Around The World, Back Home: The Indian Freestyle Football Scene
“It’s not football. It’s another sport altogether.”
Chaitanya Deshpande has said these words only twice in the course of our meeting, but you can tell that he really means them. The 25 year old is the happiest with a ball between his feet. Or on his head. Or somewhere in the air behind him where he knows he can have it stick to his feet like magic with one sharp twist. But he insists that the ball is only the tool of the trade.
The trade in question is freestyle football, a form that can appear to be mere trickery or absolute mastery depending upon the skill of both the performer and the beholder. Wikipedia describes it as “the art of self-expression with a football”, which if you think of it, is really the only way you can describe it. The “art” part is important – freestyle football has its own schools of thought, forms, and dedicated viewing spaces in the form of Instagram and YouTube accounts that have helped popularize it.
The Internet has been a natural messiah in spreading the gospel of the teks. Chaitanya, who went to Prague to participate in the World Freestyle Championship earlier this year, is a first-generation learner. “I didn’t know any other freestylers in Pune,” he says, rolling the ball under his feet absent-mindedly, “YouTube was the only place from where I could learn.” Eventually Chaitanya found other freestylers in India to train with during the few competitions that were held in the early 2010s. “Bigger cities have better scenes. After all, it’s quite important to find someone to train with to get better at this sport.” he adds.
From our spot in the Fergusson College grounds, we can see Jay and Shantanu, two young freestylers, doing tricks for our camera. As second-generation freestylers, they have icons to look up to and people to train with. Ask them their favourite tricks and their eyes light up. The ease with which they execute complex moves is breathtaking. I ask Chaitanya if he likes Panna (usually a two-player game of trick-heavy nutmegging) more or solo freestyling. He thinks long and hard and in the end really cannot choose.
How does competition play into such an individual display of skill? “The Championships are usually about the community,” he says. It makes sense. As the proponents of a nascent art form, it serves them well to stick together. Chaitanya describes his Prague tour as a cultural exchange and as a meeting of like-minded souls. But professionalism is paramount. Chaitanya has left the beaten path a little too far away to return. Shantanu is confident that he wishes to keep pursuing freestyle in the future.
Where does the money come in? Internationally, sponsorships are a major income source for freestylers. Freestyling does not enjoy the massive spectator support and investment that its more famous cousin does, and finding the time and financial support to pursue it are not very easy to come by. Still, India is waking up to the sport. Red Bull used to organise freestyle competitions, which in 2012 happened in Pune and served as a catalyst for Pune freestylers like Chaitanya. McDowell’s ran a Freestyle Awareness campaign in 21 cities. Names like Akshay Yadav and Archis Patil (who holds a Guinness record for the most shoulder spins) are beginning to appear familiar even outside the cages. Aarish Ansari, a Mumbai-based freestyler, represents India at the Asian Freestyle Football Federation and the World Freestyle Football Federation. He also hold the Guinness record for the most number of crossovers, a move that’s better seen on video than explained over text. Chaitanya recently performed at the jersey launch of Pune City FC. Schools and colleges will often hold freestyle competitions. If you’re lucky, you might just find someone doing tricks during your morning walk on Mumbai’s Carter Road. The odd freestyler can be spotted on your average sports channel ad break. Indian freestylers’ Instagram stories are full of them performing with their international comrades. Coincidentally, at the time of filing this, the Japanese freestyle sensation Tokura was quoted by IANS as saying, “I was very surprised at the level of skills shown by the Indian freestylers. They have some original styles, Indian styles. Their styles are quite special.”
After spending a couple of hours shooting these talented young people in the winter afternoon sun, there is little doubt that they are special. Bus as is the case with most other things that appear magical, there really is no trick to freestyle football. “Practice” is the only answer I get. Chaitanya believes that a lot of budding freestylers are in love with the idea of being a freestyler but not the process, something that is seen in most other shows of skill. One can trace back his performance for various clubs and a number of video features to sweat and mud-stained shirts dating back to 2011 when he started. The struggle also lies in making it clear that freestyle is much more nuanced and rich in tradition than what a few boot advertisements featuring Ronaldinho would have you believe.
But the magic is still made right where it always was – on the ground, on your feet. As Jayraj and I say our goodbyes to the trio of Chaitanya, Shantanu, and Jay, we realise that they have returned to training even as we pack up our equipment. There are no requests to review the footage, no small talk, no airs. Behind us we can hear the now-familiar thump of a ball landing on the inside of someone’s foot and staying there. It’s a precarious balance to those looking on, but we have returned convinced that the future of freestyling is in safe hands.
Or feet, for that matter.
The author would like to thank Jayraj Patil for shooting the included video.