What Ballon Sur Bitume can teach Indian football

When I was presented the task of reviewing a documentary on French street football, the first question that popped up in my head was a resounding ‘why?’

Why was there a need to review a sports film in India? Especially by a publication like ours — we didn’t review Ronaldo, nor did we review Pele. We even overcame peer pressure and stayed away from Dangal.

Finding the context, therefore, became utmost priority, as I watched the film on Youtube.

Ballon Sur Bitume, which translates as concrete football, is a 50-minute documentary on the street football culture of France, packaged into modules of nostalgia, with the likes of Leicester City’s Riyad Mahrez and PSG’s Serge Aurier, who have roots in Paris’ suburbs (Los banlieues), narrating their rags-to-riches stories.
While the film highlights the difficulties of growing up in the suburbs — lack of money is a common thread in every footballer’s recollection — it is anything but a fetishisation of poverty, because street football, to the Parisian suburbs, is a mode of expression. Just like graffiti art or rap music is. An immediate escape from the reality that cloud their lives. To be successful at it was to escape the clutches of poverty. It wasn’t just a game for the young Benatias and Mendys — it was their ticket to another life.

The film is, very loudly and clearly, the celebration of this freedom. Freedom of the few, who braved it out in the concretes, honed their skills under the tropical sun, to become world renowned footballers today.

To understand street football it is mandatory to understand the socio-economic backwardness of these suburbs. Many of its inhabitants are immigrants — Benatia is Moroccan, Aurier is from Ivory Coast, and Mahrez plays for Algeria — therefore, the game is an emotional outlet to a set of people struggling to find a home away from home.

Much like the Samba footballers from Brazil, the players who have roots in the Los banlieues have a distinct style – agility, quick feet, ball control, and most importantly a street spirit to win. Like Mahrez says in the film, these players are used to cut-throat pressure, having played in front of aggressive fans while growing up.

The film also delves into the relationship street football has with various with forms of music, dance, and fashion. Style is an element of street football, where restrictions and team rules go for a toss. If you are losing, lose in style. The idea to ALWAYS make a statement.

Interwoven with stunning shots and apt background music, the film on France’s street football is a cinematic experience on its own. The politics of the filmmakers are also quite clear — a ‘fly on the wall’ merely observing the happenings , with no God-like voice-overs influencing the story.

The film finds a special relevance in India or other countries where stifling alternate forms of expression, by tagging it anti-institutional/anti-society/anti-national, continue to be the norm. By criminalizing these counter-cultures, the country is merely cutting its own limbs of progress.

Take the example of Sevens football — a popular 7-a-side football game that is widely popular in North Kerala collectively called the Malabar. A place rich in history — from being one of the world’s first metropolitan cultures due to early century trades with the Arabs to being the first to strongly revolt against the British rule. The region, especially the district of Malappuram, is one of the socio-economically backward parts of Kerala.

There are multiple stories regarding the origins of the game yet the most popular theory involves the flora and fauna of Malappuram ( which means ‘on top of mountains’ in Malayalam). The mountainous terrain meant plains the size of a football ground were a premium. So every summer season, after the paddy was yielded, people would gather in the fields to celebrate the harvest by playing football in the rectangular plots (considerably smaller than traditional football fields) where seven-a-side seemed just about ideal.

The game’s popularity is also connected to the Gulf exodus in the 1970s, when people from the region went the Middle-East to make a fortune. When they came back, they brought back wealth, and lavishly spent it on football tournaments.

Yet this form of game, which has its roots deep into the culture of the land, has not been accepted by the official football bodies. Players are banned from playing the sevens game even at a time when Kerala’s football is at all-time low. Why? The reasons Kerala Football Association gives certainly don’t make sense– shorter fields will affect the player’s growth as a footballer, no system to take care of medical requirements etc. But they are talking as if 11s opportunities for footballers in the state are plenty when the truth is quite the opposite.

What if Brazil and France had opted the same stance? Would we have seen a Ronaldinho (the legend himself admitted how much Futsal influenced his game when he came to Chennai) or a Thierry Henry?  After an impressive debut season, Premier Futsal seems to have kicked the bucket after the AIFF went all guns blazing against it.

The successful countries identified the favelas and the streets as potential scouting grounds. Regions with similar socio-economic climate as most parts of India.

gally-cricket

Youngsters play cricket at dhobi ghat in Mumbai

In a time when efforts have been amplified to make India a multi-sporting nation, it is important to recognize the need for sports to become part of its identity. Just like cricket has. No country can succeed if it sees sports as an alien entity — something not borne from within its culture. With the 1983 World Cup, the advent of Doordarshan and the success of Sachin Tendulkar, India found an identity, a voice to shout at the world, in cricket. Today, kids play cricket in railway tracks and even in narrow lanes of slums. Yet more endemic sports such as Hockey, Kabaddi, or football lost the plot due to bad luck and mismanagement.

Why hasn’t USA men’s soccer reached top levels regardless of plush infrastructure, scholarships and state interest? The answer, as always, lies in the streets. In USA, kids take up basketball or baseball when they grow up. Like how football was a mode of expression for immigrants in France, basketball became closely intertwined with African-American empowerment. Football, or soccer as they call it, still remains something confined to training grounds and state-of-the-art gyms. As long as soccer stays away from the streets, the game will fail to attract the best athletes in the country, who are often hidden in the corners of these socio-economically backward suburbs.

While the India’s football association has been making commendable strides to improve the game, it has often come at the cost of cutting ties with traditional football cultures, be it in Goa or Kerala. Corporatization and professionalism are genuine needs for the game in India today, but as Ballon Sur Bitume shouts out, it should go hand-in-hand with history and existing cultural norms.

Interesting Reads:

  1. “Why America doesn’t like soccer, and how that can be changed”, TIME MAGAZINE, June 12, 2014
  2. “AIFF-FIFA show red card to Goa”, Rahul Bali, Goal.com
  3. “Why is Soccer Less Popular in the U.S.? By Kelsey Ontko, Julia Fogleman, and Lucas Nevola.

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