The beautiful game could bowl a bouncer at India’s obsession

1 / 3
England won the recent Under-17 World Cup held in India, a tournament that attracted record crowds and full stadiums and stirred the country’s love of the game. (AP)
2 / 3
3 / 3
Updated 08 November 2017
0

The beautiful game could bowl a bouncer at India’s obsession

MUMBAI: In March 1951, less than four years after India became an independent nation, the men’s football team won gold at the inaugural Asian Games in New Delhi — beating Indonesia 2-0, Afghanistan 3-0 and Iran 1-0 on their way to the title. They repeated the feat in 1962, seeing off South Korea, who had beaten them in the group stages, in the final.
Earlier that year, the cricket team had gone to the Caribbean and been routed 5-0 in a Test series. To add injury to humiliation, Nari Contractor, the captain, never played for India again after having his skull fractured by a Charlie Griffith bouncer. It wasn’t until nearly a decade later that Indian cricket began to be taken seriously. In the summer of 1971, a team captained by Ajit Wadekar won a Test series in England, with Bhagwat Chandrasekhar taking six for 38 at The Oval.
Chandrasekhar, bowling arm withered by an attack of polio in childhood, was no orthodox leg-spinner, and England had no answer to his wiles, especially to a quicker delivery that was nearly unplayable. In that memorable Test, “Ek Mill Reef daalo (Bowl the Mill Reef)” became the rallying cry behind one of Indian sport’s most celebrated triumphs. Mill Reef was the champion thoroughbred who had won the Epsom Derby earlier that summer.
By then, Indian football had begun its slide into irrelevance. Between 1984 and 2011, the team didn’t even qualify for the Asian Cup. In 2011, it was the special pathway created by the AFC Challenge Cup that gave India an opportunity. The defeats to Australia (0-4), Bahrain (2-5) and South Korea (1-4) merely illustrated just how far behind they had fallen.
India will once again be part of the Asian Cup in 2019, thanks to an expanded competition that gives the continent’s lesser lights second chances. But while no one expects miracles from the national side against Asia’s elite in two years’ time, there is an air of optimism around Indian football after an unforgettable 12 months.
The main reason for feeling good was last month’s successful hosting of the Under-17 World Cup, which also marked the first time an Indian team had matched its wits on the FIFA stage. The team lost to the United States (3-0), Colombia (2-1) and Ghana (4-0), but the response to their games in Delhi, not a city known for its football culture, was the first sign that the tournament would leave a mark.
The eventual aggregate for the 52 matches was 1,347,133, a record for a FIFA junior World Cup. A staggering 66,684 crammed into the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata to watch England beat Spain in a memorable final. Nearly as many were present to watch Brazil eclipse Germany in a quarterfinal, while 63,881 saw Rhian Brewster’s hat-trick see off Brazil in the last four.
Also, in October, Bengaluru FC, a team that has been existence for just four years, made a valiant bid to reach the final of the AFC Cup, Asia’s second-tier club competition, for a second straight season. The city had been lashed by torrential rains in the previous week, and flooded roads had made the already notorious Bangalore traffic even more of a challenge. Despite that, 7,862 turned up at the Kanteerava Stadium to see their heroes in blue take on Tajikistan’s FC Istiklol.
Bengaluru drew 2-2 on the night, losing 3-2 on aggregate, but there was no mistaking the enthusiasm and angst in the stands. The name of Albert Roca, the coach who was once Frank Rijkaard’s assistant at Barcelona, was chanted throughout, and the city is now preparing for the team’s maiden season in the Indian Super League (ISL), which kicks off on Nov. 17.
The cricket team is ranked No. 1 in the world in Tests, and just a decimal point behind South Africa in the ODI rankings. Yet, while the Under-17 World Cup was on, the exploits of Virat Kohli (pictured left) and his men were often relegated to the bottom of the sports pages. Football enjoyed pride of place, a state of affairs almost unthinkable in recent years outside of the weeks encompassing the World Cup.
Much still remains to be done. The traditional football heartlands of Bengal, Goa and Kerala aren’t throwing up talented players like they once did — as many as eight of the 21-man squad for the U-17 competition came from the tiny northeastern state of Manipur — and India cannot afford to continue with two national leagues. The most storied clubs in the land — Kolkata’s Mohun Bagan and East Bengal — still play in the I-League, and not the ISL.
The glory days of the 1950s and ‘60s, when Indian stars like Sahu Mewalal, Neville D’Souza, Chuni Goswami, Jarnail Singh and Peter Thangaraj were reckoned to be among the best in Asia, are long gone, but this October revolution has given football fans hope that there is much to look forward to. 


Susie Wolff backs Saudi Arabia's Formula E debut to inspire women throughout the Kingdom

Updated 14 December 2018
0

Susie Wolff backs Saudi Arabia's Formula E debut to inspire women throughout the Kingdom

  • History-maker backs Ad-Diriyah weekend to inspire more women to get behind the wheel in Saudi Arabia.
  • F1 legend Massa set to make his Formula E debut for Wolff's Venturi team.

LONDON: Susie Wolff knows all about making history in a male-dominated world.
The intrepid Scot became the first female driver in 22 years to take part in a Formula 1 Grand Prix meeting when she drove in a practice session ahead of the 2014 British GP.
As a test and development driver at the Williams F1 team, Wolff repeated the feat at that year’s race in Germany — and in the following season in Spain and Silverstone.
Now, Wolff is treading new ground again after becoming the first female team principal in Formula E, the all-electric car series.
It is apt, then, that Wolff’s debut as boss of the Monaco-based Venturi team will be at this weekend’s history-making inaugural Saudi Arabian E-Prix.
The race, which takes place in the Ad-Diriyah district of the Saudi capital, Riyadh, and which also features the debut of the Gen2 car, comes just six months after the lifting of the ban on Saudi women driving.
Wolff said this was a hugely “progressive and positive move,” which will boost “equal opportunities for future generations of girls and women” in the Kingdom.
Now the wife of the boss of the all-conquering Mercedes Formula One team, Toto, Wolff hopes this month’s race will encourage a new generation of female drivers to get behind the wheel.
“Can Saudi Arabia produce a top woman racing driver? The first thing to know is that these things don’t happen overnight,” the 36-year-old, who retired as a racing driver in 2015, told Arab News.
“I think it’s already a big step forward that women in Saudi are allowed to drive.
“Women are driving and can be inspired and become very passionate to take it to the next level and go on to a race track. It always takes only one (person). Sometimes in life you just need to believe it.
“I believe that there are a few Saudi women who are already racing in drifting, so I think that over time, with the right support and the right level of inspiration, that it could be something that could happen in the future.”
In 2016, Wolff — whose racing career encompassed several disciplines such as the Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisterschaf (DTM), the German Touring Car series — launched an initiative called Dare to Be Different aimed at inspiring more women into motorsport.
Wolff regrets that she was not able “with the timing to put on a Dare to Be Different event” in Riyadh, but hopes to launch it at next year’s race.
She is, however, thrilled that at least seven female racing drivers will take part in a Formula E test the day after the Saudi race.
Those confirmed for the test include the UAE’s Amna Al-Qubaisi, who started karting at 13 and has competed internationally in Formula Four. Her father Khaled was the first Emirati to compete in the Le Mans 24 Hours race.
Wolff’s choice for Venturi, meanwhile, is Switzerland’s Simona de Silvestro, who competed in two Formula E races in 2015 and was a test driver with the Sauber F1 team the year before.
“Saudi Arabia has been very supportive of trying to get Saudi women out on the race track,” she said. “I think it’s going to be fantastic to see women getting the chance to drive in Formula E.
“I was in Riyadh in September, my first time (there). I was very heavily briefed as a woman going, but I was very positively welcomed and was very positively surprised by the enthusiasm to have the race there; the track looks fantastic.
“As the season-opener, it’s going to be very exciting for Formula E to go to a new destination.”
Venturi finished a disappointing seventh in last season’s championship, but have been buoyed by the addition of the former F1 star Felipe Massa.
Wolff is delighted to have someone of the caliber and experience of the Brazilian, who won 11 Grands Prix in a 15-year F1 career, on board.
She said Massa and his teammate Edoardo Mortara can secure “regular top-eight finishes” as she targets slow but steady progress.
“I made it clear from the beginning that this is a three-year-plan,” Wolff explained.
“This year it’s about consistency and being consistently in the points.
“It’s difficult to aim too high in terms of race wins and regular podiums because obviously the level of Formula E is getting tougher and tougher as there are more and more manufacturers.”