The New Owner
Sachin Tendulkar discusses his interest in football and why he’s invested in an ISL team
As the legend took to the field, the no-name wandered around the owners’ box. Sachin Tendulkar, the highest run-scorer in the history of international cricket, walked along the perimeter of the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Kochi, soaking in the applause from the crowd, many of whom might once have cheered two of his five-wicket hauls. Alongside him was John Abraham, a Bollywood actor and model who had invested in the North East United Football Club.
Tendulkar, one of the owners of the Kerala Blasters, was dressed in the team’s yellow shirt and jeans. He did a pre-match interview for television even as annoying dance music blared across the 75,000-capacity venue. A couple of times, you could see him leaning in to try to hear better and you couldn’t help but think that ‘Walk of Life’, that epic sporting anthem sung by Dire Straits – one of his favourite bands – would have provided a far more appropriate soundtrack.
When his name was announced, Tendulkar was facing the pavilion that bore his name, behind the home goal. The collective roar brought back memories of his halcyon years, when those outside an Indian venue could tell if the boss was batting simply from the decibel levels. As he was then driven around the ground in a golf buggy, the non-playing members of the Blasters’ squad slowly took their places on couches inside the owners’ enclosure.
On the field, even the ball boys were mobbing Tendulkar. Off it, the unfortunates who hadn’t even been named on the bench had an air of irritation about them. Dressed in training gear and Puma trainers, they fidgeted with their phones while trying to seem at ease on the black and white leather couches.
The yellow vuvuzelas were everywhere and the sound was deafening as the playing XIs emerged from a football-shaped tunnel with fireworks going off. It may not have been El Monumental and the Super Clasico, but it was hard to be cynical when 43,299 had come through the turnstiles for a match between two sides struggling for a play-off spot.
Minutes later, with the game about to begin, Tendulkar made his way to the owners box. Unlike the other couches, the one he sat on was bright red. In the stand immediately below, fans positioned themselves to take selfies with him in the background. He waved to the fans a few times, but once the game kicked off to the accompaniment of a relentless chenda [a percussion instrument used in temple festivals] beat, his concentration was absolute. While others took pictures or fiddled with their phones, Tendulkar’s eyes flitted this way and that, following the ball from one end of the field to the other.
That buying a football club wasn’t a vanity project for him had been amply clear when we had spoken earlier that afternoon. He had arrived from Mumbai only at around 2pm, but as soon as he was in the hotel he had gone to meet the players and chatted to them about the campaign and the key matches coming up. Synonymous with the national cricket side and then the face of the Mumbai Indians in the Indian Premier League for six seasons, what had prompted him to invest in a football team? “I believe we are creating something special here,” he said. “I believe this is the foundation of that.”
But why Kochi, 850 miles south of home? “I’ve always known that football is unbelievably big here,” said Tendulkar. “There were a lot of players from this part of India who played for the national team, and now, there are not many. Hardly any, I would say. The whole idea was to see whether we could revive that football culture and the response has been spectacular.
“I was just going through some numbers with my support staff. They were saying, from the fan following or the support point of view [i.e. average attendances], we are the fourth-biggest league in the world [after the Bundesliga, the English Premier League and La Liga]! That shows what impact it has had. The support that we’ve received is really amazing. When that interest is generated, we’re going to have more and more guys playing football as well. And from there, we’re going to find something special. All this got me excited and I thought this was one sport I should support.
“As a cricketer, wherever I went and played in India, I got support from all directions. For me, it’s not like: ‘I’m buying this team, so I’m against other teams.’ I just want this tournament to be a success, I want people to enjoy playing and watching football.”
Tendulkar said he had always played football as a child, in the playground at Sahitya Sahawas, the writers’ cooperative where he grew up. Cricket was a constant, but according to the season, the kids would play hockey, football and hand tennis. He was never much of a football-watcher, though kickabouts before practice ensured that he never lost touch with the game. “All you need to do is carry one ball in your kitbag – the trainer or physio would have one – and we would get the football out and play on the cricket field,” said Tendulkar. “Even till the last year of my career, I would play a little bit of football in the morning. Somehow, football has never had a direct relationship with me, but indirectly it’s always been there.”
In those early years of kicking a ball about, there was one hero, another small-statured man capable of awe-inspiring feats. “I obviously liked Maradona, because his flair and style were something I enjoyed,” he said. “I also liked the way Brazil played, their style of play. Now, Ronaldo and Messi and all these guys are there.”
Tendulkar, who has caught up with Roger Federer several times at Wimbledon – “What a remarkable career @sachin_rt. Wish you the very best moving forward #ThankYouSachin,” he tweeted when Tendulkar retired in November 2013 – has yet to meet any of the modern-day football titans, though he still chuckles about the one time he ran into the ‘other Ronaldo’, World Cup winner with Brazil in 2002, in Barcelona. Unlike Federer, Ronaldo wasn’t too clued into cricket. “We were at a Formula 1 race,” said Tendulkar. “But we didn’t discuss cricket at all.”
On the tour of England in 2002, Tendulkar and several other members of the Indian team watched Manchester United at Old Trafford. His eyes shone as he described how Sir Bobby Charlton had welcomed them. He has been back since, but admits that the intricacies of the game often pass him by. “I would be able to read what was happening on a cricket field, or what happens on the tennis court, to a certain extent. I would make out what’s happening and be able sort of to preempt what would happen next.
“But I can’t say that I know football to that extent. I’m getting to understand more and more now, slowly. But I understand just from a fan’s point of view. But not a hardcore football fan or even serious player – they think at a different level.”
As the game progressed without the Blasters getting the goal they craved, the frustration levels mounted. Ian Hume, whose itinerant career had already taken in Tranmere Rovers, Leicester City, Barnsley, Preston North End, Doncaster Rovers and Fleetwood Town, was their main prompter, but his strop after receiving a yellow just before half-time summed up the home team’s night. Tendulkar permitted himself a half-smile.
There were few local delicacies on the owners box menu, which boasted pasta, paella and dim sum. The Blasters were playing in Brazil-1982 colours, but there was little Samba flair to their disjointed play. Michael Chopra, once of Newcastle, Sunderland and Cardiff, came on as a 63rd minute sub and looked as though he’d been enjoying the Kerala cuisine. His first act was an atrocious tackle on James Keene, a product of the Portsmouth Academy. Keene retaliated and saw red. The crowd roared, sensing that the man advantage would tilt the tie in their favour.
David James, their goalkeeper-coach whose career highlight with Liverpool – a Coca Cola Cup win against Bolton Wanderers in 1995 – had come nearly two decades earlier, paced the touchline anxiously. Chopra headed over when left all alone in the box. Next to me, I heard a sustained burst of swearing in Malayalam. A few minutes later, I asked the swearer his name. Sushanth Mathew had played a couple of games earlier in the season but, at 33, he wasn’t even seen as a young prospect. His place – on a couch a million miles away from the action – sort of summed up the state of Keralan football in the past decade.
It was one of the issues that Tendulkar spoke about most passionately. India’s best player, Sunil Chhetri, wasn’t part of the Indian Super League, having been prevented from playing by his I-League club. Chhetri had an unhappy spell with the Kansas City Wizards in Major League Soccer, a sad repeat of the experience that Baichung Bhutia had with Bury in the late 1990s. Without its Cha Bum Kun or Hidetoshi Nakata, India will always struggle to grab the headlines.
IM Vijayan was perhaps the best all-round talent the country has produced in my lifetime. So poor that he used to collect used soda bottles at the Municipal Stadium in Trichur – a couple of hours drive from Kochi – Vijayan epitomised Keralan football when it was at its strongest. There was talk of playing contracts from Malaysia and elsewhere when he was in his prime, but he was so painfully shy that the leap never materialised. Even if he had gone, you fancy it would have ended as it did for a homesick Barry Ferguson at Blackburn.
Kerala, while not being able to boast of a Jim Baxter or Kenny Dalglish, has mirrored Scottish football’s decline, and Tendulkar has enlisted Vijayan’s help to try to put things right. “He comes for the matches and we’ve watched a couple of games together,” said Tendulkar. “He is one name we would want to be involved on a long-term basis with local schools. I think he would speak a different language with young footballers, a common person going there and motivating them. Just his sheer presence would be a motivating factor.
“We have also met the chief minister and asked for his support, which he has extended. Also, the opposition party, the police, the sports minister. From every direction, people want to support and it will only help if everyone is thinking of how to raise standards and enthusiasm for football.”
Tendulkar can recognise a footballing hotbed when he sees one, having spent the summer of 1992 playing for Yorkshire as the county’s first overseas professional. Despite the proximity to Elland Road – Leeds won their last title that May – and Hillsborough, he never got to a game. “I didn’t go, not even once,” he said with a slightly perplexed expression on his face.
On the field, as the clock wound down, North East United substituted Joan Capdevila, whose 60 caps for Spain encompassed glory at Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup. The Blasters continued to huff and puff, with Chopra fluffing another chance. Next to me, Mathew was on his feet in frustration. At the final whistle, he thumped the couch and walked away.
A week later, more than 60,000 were in attendance when the Blasters, who had sneaked into the play-offs in fourth place, took on Chennayin FC, the table toppers, in the first leg of the semi-final. Hume, whose career changed forever at the age of 25 when a Chris Morgan elbow left him with a fractured skull, was magnificent that night, with windmill-tilting runs and deft passes to teammates.
In the 86th minute, with the Blasters 2-0 up, Mathew was sent on. As a Chennayin attack broke down near the Blasters area, the ball was funnelled to Hume. From what some would call the quarterback position, halfway between his area and the centre-circle, Hume stroked a pass to the right wing. Mathew sprinted forward to collect it. He then cut inside, evaded a couple of defenders and lashed a shot towards the far corner.
Mathew was born in Ambalavayal, in the hilly and picturesque Wayanad district of Kerala. He came through the ranks at FC Kochin, where Vijayan once played, but his best years were spent in the colours of the now-defunct Mahindra United. During his time on the couch against North East United, he had spent the half-time break trying to keep his toddler from running amok. When the game resumed, he called his wife and handed the child over. You could almost sense his relief.
His goal in the semi-final was the sort you’d be happy to score on a PlayStation. For a 33 year old at the fag end of his career to do it in the biggest game that he’d ever played – that was something beyond the realms of fantasy. Mathew yanked off his shirt and set off on a celebratory run. He was later booked for his troubles, but no one cared. No other goal exemplified what the fledging league could do for Indian football.
The Blasters lost the final, to Atletico de Kolkata – a team part-owned by the La Liga champions – after the latest of late goals. Consolation came in the shape of the Golden Ball, for player of the tournament, for Hume and the awareness that a football-crazy region had taken the team to their hearts. Tendulkar, instrumental in the IPL’s growth, was convinced that the ISL too could sustain similar interest. “I don’t see why not,” he said. “If it’s entertaining, why would you not want to be part of the action? I feel it’s only going to get bigger from here.”
Structurally, however, the ISL has only made the Indian football scene even more confusing. It ran for just over two months from October to December 2014. In January 2015, the I-League, the competition featuring India’s most storied clubs – Kolkata’s East Bengal and Mohun Bagan – kicked off. Their season will end on May 17. In addition to this, there are still local leagues in places like Kolkata and Goa, and cup competitions like the Federation Cup and the Durand Cup, which goes back more than a century. For Indian football to progress, there will need to be an ISL/I-League merger that also ensures players and teams don’t waste time on big-fish-small-pond tournaments.
Tendulkar reckoned that football missed out on the gravy train in the post-economic liberalisation 1990s simply because it wasn’t marketed as well as cricket. He was merely being modest. Vijayan and Bhutia aside, there were no players even capable of competing on the Asian stage; let alone at the highest level. That problem remains.
Hope comes in the shape of young men who are eschewing the IPL’s considerable appeal to kick a bigger ball around. On the day of the ISL final, I spent some time with Nishant Bhatt, a 16 year old who is one of the stars of Bengaluru FC’s youth side. Ashley Westwood, a product of the Manchester United Academy who went on to play for the likes of Crewe Alexandria, Sheffield Wednesday and Wrexham, coaches the team, which won the I-League at the first attempt in 2013-14.
Bhatt’s parents run a coaching scheme called Stadium Soccer in Bangalore and have invested considerable time and resources on his progress. He has yet to catch Westwood’s eye, but knows that strong performances with the youth team will mean opportunities to train with the big boys. And although he was on the other side of the divide, he couldn’t help but be enthusiastic about the possible impact of the ISL. “I haven’t seen all the matches,” he told me. “I had training quite a few evenings. But it’s been great to see people talking about football on TV and elsewhere.”
Bhatt plays as a striker, and you can only imagine what it would mean for a kid that age to play alongside the likes of Alessandro del Piero or David Trezeguet, who featured for Delhi Dynamos and Pune FC in the ISL’s first season. Such players, like Nicolas Anelka – who turned out for the Peter Reid-managed Mumbai FC – may be well past their best, but Tendulkar insisted that they hadn’t been signed up just to raise the glamour quotient.
“The whole idea is to reach world-class standards, and help Indian football players get that exposure of rubbing shoulders with international stars,” he told me. “What I thought cricket did with the IPL was that it allowed players, especially the younger lot, to spend time together with foreign players. You can only learn from such experienced names, and that is what the ISL is doing for Indian football. I think, in time to come, the standard of ISL play will get better. In the process, so will Indian football.
If that happens, one of cricket’s all-time greats will allow himself a quiet pat on the back. The winds of change may have arrived too late for some like Mathew, wonder goal or not. But for kids like Bhatt with stars in their eyes, the future seems limitless. After half a century of treading water, Indian football may finally be on the move.