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Taking A Punt With Footy Across The Great Indian Divide

Posted on Monday, February 17, 2014 by ARFAI,


Published: 1st December, 2012.


Mayur Parmar had no idea what Australian football was when the call went round Mumbai’s Dharavi slum six months ago for kids to come and have a kick, so he did what any Indian kid would — he hit the internet.

The 18-year-old credits his new-found skills to hours watching YouTube videos of AFL games at a youth centre in Asia’s largest slum. This weekend, he and about 20 teammates from Mumbai’s first AFL club will put them to the test against the best Kerala and Tamil Nadu have to offer in India’s first AFL National Tournament in the Keralan town of Kozhikode.

“I didn’t know anything about football, but now I play really well,” the keen full-forward tells The Weekend Australian as he waits with his team in donated Richmond Football Club stripes for the train that will take him out of Mumbai for the first time ever.

For a year of Sundays, the Mumbai RecLinks have been carving up the hallowed turf of Mumbai’s Shivaji Park, best known as the nursery ground for the city’s most famous sporting hero, Sachin Tendulkar.

What began as a three-a-side game with a few Australian expatriates and curious locals has spiralled into a larger social experiment that has drawn together wealthy university students, lower-middle-class suburbanites and a dozen kids from the slums.

“The idea wasn’t so much to get people from disadvantaged backgrounds involved in footy as it was getting people from different backgrounds to connect with each other,” says Lincoln Harris, an Australian travel agent who founded the team last year and flew back to Mumbai from his new Singapore base this week to take his players south.

In such a caste-driven country, Harris says the game has transcended all such divides. “Once they’ve got their team tops, they do actually move beyond where they’re from. You lose any pretensions pretty quickly when you’re getting tackled,” he says.

The 32-year-old has so far funded the Mumbai effort largely from his own pocket, though Richmond has donated more than 50 jumpers for this weekend.

The national tournament has also been kicked along with contributions from the Perth-based Oil and Gas Mining Institute, Austrade and proceeds raised from the sale of signed AFL team jumpers.

AFL India president Sudip Chakraborty says he hopes it will become an annual event and the launching pad for a new Indian sporting love affair.

The game was launched four years ago by Ricky Ponting in Kolkata with a series of sports clinics.

Though it has now spread to four states, the AFL’s participation has been limited. It has chosen instead to concentrate on building a support base and talent recruitment pool in China.

Chakraborty and Harris hope this weekend’s competition will demonstrate the potential for growth in India where year-round cricket saturation has many fans looking for a change of pace.

“People say footy was cricket’s creation, invented to keep cricketers fit in the off-season, but in Australia footy is now more popular than cricket so we’re hoping history will repeat itself in India,” Chakraborty says.

Mayur, too, is optimistic, both for the future of Australian football in India and his own team’s prospects this weekend. “I have confidence,” he says. “I am thinking about the positives. Automatically, the negatives are going out.”