly Jennifer Lopez at the Superbowl, and almost always impromptu, but raucous and entertaining stuff. From ex-footballers who have spent most of their recent time either in bars or behind them leading a little battalion of kids on a warm up run, to potbellied cops chasing trouble-makers around, everything brings about a cheer from a Sunday crowd having a ticket-free day out. There are also poignant stories of dashed dreams. From an ex-Olympian who is now a withered watchman with a fifty-year-old Indian team photo crumpled into his wallet, and others of youngsters who were picked for the Bayern Munich Youth Trials but didn’t have the passport or the money needed to finance the trip. On that day, it’s all wonderfully romantic. The football itself is fast and rough. With just 20 minutes a half and 7 players a side, there’s a lot more running and hustling to do. It’s barefoot, on an uneven mud field, with the odd rock popping up, and plenty of dust in the air. Despite all the chaos, the tournament progresses remarkably smoothly towards the final on Independence Day and attracts more than the football faithful. Small-time politicians, their pristine white clothes in stark contrast to the red earth, amble on to the field. They shake hands and mutter insincere messages of luck to the players in front of a raucous 10,000 plus crowd, their vote bank, and scurry back to their tent with the jeers getting louder. After the finals, the crowds hang around, swigging, smoking and swearing, and warming up for the fights that will soon break out outside the gates, as is customary after the potent mix of a good drink and rough football. Soon after these scuffles they will pick themselves up, dust away the effects of the day, and sober up for a mundane job the next morning. The street brawler transforms into the bank clerk. The rabble rouser opens up his cycle shop and the kid with gelled hair sheds his Messi t-shirt for a corporation school uniform. It’s back to business as usual for this particular football-mad community. It will be a year before most of them see each other again, and they can’t wait.
Byline: Swaroop Dev
Images: Vivek Muthuramalingam