India | Mark him well, these footballers struggle

Mumbai | The surprising aspect of Riyas Komu‘s upcoming cross-country series of art installations perhaps is not that football serves as the subject. The unconventional element is that Komu views the project as a responsibility toward Indian footballers, with whom he empathizes in the “struggle with their lives.”

Komu works in multiple media, including photography, sculpture and film. He seeks subjects among the urban poor, which, in India, sometimes includes the footballer: “Most of these footballers don’t even get a good room to sleep,” says Komu. (© 2007 Riyas Komu)

Three multimedia installations will be staged in the nation’s most prominent cities, beginning Dec 23 at the Guild Art Gallery in Mumbai, to which Komu, a Kerala native, came a decade ago and revived a lifelong football interest.

Football in India is the focus. Komu views Indian football as a political issue because, he tells the Times of India, “they are not treated well despite being national players” (Mohammad Amin-ul Islam, “Bringing Colour into Lives of Indian Footballers,” Dec 20).

Football has given them a bit of fame. But we don’t have anything to offer them. The players are not to be blamed for it. They actually struggle with their lives.

In few other world cultures might a thriving artist show pity toward a nation’s top football talent. The Mumbai exhibition, titled “Mark Him,” begins the series that continues in Kolkata (Calcutta) with “Urban Folk,” which also features video of players’ personal lives. In New Delhi, the title is “Extra Time,” followed by a planned fourth stage, “Shootout,” in Dubai.


India has tried to provide its professionals with playing opportunities by launching the I League this year, a rebranding of the earlier National Football League. Among India’s arts community, Bengali author Moti Nandy also has addressed the plight of the Indian footballer in short stories concerning players saddled with meager salaries and lured by forces of gambling and corruption.

One of Komu’s own idols, Inivalappil Mani Vijayan, sought in football a life other than what he knew as a Dalit, or “untouchable,” selling soda bottles in Kerala’s Trichur Municipal Stadium. Vijayan became a three-time national player of the year and the subject of a documentary, Kalo Harin (Black Pearl). Now he dabbles as an actor himself.


Guardian Unlimited contributor Dileep Premachandran notices Vijayan in the terraces at Corporation Stadium, Calicut, at an I League relegation battle between Viva Kerala and East Bengal (“Crowds Dwindle as Disillusioning Reality of Indian Football Bites,” Feb 18). He recalls Vijayan’s career with Kerala Police in the late 1980s:

Good as he was, the ebony-skinned Vijayan, who also earned rave reviews for his role in a Malayalam movie, never made it to the top leagues. Had he done so, he might have been a trailblazer like Hidetoshi Nakata or Cha Bum-kun.

By the time Vijayan, who grew up in abject poverty and sold soda bottles to eke out a living, started to turn heads at the national level, Indian football had already plunged into the abyss.

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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  1. Saurabh says:

    It is very heart-warming indeed to come across a piece on I. M. Vijayan. His career, just like much of Indian football, will be remembered as a tale of missed opportunities.

    Very few football lovers would forget his solo effort against the visiting Norweigan side, SKF Lynn, when India lost 1–3.

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