Part 5 – India
After an incredible four months, my traveling adventure was coming to an end, but first I had the small matter of India.
From the moment I had set off back in August, India was the country I was most excited to visit. I had heard lots of stories about people going to India that I didn’t believe could be true until I found myself in that exact situation.
Whether driving a motorbike, shopping in a supermarket or simply walking down the beach, I had the task of dodging sacred cows that roamed wherever and whenever they like.
I stayed in Goa, Delhi and Agra throughout my three weeks there, and in every room I stayed in I was spoiled for choice with sports action on the television. Just about every football match from the Premier League, Serie A and Bundesliga was broadcast live, and I had around 10 channels to chose from, including Star Sports, FOX Sports, TEN Sports and Sony SIX. This was far from what I was used to back in the UK, where multi-million pound TV deals mean that we get to see three out of 10 games on average per match day, providing we pay for Sky Sports or BT Sport in the first place.
If there was no football, I had a variety of NBA games to choose from, and no matter what time of day, cricket (the country’s most popular sport) would always be shown. For me, as a lover of most sports, India had the greatest accessibility of sports from any of the other destinations I had visited.
The moment that cemented my love for the country was during my time in India’s richest state, Goa. As luck would have it, I arrived in Goa just in time for the last regular fixture in the Indian Super League season. FC Goa were managed and captained by two Brazilian legends, Zico and Lucio, and they faced Delhi Dynamos in the last league meeting.
The ISL has a format dissimilar to major European leagues, where the top four go into playoffs with the winner of the final taking the ISL crown.
Delhi Dynamos were managed by another Brazilian great, Roberto Carlos, and boasted names like Florent Malouda and John Arne Riise in their starting XI.
FC Goa ran out 3-2 winners against Carlos’ men to finish top, in what was to be the first out of three meetings in just over a week, with Delhi finishing the regular season in fourth.
The first semi-final was a disappointing match in an almost empty stadium up in Delhi, as the Dynamos beat FC Goa for the first time ever, 1-0. Cricket is the state of Delhi’s official sport, and I couldn’t get over how empty the stadium was. Even the fifth and sixth-tier of English football had a greater following than what I was seeing in Delhi.
Back in Goa for the second leg, the place was buzzing. Unlike the rest of the country, football is the official sport of the state, and since 2014, when the ISL began, the people of Goa have been football mad. I watched the match in a local sports bar and trucks were driving past blaring out music, with men dancing on top with the Gaur (FC Goa’s badge) drawn on their torso. The whole place has orange and blue Gaur flags waving in the wind, and you see them on cars, lampposts, umbrellas, bars, dogs, roundabouts – you name it.
It was a carnival atmosphere like I had never seen before, and the game was yet to kick off. To get in the spirit of things, I decided to adopt FC Goa as my Indian team and bought the jersey to fit in with the hundreds of people that surrounded me.
I was speaking to the owner of the bar, who told me that the IPL has had such an impact for the area. Young children now have stars to look up to in an FC Goa shirt and can dream about playing at the 27,300 capacity Fatorda Stadium, which was full to the brim for most games. I inquired about getting a ticket to see the game, but a friend told me I had no chance.
With their own fans behind them, Zico’s men put in a solid display, playing Delhi Dynamos off the park and easing to a 3-0 victory.
The final between FC Goa and Chennaiyin was held at the Fatorda Stadium, but I had to catch a flight north to Agra, so missed the game. I rang up Air Asia to try and change my flight, as I knew the atmosphere would have been electrifying around the state, but I could not find a way to stay.
Unfortunately FC Goa lost 3-2 to World Cup winner Marco Materazzi’s Chennaiyin FC, in an explosive affair that didn’t see a goal until the 54th minute.
The ISL has been a great success in India and promises to keep getting better and better, whilst attracting some of the big money names in the football world. In fact, it may end up rivaling MLS, with world-class players at the end of their careers opting for India instead of the States.
It is also a chance for young managers to have their first taste at leading a team, such as Carlos and Materazzi. It was widely thought that the Brazilian was using his time in India as a stepping stone to gain experience before landing a coaching role at Real Madrid. That has yet to happen, but with the appointment of Zinedine Zidane, it looks increasingly likely.
In terms of keeping up to date with football, India was by far the best, and I was able to see and learn how the domestic league has an effect on locals. Back to the UK now for me, swapping shorts and sunglasses for coats and umbrellas!