A few hot weeks in one of the most densely populated cities on the planet left me craving green space, so last Saturday I set out on the hunt for fresh air and a patch of grass or two. A friend recommended I try City Park in Bandra Kurla Complex (BKC), one of Mumbai’s largest business districts. As I travelled there by rickshaw, the buildings increasingly reminded me of Manhattan or Canary Wharf, with huge skyscrapers bearing the names of the world’s biggest brands visible on all sides.
Amidst the chaos of Mumbai’s streets and culture, it’s easy to forget the huge economic status the city holds. Mumbai is the 12th richest city in the world, home to 28 billionaires, and is undoubtedly the commercial capital of India. Traditionally a port city, with its Westerly setting providing a perfect link to European trade over the years, Mumbai has continued to evolve as a global, capitalist destination.
BKC, the newest of Mumbai’s many business parks and commercial zones, was built on reclaimed land from the Mithi river (an increasingly popular trend throughout the city, as it continues to outgrow itself). Its shining glass buildings, landscaped surroundings and open space made it feel distinctly different from the rest of the city, and I wondered whether I might find any football amidst the office blocks and dual carriageways.
Sure enough, as I jumped out of the taxi I was metres away from a game of street football being played. Rather than jumpers for goalposts, or indeed ‘chappals for goalposts’, (Hindi for ‘slippers’, with jumpers clearly not often carried around in Mumbai), this was ‘broken bricks for goalposts’, as ten lads dominated the pavement. The everpresent Messi and Ronaldo shirts were clearly visible amidst the scrappy game, and I wandered to the park with a hope of witnessing more of the same.
After paying 10 Rupees (about 10 pence) to get in, I walked around the moderately sized City Park with sadly not a football in sight. Instead, teams of event staff were braving the afternoon sun to erect stages and podiums around the gardens, presumably setting up for a big wedding ceremony, or maybe a Diwali festival event. After an hour or two of shade hunting, I left to travel home, satisfied with the brief reprieve from the horn-honking bedlam of Bombay.
As I walked from the park, there was a gaggle of skateboarders and cricketers riding and playing next to a nearby fountain, with one lone footballer catching my eye in the far corner. As he continued to juggle the ball, it was instantly clear he had real talent, executing tricks and flicks I would have only dreamt of even attempting. I sat and watched from a nearby step as he completed gymnastic routines full of flair and skill, waiting for the opportunity to go over and have a chat.
Fatefully, the ball ricocheted towards me (as so often happens when you fancy a quick kick about watching someone else’s game), and I took the chance to collect and deliver it back to him. He introduced himself as Mario, and after a few minutes of speaking, it transpired that he was a freelance footballer based here in Mumbai. I was intrigued to find out more, and Mario kindly invited me to join him and a friend the following day for practice at a nearby ground. Curious to discover more about the origins of Mario’s freestyle career, and to learn about where this form of the game fits into Indian football culture, the next day I was up and at it, en route to Vile Parle to find out more.
Arrival at the park brought with it an all too familiar sight - a ground smaller than one regular cricket pitch housing around ten games of cricket, all of different shapes, formats and sizes. Scouring through the crowd for people kicking balls rather than hitting them, I saw Mario and his friend tucked in the corner of the ground, playing on a patch of concrete next to the children’s play area.
Even from a distance their skills and routines looked impressive, but when you get up close it’s a real sight to behold. My arrival interrupted them mid-flow, to the mild disappointment of the youngsters watching on in awe from their climbing frame. I was introduced to Mario’s friend Boris, clad in Barcelona gear, and quickly we launched into a discussion of the in’s and out’s of freestyle football life.
‘There’s a growing community in India’, said Mario, citing a recent national tournament where 65 of the best players from across the nation gathered in Mumbai. ‘There are a lot of meetups and groups who will get together and practice, as well as more and more competitions’. Naive to how exactly a street football tournament would be decided or measured (I assumed there were no goalposts involved), Boris gave me a run down.
‘The tournaments are 1 v 1, two players competing against each other to show off the best skills. Each player gets six sessions, each thirty seconds long, in which to put together combinations of tricks into a routine. The sessions alternate, so as the competition goes on, the players are showboating against each other, trying to perform more extravagant skills’.
Hearing more about the style of competition, increasingly it reminded me of Olympic gymnastics or diving rather than football, with players judged on certain criteria during their routines. Mario shared that ‘you’re marked on factors such as style, flow, technical difficulty and execution’, with all of these numbers and ratings combining to form an overall score for each player’s efforts.
I was curious to see such a routine for myself and both Mario and Boris duly obliged, both taking their own footballs and embarking on fast paced, gymnastic efforts to showcase some of their more sophisticated skills. What struck me was the incredible variety in the way they used their bodies and the balls together, moving seamlessly from standing positions to lying and balancing at all angles, the football somehow sticking to their foot, shoulder, head or hand throughout.
After a few minutes of watching, it was soon my turn to give it a go. Traditionally, my style of football has always been focused on substance rather than style, and I’ve never dedicated much time to learning (what I’ve always wrongly considered) ‘pointless skills’, that can’t be applied in a real match. However, after being mesmerised by the flicks and tricks of Boris and Mario, and with the extra context of how valuable these skills are for their competitions and tournaments, I was happy to be proven wrong and embarked on learning a few myself.
Appropriately (4500 miles from home), the trick they chose was ‘Around the World’. This involves the player flicking the ball in the air, quickly lifting their foot and moving it around the ball, arriving back in time to catch the ball again before it hits the ground. A trick I’ve seen many friends learn and pull off, but I can honestly say I’d never attempted it before in my life, so Boris and Mario knew they had their work cut out. After some expert coaching and a lot of patience, we just about got there, completing a couple of the tricks that were semi-satisfactory. I can’t imagine I would have scored a lot of points in a competition, but as far as I was concerned, this was a successful start to my freestyle career.
Taking a breather, my pride was quickly quashed as I watched Mario complete double or even triple ‘around the worlds’, (wrapping his boot around the ball two or three times mid-air), making what I’d slaved and sweated over for half an hour look astoundingly simple. The more I thought about freestyle football, the more it felt like an art form - closer to the learning of an instrument, dance or language than a conventional sport.
Practice, it seemed, was therefore paramount to success, and it clearly required a dedicated focus to even be competitive in the first place. ‘We practice every day’, said Mario, talking me through his regular routine and how he finds time for the freestyling. Both Mario (Engineering) and Boris (Sports Management) are studying in Mumbai, both still teenagers considering their next steps.
‘Every day I go to college, leaving at 7am and getting home by 5pm’, described Mario, who was balancing this conventional study and career path with the potential to make it in the freestyle world. ‘Then I will get home, rest, eat something, and then go outside with the ball for a few hours every evening’. He summarised his lifestyle in four words, ‘work, rest, eat, football’, and it sounded a familiar formula for an aspiring footballer, or indeed any young aspiring athlete trying to make it in the sporting world.
Based on the conversations I’d had so far, it was clear that even the pathway into the conventional form of the game was full of cultural and economic hurdles for a young Indian, let alone the route into freestyle football. I couldn’t help but wonder what the options were for Mario and Boris, and how they saw the next steps career wise.
‘There are examples to show it can be done’, said Boris, citing an upcoming global freestyle tournament in which an Indian will compete. ‘Now he’s gone and got a reputation on the world stage, he’ll have lots of options for sponsorship and to compete more regularly’. Indeed, a little research revealed an active ‘scene’ for Indian freestyle football, with the best players being picked up by the likes of Red Bull and Adidas and given chances to perform around the world. Asked whether or not they fancied themselves to make it to this level, Boris replied with a smile, ‘if you’re the best, you get the best’, he said, ‘which is why we have to practice, but also we must build connections and get our name out there.
The importance of plugging their skills and identities into the world of brands and sponsors was clearly not lost on Boris or Mario. Both have Instagram accounts dedicated to their football (@freestyleboris_ @freestyler_mario), and Mario recently appeared on the national TV ad for the launch of this seasons Indian Super League, his skills seen by millions across the nation.
‘You must have heard of Andrew Henderson?’, they asked, taking the blank look on my face as a firm no. ‘He’s the best freestyler in the world, and he’s from the UK’, they informed me, some post-meeting Googling leaving me lost watching endless YouTube clips of the extremely talented Henderson. Further research revealed that the best Indian street footballer is widely regarded to be Aarish Ansari, a Guinness World Record holder, no less, thanks to his freestyle prowess. He completed 58 crossover tricks in 30 seconds in 2017 to break the record, and has been a rising figure on the freestyle football scene ever since.
As we continued to debate the value of practice and entertainment value, Boris and Mario began again with their tricks and flicks, soon gathering a larger crowd of parents and kids out in the park on a Sunday morning. A few of the braver youngsters approached the pair, asking if they could borrow their footballs, before launching into their own imitations of the freestyle routines. One young boy shyly asked Mario, ‘how did you get that good?’, gazing up at him. ‘Practice’, Mario replied with a smile on his face, ‘lots and lots of practice’, the ball arriving at his feet again as he launched into yet another string of kick ups.
This simple message stayed with me as we concluded our session, two hours in the 35 degree heat more than enough for me. This notion of practice and dedication transcended its sporting context, and made me think more about Indian society as a whole. Its sheer scale and aspirational culture makes any pursuit (whether concerning sports, careers or families) a competitive one, and Mario and Boris’ story serves as a perfect example of how to apply yourself in such circumstances.
On this trip so far, I’ve written and spoken a lot about role models in Indian football, and the need to see Indians competing on the world stage, as well the importance of making the grassroots experiences accessible for youngsters to take their first steps. When it comes to street football, it is not shackled by the same constraints as the more conventional forms of the game - all you need is a ball and a small amount of space. Mario and Boris had opened the door to the growing scene and interest for the game here, and it made me wonder whether India could be the perfect place for this style of football to take root and develop going forward.
As we packed up our things, the young boys who had been eagerly watching the tricks were now playing Kabaddi, one of India's primary national games. For those unaware of the sport, Kabbadi is a peculiar but entertaining crossover between wrestling and tag, hugely popular around the nation and broadcast daily on Indian TV. Players attempt to ‘break the line’ of their opponents, setting foot on enemy territory to tag one without getting tackled or pinned down. They offered me the chance to join in, but I felt one new formative sporting experience was enough for the day.
As we left the park and the Kabaddi game, not to mention countless games of cricket still surrounding us, it again brought the challenge facing football (of all kinds) into clear focus. There will always be dedicated players, teams and organisations (just like Mario, Boris and the freestyle community) that continue to work hard and develop their craft and careers, but it will surely require a multi-generational effort to see football make significant ground. In a nation already in love with so many other sports and pastimes, and with so many cultural and economic factors affecting its progress, will football ever achieve a wider impact across Indian society?
Just before jumping in rickshaws to part ways, I spotted Mario and Boris attaching their footballs to their rucksacks with a curious rope-looking contraption. They quickly informed me these were ‘ball holders’, and were available on Amazon for about 600 Rupees (£6). Frustrated by years of cramming footballs into insufficiently sized rucksacks, or having to carry them (inevitably losing them in ill-conceived games of football in public), I was happy to see such an innovation, and quickly Googled the (very limited) options available online. It struck me as a symbol of the resourcefulness of grassroots sport and freestyle football, but also as odd that there wasn’t a globally available mainstream product already. Nike or Adidas, if you’re listening, get into the ball holder market. Just like Indian football, it may only be newly emerging, but there’s no limit to what could be achieved in the years to come.