Messi for Madurai

Recently on the day Argentina lost to Chile in the Copa America finals, violent clashes reportedly erupted between some fans of Brazil and Argentina. To all those wondering ‘what is so great about football fans rioting, don’t they always do?’, the thing to note is these clashes happened in Kerala, which, in case you needed to be reminded, exists in a totally different and distant continent from that of Brazil and Argentina.

So what explains the craziness of these fans, many of whom, we can reasonably surmise, can’t even properly identify Brazil or Argentina on the map? Well, the most plausible explanation is they are Keralites. Oops, what I meant to say is that they are fans of football, which is a sport that can drive its followers to extreme amounts of passion and, more importantly, stupidity.

I speak from experience only. I once irately kicked and threw a steel chair onto the ground after ‘JCT, Phagwara’ was denied a penalty when its mercurial centre-forward Narendra Thapa was deliberately brought down inside the box during the ‘Madura Coats Football Tournament’ that used to be held in Madurai more than 30 years ago. At that age, I wouldn’t even have known what ‘JCT’ was an abbreviation of or where Phagwara was, but that didn’t stop me from expressing my indignation at what I thought to be an injustice meted out to it. This is the kind of ridiculousness that sports fandom is, in general, built on.

Anyway, whenever I look back on that annual football tournament in Madurai, the second question that instantly comes to my mind is: ‘Why the hell did they end such a successful tournament?’ The first question is of course: ‘How the hell did they actually sanction that football tournament for Madurai in the first place?’

Now, don’t get me wrong. Madurai is indeed a nice place. But sports isn’t something you associate naturally with it. Whenever you think of Madurai, you immediately think of, that’s right, how to avoid going there. Because it is a lot dirty and dusty (But that still is a lot less dirty and dusty than Chennai. But that is besides the point).

Anyway, once the tournament began to happen, Madurai quickly adapted itself to it and huge crowds were at hand for most of the matches, happily enjoying the proceedings probably because there was no Abhishek Bachchan on the sidelines performing the monstrosity of lungi dance.

The tournament in Madurai used to be held at the hugely popular ‘Race Course Stadium’, which probably derived its name from the fact — you would have likely guessed this from its name — it had hosted hockey matches.  Actually, the ‘Race Course Stadium’ was a multi-purpose sports facility because what was available was essentially a large patch of red-soiled land, which became a football stadium or hockey stadium depending on what particular sport was played at that point of time. Later, they built a running track and a cement stand on one side, giving it the feel of a proper stadium that had improper facilities.

Nevertheless, football matches turned out to be good fun, especially if you happened to occupy one of the (three) temporary wooden stands, which were built with the strictest adherence to international standards for totally unsafe constructions. Seriously, they were just a series of wooden shafts strung together with the help of bamboo poles and ropes in a steps-like formation leaving plenty of gaps in between so that even if the football was boring there could the excitement of someone slipping through the gaps and falling. Or, for even bigger entertainment, the entire make-shift wooden structure coming crashing down totally. The surprise, however, is, as far as I remember, there was not even one such untoward incident, whereas sturdier structures like cement and steel bridges elsewhere have collapsed, making me to feel that fate may be in the hands of Keralites.

The standard of football dished out by the participating teams from across the country was mostly middling. Unfortunately, we weren’t much exposed to EPL and such-like stuff. If only we had been seen EPL, we would have known how to enjoy our football better, which is by hyping it like heck.

The players celebrated each goal with a smile and warm hug with fellow players. Not for them the flashy sliding on the turf. Dignified, you’d think. Pragmatic, I’d say. For in that stone-muddy surface any Ronaldo-like showboating would have been career-ending. The high-point of any match was, of course, guessing when it would be whistled off, as nobody, including the referee, had a clue on how many minutes needed to be added for stoppage-time. Usually, the referee took the commonsense cue from the mock long-whistle that fans were prone to blow from the stands.

The tournament was great entertainment as long as it lasted, but they abruptly pulled the plug on it, and Madurai, which could have developed a good footballing culture for itself, went back to its roots and resumed being what it still continues to be: A backdrop for poorly-made Kollywood films.

If Madurai had remained a footballing centre, who knows what would have happened. To be sure, it would not have hosted the World Cup. But, bloody heck, it sure would have hosted a few fights between fans of Brazil and Argentina. Also, it might have got into the ISL franchise thing with a club named — why not? — Messi’s Maaveerans!