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From Kalina to Sao Paulo

  • Kalina Rangers from Maharashtra recently represented India at the Red Bull Neymar Jr’s Five tournament
  • The annual Sao Paulo tournament is one of the world’s largest futsal events

Kalina Rangers play the Underdogs in the national finals of the Red Bull Neymar Jr’s Five tournament in April.
Kalina Rangers play the Underdogs in the national finals of the Red Bull Neymar Jr’s Five tournament in April. (Photo Courtesy: Red Bull)

A plush hotel on the Pernambuco beach in Sao Paulo turns into an annual football festival. The lobby is a sight to behold—PlayStations are plugged into giant screens with FIFA games running on them 24x7 and foosball tables are backed up into each other. Footballers from more than 40 countries spill outside into the pool and on to sandy shores. Right next to a fountain in the centre of the lobby, players create a small human ring within which they play one-on-one battles.

Charnel De’Almeida is in the middle of this, with a football stuck to his feet, as the others egg him on to make the next move. The mission is to nutmeg his opponent—and he manages to survive three such challenges. At the end of his 5 minutes of fame, everyone is calling him Ronaldinho.

The Kalina Rangers pose with Neymar at the world finals in Sao Paulo earlier this month.
The Kalina Rangers pose with Neymar at the world finals in Sao Paulo earlier this month. (Photo Courtesy: Red Bull)

De’Almeida is in Sao Paulo as part of the Kalina Rangers five-a-side team, which is representing India at the Red Bull Neymar Jr’s Five tournament. Unlike other footballing ventures which ride on the coattails of a popular team or superstar, this tournament is taken pretty seriously. In just four editions, it has turned into the world’s largest five-a-side tournament—in the Indian qualifiers itself, the teams have increased, from 500 in 2016 to 3,216 in 2019. The winning team from every country gets the chance to fly to Brazil and compete with teams from around the world. For teams from India, it is as close as they get to “playing futsal for their country". Futsal is the general term used for five-a-side, six-a-side, and even seven-a-side football. Aiff (the All India Football Federation) does not conduct a national futsal league. For teams from countries which have official futsal leagues, like Algeria, an appearance at the Brazilian tournament has helped launch many pro futsal careers.

Some of the team stories are quite remarkable. The side from Oman, for instance, is called Family Team, and is made up entirely of uncles and cousins. Kalina Rangers’ story is less bumpy, but romantic. An offshoot of a club that was started in 1982 and competed in 11-a-side tournaments in Maharashtra, the team gave up their rule of picking players only from Kalina and now dominate the Indian futsal circuit. Last year, they won 96 tournaments in India.

The Rangers lost the national finals of the tournament twice, in 2017 and 2018, before finally winning it this year. While the main motivation is to play against Neymar’s team and then travel to watch him play in Europe, it’s the feeling of “representing India" that really spurs them on. “I was in tears when we won the final, and my entire family was pretty emotional—for them, the technicalities don’t matter," says Rayyan Shaikh, who helps his family pay the rent with his futsal winnings. The team wins around 12-20 lakh per year, divided among 20-odd players. A regular player earns around 1-2 lakh per year, depending on how many tournaments they win.

This year’s world finals was Shaikh’s first international trip, but the Rangers have travelled abroad to play in 2017 as well, at the F5WC world finals in Beijing. The F5WC claims to be the world’s largest five-a-side tournament. Kalina Rangers lost narrowly to Egypt after drawing 2-2 against both Spain and Ireland.

This time, though, it was the Spaniards who were the undoing of Kalina Rangers at the Neymar Junior Institute at the Praia Grande. In a group of five teams, they drew against former champions Luxembourg in their opening game, lost to Angola and Spain, and then beat eventual champions Hungary—the only team to do so in the event.

That win came too late—it was a tough group for the Mumbaikars. Kalina Rangers have a philosophy of keeping the ball and creating space for their last man in defence or their goalkeeper to exploit the centre. The tactic works most times, but didn’t quite click in Brazil. However, one can see why they win so much—theirs is an adventurous, attacking style blended with the ability to keep hold of the ball.

But their worst fears—of losing important physical battles—did come true against Luxembourg Rangers, though they controlled the game. “Most Indian teams lose the physical battles. We can match teams in game sense on a futsal pitch, but sometimes it’s the tiny 50-50s that swing a game," says Prithvi Manjaly, who used to play for the Rangers but now primarily manages the side. Rangers put Luxembourg under pressure right from the start. But 2 minutes from the final whistle, a long ball punted forward by Luxembourg rebounded from behind the goal and was tapped in for the match to be drawn 1-1. It was a freakish goal but one that is entirely possible in a format where there are no touchlines and the enclosure is part of the playing field.

“On our day, we could beat anyone. I would say we can challenge a five-a-side team made of Indian national team players. If we didn’t think that way, we wouldn’t be in Brazil today," says Manjaly. He will now concentrate once again on the ruthless churn of new players that he spots while watching most of the futsal tournaments in Mumbai. All the top players want to play for the best teams, and in the five-a-side circuit, it doesn’t take too much for a player to lose his place to an upcoming one.

It’s difficult not to let friendships affect selection decisions, but the club’s culture seems to be thriving and reflects Mumbai’s edgy lingo. The atmosphere is one of pateli—the act of funny self-boasting and playful bullying. But the team is close-knit. “Work from Monday to Friday, win on Saturday-Sunday," says player Henderson Dias. Dias came close to playing for U-Mumba before the team’s plans to play in the 2019-20 I-League season hit a roadblock.

Until futsal formalizes, this band of engineers, digital marketing executives and call centre workers will try to continue making waves on the Indian football circuit. Just the day after failing to reach the knockout stages in Brazil, Rangers players who are in Mumbai win a trophy and finish runners-up in another.

“When teams face us, they just sit back and wait for us to make a mistake. To have that edge—where we can strike fear in our opponents—is vital to our performances," says Manjaly. And for that, and to achieve their target of winning 100 trophies this year, the Rangers must keep playing. And winning.

The writer was in Brazil at the invitation of tournament organizers Red Bull.

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