Lack of facilities are no longer a problem for football enthusiasts in Mumbai. A few years ago, organising a game would mean having to round up 10 guys on a Saturday afternoon and convincing them to come to a small park in a well-to-do friend’s apartment complex or a dusty public park dominated by pick-up cricket matches. Now however a number of Astroturf (artificial grass) and grass pitches have sprung up around the city, giving even suburban players a world-class place to have a kick-about.
In South Mumbai, players can play at the Cooperage Ground, the Karnatak Sports Association Ground (near Churchgate) and on the roof of Atria Mall (Worli). The suburbs boast playing areas at Mega Mall (Oshiwara), Saki Naka (Andheri East), Andheri Sports Complex and Powai. All these places are easy to book and provide good facilities: changing areas—sometimes air conditioned—good artificial turf, training bibs and balls, refrigerated drinks, floodlights, etc.
More and more pitch owners organise three-month-long tournaments to ensure steady revenue streams. Using floodlights, many take place in the evenings when players have time after work and it’s not as hot.
But good luck trying to get a pitch on Saturday night: organisers rent the spaces out for kids’ birthday parties! The areas become great places for small children to play football, cricket or other group activities, have enough comfortable seating for parents and space for caterers.
The catch: it’s not free and it’s certainly not cheap. Depending on how many players book the pitches, fees can range from Rs. 300–Rs. 500 per head for stand-alone matches. Tournaments cost Rs. 3,000 per head for 10–12 games with referees, online league tables and prize money of Rs. 20,000+. Rs. 300 is a lot if you consider the opportunity cost: going to an up market café or cinema. But patrons are happy to pay and in some ways it’s not surprising. Many players have returned to India from abroad or are foreign nationals themselves. Others have been playing football in school or college and have increased spending power now that they’re working. It’s not uncommon to see senior South African and Italian foreign envoys based in Mumbai playing with young stock traders and college kids.
At university in Europe, one gets used to large, green public areas where people can come practice their sports for free. With rents as high as they are in Mumbai, this simply isn’t possible in this city. In fact, at £20 (Rs. 2,000) it was cheaper for 10 friends to play at my university pitch in Birmingham than it is here in Mumbai, where it would cost Rs. 3,000 or more. Nevertheless the facilities now available in Mumbai are a massive improvement from dusty, muddy parks where cricket is the only sport ‘allowed’. Though this trend is heartening, the next stage will be making the areas accessible to schools and college students and players with lower spending power.
MS Dhoni credited India’s new generation of great fielders (who aren’t afraid of diving catches or sliding stops) to better, softer grass at training areas. Just like cricketers benefit from a good surface, the quality of a football match increases exponentially based on how even and true the turf is. many of these new venues are largely unused during weekdays; making them available at a subsidised rate to local schools would transform the experience of physical education classes for students. Giving kids a chance to play on good surfaces will make a huge difference to how good they eventually become. If India wants to improve its grass roots football players, it must help pitch owners make more areas like these more accessible.
That being said, it’s great to see the demand for these facilities: When I finished playing a match at 11:30pm last Sunday night, a group of high-school students were just about to begin their two-hour session!