The North-East, West Bengal, Goa, Kerala and Punjab – these are the places that come to mind when one thinks of footballing culture in India. What if I told you that a strong culture of football prevails in northern Odisha, specifically in the tribal regions of the district of Mayurbhanj – would you believe me?
In the tiny village of Kanpur in Mayurbhanj District in Northern Odisha, a relatively unknown sports organisation by the name of Marangburu Siddheswari Sporting Club has been active for the past many years in promoting sports in the village and nearby regions, particularly football. Since 2009, they have been organising an annual grassroots-level football competition called the Mayurbhanj Football League (MFL). Each year, MFL gets together 16 rural-based teams and 250 players, mostly comprising of tribal folk, to compete in this popular competition. Teams come from the districts of Mayurbhanj and Balasore in Northern Odisha, as well as from the district of Paschim Medinipur in West Bengal.
For the past three years, Pro Sport Development (PSD) has been supporting the MFL, which was conceptualised by Tempa Hansdah, a native of Kanpur village. He is the chief organiser of MFL and an employee of PSD. This year was the first time I got a chance to visit the village of Kanpur and see first-hand the action at MFL 2017, the ninth edition of the tournament.
Two things struck me the most during my experience at MFL 2017. First, the hordes of people who had gathered to watch the matches. I have never seen so many people attending any club or grassroots sporting competition, even in a large city like Delhi! And these spectators were not just men but included women and plenty of children – both girls and boys. It was truly a family affair. There were many local vendors who had set up shop at one end of the ground, selling food, toys and an assortment of other items, almost resembling a local fair. This allowed for the MFL to be more than just a collection of football matches – it was a local sporting event, made enjoyable for all types of spectators. Close to 9,000 people attended the competition over the two days!
Second, I noted that while the infrastructure being utilised for the tournament was quite rudimentary – the ground was slightly uneven and pockmarked with patches of grass, and the goalposts had been improvised out of local tree trunks – the tournament was taken seriously by all participants, who played and conducted themselves very professionally. All teams had matching jerseys, referees were officiating the matches and the competition was fierce, but played in the right spirit. Moreover, there was running commentary on a large sound system being provided for the benefit of the spectators, not in the state language of Oriya, but rather in the local dialect of Santhali, so that the environment was inclusive for all in the audience.
I was in awe of this event and all that it showcased – it was a fine display of sporting culture at the grassroots level. The capability exhibited by the participants, even while competing on substandard facilities and infrastructure, is a testament to their dedication. And from the enthusiasm displayed by the crowded audience, it was obvious that there was a keen interest in football within these communities. Moreover, the organisers of the tournament had done a fabulous job, not just organising this edition of the tournament, but sustaining it over the past nine years. Tempa told me that there are many other tournaments like MFL that are organised in the region, particularly in the tribal belt, though on a smaller scale. After witnessing the latent talent in the region and the passion and interest in football from players, organisers, and spectators, I was not surprised to hear that.
MFL 2017 was won by Marangburu Football Team from Musamari village, though in the bigger picture, it did not really matter. As Chief Guest of the prize distribution ceremony, I handed over the winners’ trophy and gave a short speech, but I learnt so much more from all the players and supporters than any ‘gyaan’ I could have shared with them. The experience bolstered my firm belief in the simmering potential of sport in rural and tribal India, and the pressing need for investing in and developing the same. Hosting football leagues and competitions like the ISL, I-League and U-17 FIFA World Cup are great, and much required for India’s footballing development. But who is nurturing the footballing potential in villages like Kanpur in Northern Odisha?