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How covid-19 killed grass-roots sports in India

The pandemic brought local-level tournaments to a grinding halt. Players and officials who depend on these are struggling to make ends meet

Children participating in a rugby training session at The Maidan in Kolkata in October 2015. (Getty Images)

India has sent its biggest contingent—more than 100 athletes— to the Tokyo Olympics that began on Friday. Still, most of us would struggle to identify more than 10 athletes in the squad. In our sporting hierarchy, cricket occupies almost the entire pyramid of public visibility, pushing other sports and sportspeople to the periphery. And right at the bottom of the rung are the young and hopeful, who play sports at the local, grass-roots level—for many of them, it’s their main source of income.

When the covid-19 lockdown was announced in March last year, all sporting activity came to a grinding halt. In one stroke, the livelihoods of thousands of faceless and nameless sportspeople vanished into thin air. While made-for-television sports such as the Indian Premier League and Indian Super League, even international cricket, have returned, the local-level tournaments that support an entire economy of players, organisers and officials continue to struggle. Many may not get to live out their dreams of making it big, many a talent may be lost in the distress of the pandemic.

Also read: How local is your IPL team?

Sk Eraj, a semi-professional footballer from Kolkata, was one of those who saw his income dry up overnight. Semi-pro sportsmen like him do not have contracts with associations or clubs and end up playing for anyone who hires their services.

Eraj, or Ric as he is called in football circles, lives with his wife, parents, grandmother and younger brother in Kolkata, and is the only earning member apart from his father. Just before the lockdown was announced in March last year, he had returned to Kolkata after playing in local leagues in Assam for clubs that paid him 35,000-40,000 per month. From end-March to mid-September last year, however, he sold meat at a street market in central Kolkata to make ends meet. “I had to eat and feed my family, majboori mein aadmi ko karna padta hai,” says the 24-year-old, dismissing his hardship with the wave of a hand.

By late September, he had started playing khep football, the most basic level of semi-professional football, as old in Bengal as the game itself. These tournaments carry prize money but they aren’t recognised by any football governing body; they are the football equivalent of prize fighting in combat sports. Private individuals, organisations or neighbourhood clubs field teams comprising players hired to play just that tournament.

Tennis player Aryan Goveas, 23, has been left stranded too. Pre-pandemic, Goveas used to spend about 30 weeks in a year on the road, playing in tournaments around the country and the world. It was his only source of income. Ranked 860 on the ATP Tour, he dreams of reaching the top tier and representing the country at the Olympics and Davis Cup.

2020 had begun on a bright note for him: He was in good form, his game was improving, and so were his results. Then the pandemic hit. He ended the year with just three months of tennis. He played his first tournament of 2021, and the first after last year’s lockdown, in January in Egypt and took part in two other tournaments in India in March.

The second wave of the coronavirus brought his career to a halt again. “I have lost a whole year of my career at a time when I was on an upward trajectory. In order to make it to the national tennis teams, I need to keep playing overseas and improve my ranking and game. And I haven’t done much of that. Playing local tournaments doesn’t affect our chances of playing for India. It is pretty difficult to wrap my head around it all,” Goveas says ruefully.

“No player willingly wants to whitewash other people’s homes or sell meat or pull a rickshaw. They just want to play. That’s their passion. But these are tough times and they need to survive too,” says Joydeep Mukherjee, honorary secretary of the Indian Football Association, which runs the Kolkata League.

He takes solace in the fact that he lives with his parents in Mumbai and doesn’t have to worry about rent. “If I don’t play, I don’t earn. Had my circumstances been any different, I would have been forced to explore other options to make a living.”

Eraj’s friend, Md Qais, 21, who has played age-group football for Mumbai FC and Minerva, also plays khep. Qais says participating in such tournaments in and around Kolkata fetches 10,000-15,000 per tournament, depending on how far their team progresses.“Our earnings could go up to 20,000 if we win the tournament,” says Qais, who has also played in the Santosh Trophy.

Last year, when professional sport came to a halt, Qais started working in his family’s small plastic recycling factory in Kolkata. He lives with 10 others, including his parents, in a joint family that is effectively left with just two earning members—he hasn’t been making money consistently for more than a year now.

Both Eraj and Qais took to khep, which began in the villages and smaller towns towards the end of 2020, sometimes for as little as 2,000 per tournament. “The trains weren’t working so we would have to hire a cab and drive three hours each way,” says Eraj. Both suffered injuries in January during a game and were undergoing rehab when the second wave forced another lockdown. Eraj went back to selling meat; Qais returned to the factory.

“No player willingly wants to whitewash other people’s homes or sell meat or pull a rickshaw. They just want to play. That’s their passion. But these are tough times and they need to survive too,” says Joydeep Mukherjee, honorary secretary of the Indian Football Association, which runs the Kolkata League.

He points out that the shutdown of grass-roots-level sport has affected everyone associated with the industry. “It’s not just the players who are suffering. Referees, coaches, groundsmen, tournament organisers, vendors and hawkers at playgrounds, traders who sell sporting goods and merchandise, and many more have been impacted.”

Only about 10% of those who play football come from affluent families, the rest have been forced to turn to alternative sources of income to put food on the table.
Only about 10% of those who play football come from affluent families, the rest have been forced to turn to alternative sources of income to put food on the table. (Getty Images)

The Kolkata League itself is a six-tiered football competition featuring 286 teams and about 6,000 players. Over four months each season, 1,400 matches are played. Not one Kolkata League match has been played since March 2020. Only about 10% of those who play football come from affluent families, 90% are from a poor background, says Mukherjee. Many have been forced to turn to alternative sources of income to put food on the table.

Md Taufique, 17, had played for the Mohun Bagan Under-15 team for two consecutive seasons between 2018 and 2020. His teammates and he were sent back home from the training ground one day last year and told they would be called when the situation improved. He is still waiting for that call as he helps his father sell dupattas outside the iconic New Market in central Kolkata. In normal circumstances, he believes he would have by now progressed to the higher age group and come a step closer to realising his dream of breaking into the first team.

It’s a similar story in other sports. Babli, the 29-year-old vice-captain of the Delhi Hurricanes women’s rugby team (who uses just one name), hasn’t played a single game in a year and a half. That’s true of almost all rugby players, both men and women, in India. The Indian women had won their first international test match in the Philippines in 2019 and a bronze medal at the Asia Rugby Championship the same year. “We had won our first test match and in 2019 we had witnessed the highest number of players trying out rugby in India. Indian rugby was making great progress internationally. Till the pandemic grounded us,” says Babli, who might have to give up the dream of playing for India if things don’t improve soon. “At 29, I have to be practical.” Babli works as a yoga instructor.

Former Indian rugby captain Gautam Dagar, who now coaches the Delhi state and Delhi Rebels rugby club’s junior teams, says young players are suffering. “Kids I work with want to train and play. I have been sending workout plans and doing one-on-one sessions over video calls but that is not the same as playing tournaments and in-person training,” says the 32-year-old.

Rugby is a relatively new sport in India and awareness about it was low to begin with. Without tournaments, it has become even more challenging to try and carve out a career in the sport. This could well have a knock-on effect on Rugby India’s goal of qualifying for the 2028 Olympics.

Dagar says the prolonged absence of grass-roots sport will result in nearly every sport losing a lot of players. Some of them may never return, while others will see their career prospects severely dented. “The seniors with a year or two left in them would be too old to play as and when sport resumes. The Under-19 level has been the worst hit because a good performance at that level would lead to a call-up to the national team. They won’t be able to make it to the national team,” he says. Dagar is referring to rugby but this is true of all sports.

Mukherjee agrees. “Those playing at the junior levels have lost two seasons. The raw talent that shines through every season may not come out and they may turn to other opportunities,” says Mukherjee. “Most play football for the passion of the game. When they realise they are good and see a future in it, they continue playing. But these are hard times and many have become disillusioned and are also dealing with health and mental health issues.”

Goveas, Qais, Eraj and Taufique continue to train and work out as much as they can but it is not the same as game time or in-person training with a coach. “It is pretty difficult to wrap my mind around it all and keep myself motivated. Doubts crept in many a time and I had to keep telling myself to be patient and stay focused,” says Goveas. Taufique found help in the form of his mentor, Marshall Gomes, 29. The former Under-19 footballer, who now works in the tea industry, would call him over to play casual games with his friends. “The game is not at the same level but it is still better than training by yourself. Football is still a contact sport and you need to play with people to stay sharp,” Gomes says.

The impact of the pandemic on sport will take years to unfold. For not only has it impacted livelihoods, it has also ruptured the talent pipeline—and brought many careers to an abrupt end. Those who may have made the transition from Under-19s to the first team may never do so now. And the raw talent that may have been discovered may be lost forever.

“It has affected everyone out there. We just have to forget it, stay focused and think about the future,” says Goveas. Hope lingers.

Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.

Also read: Has yoga in India become too expensive and westernised?

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