Playing football is like breathing for many people, and just as they don’t give a second thought to the act of breathing, we often don’t think about where we are playing either. This thought came to my mind after watching Netflix’s documentary Concrete Football during the first lockdown in 2020. The documentary looked at the concrete football “courts” in Paris and its surrounding communities, and depicted what playing football in public grounds was like. It explored ideas regarding the sustainability of football fields as public spaces in rapidly urbanising cities, and others around issues of access in deciding how one plays. If football was a part of my culture, then the documentary was responsible for giving me a culture shock: Had I ever played football on a public ground? Conversations with a range of older football players revealed that public football fields have always been a part of their daily lives, where not a single penny had to be paid and one could play for hours on end! These interactions led me to formulate a line of enquiry questioning the role played by urban commons in shaping how a sport is played in a city.
For David Harvey, accessing public spaces allows a city’s residents to become active in the way space is utilised, a process that in turn reorganises the city. Hence, he argues, that the creation of public spaces is an active process that must be led by citizens. Would the same hold true for the ability of football players and enthusiasts to change the way the sport is played and viewed in the city by playing on public football fields? For the players I interviewed, what set private turf grounds apart was that they had the independence to play in a space outside of their schools and academies. Private turf parks in Bengaluru allow players to organise games on their own, and that is one of the reasons why such parks remain popular. Groups of people who knew each other could come and have a casual game, without the supervision of a coach. The atmosphere of the turf park mattered more than the money being paid per hour; the green turf was a privilege, many respondents admitted, because it was the closest they could get to replicating professional stadiums with their well trimmed grass, even if the quality of the match being played on the field was nowhere near.
As a contrast, my decade-long experience of playing football did not involve public football fields at all. In order to experience, live and “breathe” football at a public field, therefore, I visited the Koramangala Post Office Ground. The first two visits just involved observing the routine of the ground. From around 4:00-4:30 P.M, a group of teenagers would come and start warming up. This involved taking shots at the goal and playing a ‘rondo’, which is a commonly practised exercise of football teams. Games would typically start around 5:00-5:30 P.M, and go on till around 8 P.M. Playing on mud was definitely a challenge after nearly a decade of playing on turf and grass. The style of play was also remarkably different: The objective was to have fun, and that required possession of the football for each individual. Sometimes teammates would tackle each other if they felt they hadn’t had their fair share of possession, and go solo, charging against the opposing team on their own.
One day, while playing at the ground, the game came to an abrupt halt because a pani-puri vendor had entered the ground and was crossing the field, cutting right across the middle. Some of the cricket players on the other side of the ground were mobilising to make the most of the opportunity and have a mid-game snack. The vendor was able to stroll around for a while until one of the senior football players requested him to leave. Playing at the Koramangala Post Office Ground did not just involve learning how to play at a public football field but also unlearning habits ingrained at private turf parks. Strangers from all walks of life would join us in our games; some would be fully kitted with football gear, and some who would play in jeans, barefooted. My respondents echoed my thoughts as I conducted my fieldwork; “Football was pure in those moments”.
The strength of this ground was revealed through an incident, when the players spoke to me about how community members had come together to demand a halt to the construction of a school being made on the Koramangala Post Office Ground; half of the constructed structure still stands today. For organisations such as the Bengaluru District Football Association (BDFA) and the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), it ought to be clear that the creation of public parks and grounds in parts of Bengaluru which have not yet become “urban” must become a priority. With an ever increasing number of workers across several industries, the BBMP must either provide public spaces to be used as urban commons in its future plans for the city, or risk losing this right to market forces. A larger, more personal fear remains that the loss of the right to create space in order to be able to play sports in the city would eventually result in the loss of the right to define what it means to “play” sports altogether.
The writer is a student at Shiv Nadar University