1-6: India is In the Game 

Supriya Nair: [00:00:02] The Indian Super League is so young that to look at it would make you believe that football was born in India three years ago. But it wasn't.


David Goldblatt: [00:00:12] That’s my guest Supriya Nair. She’s a journalist, a observer of Indian football and politics, and of course a football fan.


SN: [00:00:22] Kolkata was the oldest derby in all of Asia which has 90,000 or 100,000 football fans filling the stands every season for the big matches.


DG: [00:00:34] Let's just take a minute to think, what does it mean when 100,000 people would show up in Kolkata for a derby in India, the land of cricket. When you've got that many people and when you've got that much noise, you know that something more is going on than just football.


DG: [00:00:57] The two teams are Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. Mohun Bagan are the oldest team in the city. They are the team of the traditional Bengali elite, playing first against the British and then against other Indian teams.


Clip: [00:01:11] Football provided a different space, a cultural space to hit back at the British.  


DG: [00:01:19] East Bengal represent the new comers. A large number of Bengali have been streaming from what is now Bangladesh, into the city of Kolkata.


Clip: [00:01:32] East Bengal club automatically becomes a kinda focus point of TK, this is part of the homeland we left behind.


DG: [00:01:41] And the relationship between these two groups of Bengalis has not always been peaceful. They’ve been struggling for status, public space, a place in the labor market, and above all on the football field. For almost 80 years they have been playing out this social and economic conflict on the pitch. And these days it has acquired the trappings of European fandom, we have ultras, we have music, we have drums and we have some of the most intense crowd seen anywhere in Asia.


DG: [00:02:24] I'm David Goldblatt and welcome back to Game of Our Lives. It's fair to say, that scenes like the Kolkata derby have traditionally been the exception not the the rule in India. Football struggled to capture the national imagination. In fact, all the money, all the glitz, all the glamour — it’s all gone to cricket. Cricket is king.


Clip: [00:02:44] Be a part of the action.


DG: [00:02:46] Cricket is king.


Clip: [00:02:48] Cricket is so good, you'd do anything to be a part of it. The 2015 Pepsi IPL.


DG: [00:02:55] Ten years ago saw the launch of the Indian Premier League — a money-spinning cricket tournament which brings the world's best players to India. Entrepreneurs worked out how to make a lot of money from the game — specifically, from sponsorship and TV advertising. It's a glittering spectacle, designed to be consumed by the huge, new middle class audience in India.


Clip: [00:03:18] Proudly brought to you by Bidvest car rental.


DG: [00:03:22] And yet, football has never really gone away. In some small enclaves, it has even prospered — Goa in the west, Kerala in the south, Bengal in the east. And there are rumblings of a comeback. Can football in India take a page out of cricket's book? Can it find that formula of financial backing, big audiences, sporting quality and amazing commercial spectacle? And so, I asked Supriya about the possibilities of football staking a claim in the land of cricket.


DG: [00:03:56] It strikes me that Indian cricket and above all the Indian premier, the short form of the game, the 20-20 has become without question you know the world's commercial cricket spectacular. The Indian Premier League it doesn't look like a sporting event anywhere else, it could only really be in India. I wonder you know what do you make of the Indian Premier League and what as a commercial spectacular? What has football in Indian got to learn from it?


SN: [00:04:25] What really happened to elevate cricket into the stratosphere and to have it take over the Indian imagination entirely was a little bit similar to what happened to European football.


DG: [00:04:37] How do you see that? How does that work?


SN: [00:04:39] The guy who floated the idea. An entrepreneur who also sort of a local cricket bigwig who is now a multi-squillionaire in exile hiding from the authorities.


DG: [00:04:53] Name names, Supriya.


SN: [00:04:55] His name is Lalit Modi.


DG: [00:04:56] Lalit Modi, who indeed I met in his personal box at Lord's Cricket Ground once. I thought, "You're a very smart cookie but where I'm going to keep a very firm hold of my wallet while I'm here."


SN: [00:05:09] [Laughs] That's, well if he invited you back to his to his pad in Montenegro where he entertains by the shores of some alpine lake. You wouldn't of had to turn up with your wallet at all. Just your checkbook.


DG: [00:05:24] So what was his vision, how did he connect the success of the English Premier League football to the cricket competition in India?


SN: [00:05:31] The idea I think was to make tickets reasonably available to to the Indian upper middle class, to make it family friendly so that women and children would feel comfortable coming into the stadia and you know people who weren't necessarily into cricket wouldn't mind giving up three or four hours of their lives to be entertained like a gladiatorial spectacle because our man Silvio Berlusconi discovered himself very early on in the Italian football in the 80s, people on TV will watch a sport if there are people in the stadium watching the sport.


DG: [00:06:05] And those sure have got people into the stadium in the Indian Premier League and with a kind of atmosphere and an environment that is incredible televisual and pretty intense.


SN: [00:06:18] That's right. But it was very much the success of the English Premier League that gave Lalit Modi, as it did I suppose many kinds of sporting entrepreneurs around the world, the idea that that a sport could be deconstructed and repackaged into this kind of entertainment that that would make sense even to someone who didn't know anything about the sport.


DG: [00:06:40] Now one of the reasons I think that they were able to do that so effectively as that as you say the nature of the game itself here 20-20 cricket incredibly short, all action, no boring bits but with gaps for ads, terrific that works for commercialized television. Football is another matter, and until they start breaking it down into like five minute segments, it just doesn't work in the same way. So I'm interested to know and to talk about the Indian Super League and the Indian Super League is the attempt to produce a commercial football version of the IPL. So how has the Indian Super League, which I think was founded in 2014, was it's first season, tell me little bit about the the background to that and what has it learned from the IPL? And is it working?


SN: [00:07:32] The problem is that football administration in Indian has been so patchy that there's never been an unbroken that there's never been unbroken league activity. So it remains to be seen how committed the ISL is to pouring in the sort of millions of rupees that will be needed to keep this thing afloat for the new few years while the audiences l slowly trickle into the stadiums and while people slowly get together to to watch to watch this on a Saturday or Sunday...


DG: [00:07:59] I wanted to ask you on that, do you think having so many cricketers as the owners of the club franchises in the super league is helping? I was really struck when I when I started looking at the Indian Super League because okay, it's not that unusual to have an American style league where people are buying the franchises and you have business consortia that are looking at it as a commercial operation. But it's very rare to make that the people who own the clubs—virtually the stars of the show—I was so struck when watching the opening ceremony of the ISL in 2014 is there you've got Sachin Tendulkar you know the greatest Indian cricketer ever next to David James the English goalkeeper. So that's about two foot difference, so that was pretty good.


DG: [00:08:48] And the crowd are going wild, you know and Sachin Tendulkar owns whatever percentage of the Kerala team the Blasters he owns a little bit of. And you know Sourav Ganguly is a member, also owns a chunk. What does that tell us about the role of cricket and celebrity? Is that, those are the guys they're bringing in to the football to get the punters in?


SN: [00:09:12] I think it absolutely says a lot about celebrity culture. You may remember that when the IPL was floated many of its biggest owners, kind of the showrunners, the guys in the stands were Hindi movie stars. So I think marketers see transference as golden for them. And that some of the stardust that Bollywood stars bring in to this new format of cricket that people weren't necessarily sure would take off was going to work for them and I think that's exactly the idea that's been photocopied onto the ISL only this time you know you get other star athletes. India's only star athletes to come in and, and throw a little fairy dust over the proceedings.


DG: [00:10:02] Were you around, in India for the men's under 17 World Cup last year?


SN: [00:10:07] I was here, yes.


DG: [00:10:09] And tell me, this is the first time India has hosted a big global football tournament of any kind. Now, were it to happen I'm afraid to say in England, the average punter would be pretty disinterested and be turning their nose up at the mere under 17s. But in India, my understanding is, this was a big deal. I wonder if you can give us a sense of you know was there any sense of football fever if you like in India during the tournament?


SN: [00:10:36] So, again because football is so patchily followed in Indian in Bombay, where I am, the under 17 World Cup made no difference to the average citizen's life. In Kolkata on the other hand, where I think the final was held, the stadium, Salt Lake Stadium, which can accommodate 90,000 people was packed to the rafters, because these people were there out of you know pure love for football. And more than anything, and I'm not saying that this is because there are no football fans in Bombay, but the football fans in Bombay are, are kids who like Manchester United and 30-somethings who weep over Arsenal into their beers in expensive sports bars.


DG: [00:11:20] Oh so no difference from London then?


SN: [00:11:22] You'd be hard pressed to tell the difference. While in Kolkata this sort of millennial football fandom is really just a thin layer on a very deep culture of love for football and loving football for its own sake. Where sort of the models of fandom that are followed I think are closer to the kind that you'd see in, in South American countries where you have you know, men just turn up to the stadium because they want to because they want their eyes to rest on a game of football. And you know they'll go anywhere for a bit of the pretty game.


DG: [00:12:01] I wanted to ask you, I mean alongside you know these long term diehard football fans in the regional strongholds of the game, there also seems to be for the first time a kind of, almost a kind of ultra football culture beginning to urge. I'm thinking particularly in Bangalore for the first time you've actually got a ultra group following the local team. You've even got the first kind of away fans which is no joke in India because the distances between most clubs are pretty gigantic. And we even hear the emergence of a kind of fan culture that invents its own chants, I particularly like that of the Mumbai team who chant you know about their regional snacks. So when the Kolkata guys are in it's “What is better than rasgulla? Vada pav” which for those of you who don't know is Mumbai's kind of standard savory snack I would say.


DG: [00:12:56] And this is kind of English kind of terrace wit. I wonder is that something you're beginning to come across you know as you observe the game in India, a kind of indigenous sort of fan culture of course drawing from elsewhere but focused now on Indian soccer?


SN: [00:13:14] I find that quite amusing and charming. I think we'll see more of it as as as time goes by. As you say, it is very much borrowed from what many of these people have internalized from you know from long years of following the Premier League and that's fine. It's great to be able to take these modes of fandom and to take this humor, and even to take this way of being. I mean god who calls themselves an ultra in this day and age you know? Like most Italian football fans don't do that, they'd be embarrassed. But it's lovely to see people taking this and making it their own. What's very striking to me about chants like vada pav is better than rasgulla is how different it is from the kind of local league fandom that's developed over decades for cricket.


SN: [00:14:00] As you know, Bombay has a very strong local cricket team. And outside of the IPL, which is very new, we've had a domestic circuit going on in cricket for generations now. And Bombay fans on that circuit are just, I mean they're mean bastards. They're like the humorless, raging, neurotics you're likely to find in a cricket stadium anywhere in the world. So—


DG: [00:14:27] So not unlike Arsenal fans really?


SN: [00:14:28] [Laughs] Is that right? I thought all Arsenal fans—


DG: [00:14:33] Well the raging neurotic anyway, that's how I find them.


SN: [00:14:39] I suppose they haven't had much to smile about recently. So, so I can see that they might be angry as well. So to see the transformation of the, of the Bombay fan, such as he is, from this kind of hard bitten you know kid shaking his fist and like trying to freak out opposition batsmen, to this frankly kind of cuddly figure who you know going to like be back at his desk in suit and tie, and well if not in a jacket then at least in a tie and loafers the next day. That says something about the times.


DG: [00:15:14] It's interesting that you know both of us I think tend to refer to football fans in India, it's him. It's a man, and of course, this is not always the case. And I wonder if you can tell to what extent are women finding a place in the crowd in football in India if at all? And to what extent are women actually beginning to play the game in India?


SN: [00:15:37] Women's football in India has historically had even less support than men's football, which is saying a lot. I mean if you remember we didn't go to the World Cup in was it 1950?


DG: [00:15:49] That's right.


SN: [00:15:50] The famous story is of course cause we wanted to play barefoot and we didn't, which isn't true it was just the administration the just went, ah the World Cup it's not as important as the Olympics. You guys don't need to go.


DG: [00:16:02] Incredible! So what, what, what are they thinking? That's amazing that they should so dismiss it out of hand in 1950.


SN: [00:16:10] But it was true isn't it? In 1950 the World Cup was just sort of, I mean who even knew that you know they hid the trophy under that guys bed during the World War. It didn't really—I mean and it didn't really particularly, I think to Asians who saw the Olympics and saw these giant world tournaments as stages for themselves to assert their identity. And who saw them as real competition.


DG: [00:16:37] But sure and of course, India has had extraordinary success at the Olympics. I mean from 1928 onward they are the world's men's field hockey champions at the Olympics and this is very big deal and kind of give that game a whole kind of nationalist, anti-colonial cache that football, I suspect, couldn't really compete with.


SN: [00:16:58] Yeah, and it's still the, as the state would have it hockey, field hockey is still the national game of India so it's not cricket.


DG: [00:17:05] Okay I do feel that the Indian state then might have a little bit of catching up to do with reality, but we knew that anyway. Let me ask you about the World Cup. Football imagines itself the global game in this extraordinary universal and otherwise fragmented world, but it remains the case that India and it's 1.5 billion people, let alone China will not be present at this World Cup. And indeed India never has, China has been present once. Does it anyway undermine or limit the claims of FIFA, the World Cup, and the football community to universalism?


SN: [00:17:45] I think in fact it was your work that helped me see this more clearly, which is that the world global doesn't necessarily mean the same thing as universal. It doesn't even necessarily as we know mean the same thing as international. And certainly the way FIFA uses it, it's very much a sort of 21st century buzzword about that perhaps has more to do with how football is a product or the World Cup is consumed around the world than it does about how many people have access to it. And how many countries get to play it and which kinds of countries get to play it. For a long time I knew India and China and Asian countries in general have been on FIFA's radar as you know these giant sloshing receptacles filled with you know eyeballs to watch the games and filled with money to pay into the coffers of the game.


SN: [00:18:37] But they've been beaten back because the culture of the sport itself has apparently failed to take root in many Asian countries. And certainly I think between China and the Persian Gulf there's like, it's a bit empty and everyone knows that the World Cup balls are manufactured in Pakistan, but what else?


DG: [00:18:57] Yeah this seems also to be changing my sense is you know in Thailand, 60 percent of GDP gets gambled during the World Cup such is the mania. And now President Xi Jinping as we know has made it central policy of the People's Republic of China you know to host and win the World Cup and pretty damn soon from what I can see. So I really get the sense that there's a change in in Asia in that regard both in football in general and the world cup.


SN: [00:19:24] I'm interested, if I may, if I may stop you there, and I'd love to know what you make of this. What we're seeing in China essentially is, I suppose, and given that President Xi is crazy about the sport is perhaps the biggest experiment yet in seeing whether state control can actually make a country good at football. In India—


DG: [00:19:46] Absolutely.


SN: [00:19:46] —there's a different kind of, a much more tenuous experiment is underway. There's some state intervention but that can be superseded by the market and with things like the Indian Super League and and you know entrepreneurs who are just willing to pour money into the sport and perhaps nonprofit organizations that will establish goals like qualification in 20 years and then see how many athletes can be roped in to actually make that happen.


SN: [00:20:12] We're perhaps seeing whether the market can make us good at football.


DG: [00:20:17] Well that does strike me one of the difference between you know Indian and Chinese development generally is the Chinese state has proved itself however authoritarian in it's a pretty good developmental agency but the Indian state, certainly at the national level, is not quite there yet. But there on the other hand, it has this extraordinary, dynamic private sector. The Lalit Modi's of this world who out of the blue can create the IPL and I note take it to South Africa at a moment's notice and keep the show on the road when necessary. It'll be interesting. I mean, I think the Chinese, it's not just a state project of course in the sense that the way China works is that once the private sector hears what the boss at the top wants everybody's running around like crazy to try and you know manage upwards.


DG: [00:21:07] It seems to me this is one of the reasons you've had this unbelievable outflow of Chinese capital they are now part owners of AC Milan's, 70 percent as well as whole slew of clubs in England. And this is all private sector dudes in China going "okay the president wants football let's just get out there and do it" without really thinking about you know whether that's a sustainable business practice or not. You've described in some of your work the World Cup in India as a kind of dream time. I'm really interested to know what is how is it in India when the World Cup is on? Is it just folks like you who are glued to their television screen? Or is becoming a, a much bigger, a much more public experience?


SN: [00:21:50] No, I think the the anomaly as it may seem to many people in Europe for whom the World Cup is can in fact now arguably be seen as a distraction from you know from local football or from continental football, for us the World Cup has always been a major event and this, I think hearkens back to a time when before football was the global game, when it was really just like many other sports and like the Olympics for example like many other tournaments. It was it was internationalist, and you had all these countries on either side of the iron curtain as well as the non-aligned countries that India very much saw itself a part of dying to get in on a piece of the action.


SN: [00:22:32] Feeling very much like they were part of a connected world because they were tapping into into the spirit of the game once every four years. So there is a long history of watching and loving football, watching and loving the world cup in India. Kolkata's Brazil and Argentina fans are famous around the world.


DG: [00:22:51] I was going to ask, who do we Indians tend to route for at the, at the World Cup?


SN: [00:22:56] The generations before mine were pretty much wedded to the idea of third world success. So, the South American teams were always big on our radar. Our hearts, you know, our hearts beat for Pele and Zico and Gabriel Batistuta. I have to admit for Maradona.


DG: [00:23:20] That's on this show, that's virtually compulsory.


SN: [00:23:23] Is it?


DG: [00:23:24] Oh yes, no we love, we love Maradona on the Game of Our Lives.


SN: [00:23:27] Oh god, we love Maradona so much that a big jewelry brand in Kerala actually invited him over two or three years ago to model for for their gold jewelry.


DG: [00:23:38] [Laughs]


SN: [00:23:39] I mean he didn't have to wear the earrings or the necklaces and stuff. He just had to stand there looking authoritative and famous.


DG: [00:23:45] Okay, but for women's jewelry. Not even men's jewelry.


SN: [00:23:49] Yeah. Oh yeah, yeah.


DG: [00:23:51] Oh that boy will do anything won't he for a few bucks?


SN: [00:23:53] [Laughs] Yeah, so I think the advent of the EPL changed things a little bit. So there are a lot of people in their 20s now who will claim to support England.


DG: [00:24:05] You're joking. On the basis of the English Premier League, one of the least English institutions in the whole of England. 75 percent non-English football players, hardly any English managers, owned by the global super rich, and they're tapping into England. Lord preserve us, Supriya.


SN: [00:24:23] Well as you know, that's, well as you know, that is the way into the heart of into the heart of faraway lands.


DG: [00:24:29] I absolutely love this is, this is the worst possible choice one could possible make of which team to support. What do they? I really, how how are they coping with the relentless disappointment with being an England fan in international football?


SN: [00:24:43] Well I hope, I hope they're hating every minute of it.


DG: [00:24:46] And who do you support?


SN: [00:24:48] Italy. Who aren't even in the World Cup this year.


DG: [00:24:52] I know so what are you going to do this time around?


SN: [00:24:55] Oh, now I, I, I feel like I can be a true neutral. But there's no such thing really is there? Our loyalties are struck within minutes of a match. And I will happily support whoever whoever takes my fancy.


DG: [00:25:12] And is there anybody you just wouldn't support?


SN: [00:25:15] England.


DG: [00:25:17] [Laughs] Anyone but England.


SN: [00:25:20] I mean good God. They're. Look at the rubbish they have to offer. And you know like the British empire was not a very English enterprise. It was like sort of staffed and administered by Scotsmen. I mean it's Spanish and Italian and Portuguese managers who are taking the English football empire to the world. So, so I mean for heaven's sake.


DG: [00:25:44] Well, I don't think you're in any danger of seeing England perform particularly well at this World Cup. One last thought, what's your favorite goal of all time and why?


SN: [00:25:55] Does it have to be a World Cup goal?


DG: [00:25:58] It can be any goal in any format in any competition that you like.


SN: [00:26:06] My favorite goal of all time was struck at the 2007 champions league final. A hard bitten, ugly, boring affair played out between Liverpool and AC Milan in Athens. As a kind of shadow replay of that spectacular 2005 game in Istanbul which you know kind of caused the sun to rise from the West. And after which, no Milan fans heart was ever the same again. It came in the sort of the last third of the match when the sly true-like Filippo Inzaghi—who has a piece of my heart forever, because he's just so wiley and hardworking and you know represents a kind of grit on the football field that men of genius are never going to be able to show us.


SN: [00:26:54] So this guy kind of just slithers in in the middle of a passage of play, and and appears to handle the ball but doesn't really and then just kind of taps in the winning goal of that match in the ugliest fashion possible. And I love that goal, not only for the satisfaction it gave me but also because it was such a symbol of how perverse and how ironic and how hilarious football is. I will, I will remember it always.


DG: [00:27:23] Filippo Inzaghi, a man born virtually off side.


DG: [00:27:28] So what's it like being an AC Milan in a country many time zones away from Italy, there must be a lot of late and lonely nights for you?


SN: [00:27:37] I certainly feel like my definitive connection with AC Milan is broken if I'm not alone in a darkened room, possibly weeping silently into a pillow. It isn't like there aren't other Milan fans in India, as there are of every successful European club in a country of a billion people. But the joy that I get from from having a second screen with me of being able to tweet and text with friends around the world. And of being able to scream silently and in text into my phone is pretty great I have to say.


DG: [00:28:10] What sort of time of night is all this going on for you?


SN: [00:28:14] In the heyday of Milan's European successes when they were in the Champions League knockout every year for a while, this was a long time ago now I realize, it certainly stretched into the wee hours of the morning.


DG: [00:28:29] Yeah, I'm thinking like it's four o'clock in the morning for you with a kind of 9 o'clock, 10 o'clock finish in Europe.


SN: [00:28:36] Yes it is. And depending on whether you were crushed or euphoric of course, you know, you'd just sort of pass the night sleepless then you'd like stumble out blinking like a baby bird into the sunshine. Eyes streaming, heart pounding. Wouldn't exchange it for anything else.


DG: [00:28:53] Well I hope Milan's form improved sufficiently that you can get some broken sleep and some late nights again when they're back in the Champions League.


SN: [00:29:05] Thank you.


DG: [00:29:07] Thank you so much for being with us, it's been a pleasure to talk through these things. I'm looking forward to talking through it all again during the World Cup. I hope we can connect and hear a little bit about Indian dreamtime and we'll see how Argentina are doing. Thank you so much for being with us.


SN: [00:29:22] Thank you for having me.


DG: [00:29:26] Supriya Nair.


DG: [00:29:29] Next week on Game of Our Lives, from India to Italy. A country where questions about national identity and who is truly Italian are played out on the pitch.


John Foot: [00:29:39] There are people at football who chant "Garibaldi you're a disgrace." You should never have formed Italy," during a football chant. And lots of this comes out as racism, because Italy is a country very much not at ease, and that's still going on today.


DG: [00:29:57] It's so amazing isn't it, that there are people in Italy chanting at football matches, "Garibaldi you're a disgrace." Can I just say? Just like absorb how f****** crazy that is. That a debate, you know what, 170 years old about the nature of Italian reunification is being debated in a football chant.


DG: [00:30:20] Anyway. My guest is the historian, John Foot, and we'll be talking all about Italy, politics, and football. That's next week on Game of Our Lives.


DG: [00:30:33] In the meantime, check out our website Subscribe to the show at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you can, write us a review on Apple Podcasts and let us know what you think. Speaking of which, if you know someone who would like this show, do them and do us a favor, tell them!


DG: [00:30:53] This show is a production of Jetty Studios. Our senior producer is Raja Shah. Our producer and sound designer, Meradith Hoddinott. Our editors are Casey Miner and Kanishk Tharoor. Kyana Moghadam does the social media, Graelyn Brashear does audience development. Graphic design is from Sophie Feller, and podcast operations from Jordan Bailey. Game of our Lives is recorded at the SoundTown Studios in Bristol, England, with engineering by Richard de Mowbray. Our music is from Bang Data. You can hear more from them at Our executive produce is Julie Caine and our general manager is Kaizar Campwala. I'm David Goldblatt, and I'll see you next week.