A large part of playing football is about waiting.
Waiting for school to end so you can get home and change. Waiting for the light to turn red so you can cross the street to the club. Waiting for the warm-ups to end. Waiting for a pass. Waiting for the correct moment to make a pass.
Add to this: waiting for the coach to arrive. Kids cannot take the field before the coach does. And, in time spent waiting for the coach to arrive, it starts raining. It is the monsoon, so rain doesn’t so much stop as pause. Football doesn’t cease because of rain, but it sure gets delayed.
The time spent waiting offers the threat of postponement. What if the coach doesn’t arrive at all? What if the traffic holds him up? For the parents who have carted these kids to the academies, this is wasted time. When the Black Panthers Academy coach finally arrives and tells the gathering that practice has been shifted to the park opposite from the main ground, there is a shift in mood. Where there was claustrophobia, now a window has been cracked open. Almost immediately, the sound of boots crackling over tile takes over. Within minutes they have joined the hordes that descend on the maidan, rain or no rain. Football takes over.
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People talk about the romance of football in the rain. But look closer and you will find that there is no romance in mud, slush, mosquitoes and flooded drains. There is no romance in the injuries either.
There is a chance to make a marketing statement here. It is a huge surprise washing powder ads still choose to market their wares using just one child, and one disgruntled mother. Expand, guys! Think about an entire juniors team, trudging back into the club tent after three hours of practice, to wash up, then wash their kits and hang them up to dry. Now, point the camera towards a club official clad immaculately in shirt and trousers beaming ear to ear, as those kits hang on the clothesline. He walks to his car and drives away.
Mohammedan Sporting’s ground is used for matches, practice, and academy kids’ sessions. So is Mohun Bagan’s. Mohammedan play their Calcutta League opener on August 7. Bagan played there's two days back. Before these games, all other activities were relegated to the maidan.
East Bengal’s coach, Alejandro Menendez has been a vocal critic of his own club’s home turf. His team don’t practice on it, and prefer to journey up to the other end of town at the Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan (VYBK) in Salt Lake for sessions. Their Durand and Calcutta League matches are, unfortunately, scheduled at the home ground.
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Menendez’ complaints are mostly directed towards the pitch in regular conditions. Rain makes the situation much more grim. On the stands, a thousand umbrellas simultaneously open up, and, on the pitch, within 10 minutes of rain, players are slipping and falling with the ball nowhere near them. Soon enough, most of them stop trusting the purchase they may or may not get from the surface.
To put it more accurately: if you were paying to play on it, you would refuse. If you were being paid to play on it, you don’t have much choice. Menendez pulled off his Spanish striker 13 minutes into the game — by which time East Bengal were two ahead — in anticipation of this rain, and the injury threat it carries.
Club officials are routinely castigated for the various marketing debacles, corruption scandals or ticket pricing atrocities they commit in a calendar year. There is no greater crime than this, the inability to offer a decent playing surface for professionals to play on. Bumpy, patchy and in some areas slippery are flavours offered on East Bengal’s pitch. The less said about Mohammedan’s, the better.
Even the most casual observer will see that the area around the goalkeeper’s box at East Bengal slopes away from the rest of the field. This, they say, is to help drainage, and avoid water clogging. All these grounds have floodlights, seated stands, but unbelievably abysmal conditions where it actually matters. Fans want their players to play attractive, eye catching football. Playing the game on a wet pitch is many things. But it isn’t pretty. Someone brings up Manchester United and Stoke City, and a joke about it being a Tuesday. These grounds are nothing like that. They may be backed by a century of history, but in that century they have done little to better the surface of play.
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It doesn’t take much to annoy the groundsman either. “What do you want me to say, that it shouldn’t rain? What will you eat then?”
For the kids in the maidan, rain makes no difference. Neither does the quality of surface. They play because they have waited a while and now it’s time to play. Football means a lot and also means very little.
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