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An Indian in Football’s Heaven

Everybody in Brazil supports a club. Becoming a supporter of a football team helps to integrate with the Brazilian society.

Shobhan Saxena
Mon, Jun 16 2014

Shobhan at Maracana Stadium

About Shobhan

Shobhan Saxena is a Sao Paulo-based journalist. He has reported for Times of India, The Hindu and BBC from South America. He is also a visiting professor on International Politics at University of Sao Paulo where he has taught courses on Indian politics, foreign policy and cinema.

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It was in February 2010, when I was on a holiday in Brazil, that I got a chance to see a football game live and that too at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro. It was a game between Flamengo Football Club, the most popular team in Brazil, and Botafogo, another Rio team that is one of its rivals. Keeping in with the tradition, we went to a boteco (streetside bar), where a huge number of Flamengo supporters had gathered to drink, dance and warm-up for the game. (Drinking inside stadiums is prohibited in Brazil). After an hour or so of drinking and singing, we arrived at the Maracana with the wave of supporters who were all busy singing songs, beating drums, playing trumpets and shouting for their team.

As the game started, I noticed that some of the Flamengo fans were not even watching the game. Instead, they were waving the club flags and beating the drums to create Samba beat. That day I could understand the symbiotic relationship between the players and their fans. In Brazil, the supporters are as important as the players because with their singing and shouting and drum-beats, they create a rhythm for the players and the players literally ride on the wave of support as some kind of energy waves.

Having seen football matches at the Wembley and Manchester, where also the supporters shout and sing for their teams, I could see the difference in the relationship between football clubs and their supporters. After living in this country for close to two years, now I know the difference. Unlike English or other European clubs, the teams here do not depend on players imported from other countries (even neighbouring ones). The clubs here are still based in the communities where they were created years ago. And many players still come from the neighbourhoods where the clubs are based. So, the relationship between players and their supporters is not symbolic, it’s real.

At the Maracana that day, several Flamengo supporters tried to talk to me asking me to join them in singing the club songs. When I told them that I didn’t know the songs because I was from India, they were surprised. Most of them had never met an Indian – not at least inside a football stadium. “Do you play football in India?” asked a couple of guys. “Did India ever qualify for the World Cup?” asked one guy. “What’s India’s FIFA ranking?” asked another. During the half-time, I tried to tell my fellow supporters about Indian football. It was a kind of recap of Indian football in 10 minutes flat: British bringing football to India; a Yorkshire team losing to a Bengal side in 1911; India the best team in Asia in 1950s; India reaching Olympics semi-final in 1956; East Bengal and Mohan Bagan rivalry; clubs like Vasco in Goa; and India was invited to play in the 1950 World Cup, but they did not send the team.

Several jaws dropped as I took them on a rapid fast journey of Indian football in my halting Portuguese. They looked impressed. Then one of them tossed a question at me, completely stumping me: “Which is your club in India?” I had no answer. I even didn’t know the names of football clubs in Delhi, the city where I lived, or if there were local teams or league there. They were all disappointed by my answer. A football fan without a club? That didn’t make much sense to them.

In the past two years, as I have travelled across this country, wherever I go people ask me one question: “Which is your club?” Not, which is your favorite club? When I tell them that I support Flamengo, some are happy, other are disappointed. It’s important to be a supporter of a football club in this country. Brazil is the easiest country to assimilate into. You don’t have to make an effort to do so, even if you are not very good in Portuguese. But being a supporter of a club really helps you to become part of the Brazilian society. You can make new friends. You go to watch football every Sunday with the support teams of your club. You are in.

But as a citizen of a country that is not known for its football playing skills but as a cricket country, there are sometimes embarrassing moment. Recently, I was in my local bar, watching the friendly between Brazil and Panama. As I got talking to a couple of guys there, one of them asked me: “But you know the rules of football, right?” Then he offered to help me: “If you don’t understand anything, please ask me,” the guy said, without any arrogance. He was being actually helpful. But as someone who has played the sport since the age of five and followed it well for 30 years, it was a moment of embarrassment. But I guess that’s the price you pay when your country occupies the 154th place in FIFA rankings.

India was invited to play at the World Cup in 1950 but we didn’t send the team because the football association wanted to focus more on the coming Olympics (though there are several other theories about why the team was not sent). If India had participated in that World Cup, it would have probably changed our football forever. And, probably, as Brazil organizes the biggest football festival, the Indian team would have been here.

And as a journalist covering the World Cup, I didn’t to have to face some embarrassing questions.

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