‘You Can’t Wait For Quality Indian Footballers To Fall From The Sky’
He sure doesn't know much about Indian football but the legendary Luis Figo is in the country and is enjoying his time here
Luis Figo doesn’t like talking about the past. But once pressed, and lubricated by the Portuguese red wine in front of him, the 43-year-old complies. “I saw the match in Madrid before taking the flight here (to Mumbai),” says the former Real Madrid -- and lest one forgets, Barcelona – star winger about the weekend’s El Clasico that Madrid won, breaking Barca’s record 39-game unbeaten spree.
“Barcelona was better at the beginning. Then Madrid managed to get the better of them,” he says diplomatically, without showing any hint of possible pleasure in witnessing the defeat of the club he once ‘defected’ from to move to their perennial rivals. Ever since his teammate Zinedine Zidane became Madrid manager, does he ever feel like calling him up and give some tips? “I have no intentions of being a coach to anyone,” he says, with a hint of a smile. “It’s not my thing and not everyone has to do it.”
Figo, in a buttoned-up grey half-sleeved shirt, is more interested in playing football evangelist. Which brings him to the present – and the immediate future. Figo is here in India this week to kickstart the Premier Futsal League (PFL), the five-aside tournament that will be played on volleyball-size courts, providing a faster, TV-friendly version of football that he hopes will catch on among viewers in India. The plan is that the 10-day tournament starting on July 15 -- featuring 56 futsal players from across 21 countries with each team having three international players, one international marquee football player and one Indian player -- will spur football in India.
So why India? He points to the demographics -- of India and China. But Figo is no wide-eyed star ex-footballer. “In Europe, we are used to sports being part of school programmes. There is a process by which youngsters rise out and are honed in the system. India doesn’t have the infrastructure, academies or the street football culture that I and others grew out of. You can’t wait for quality footballers to fall from the sky. You have to make the conditions,” he says.
The Under-17 Football World Cup to be hosted in India next year could, he admits, be an opportunity. “But just building stadiums and hosting a World Cup
LUÍS FILIPE MADEIRA CAEIRO FIGO
(European Player of the Year then) 2000
2001 In 2004, He was named in a list of
@LuisFigo Great pleasure to meet @imVkohli the most loved sportsman in India i s n’t enou g h. T h at would just leave many white…” he searches for the English word. It finally arrives, “elephants”.
He also believes in the need for local stars. “Cricket in India is big because it has stars.” The names Sachin Tendulkar and Virat Kohli are bandied about (Kohli met him the next day and gushed about the meeting on Twitter.) “At some stage, India football will need local heroes for youngsters to look up to” and not just international footballers to hero-
(1989-2009) Played in
and to the Euro 2004 Final. They finished as runners up
@imVkohli With the legend himself @LuisFigo What an absolutely wonderful man #Grateful #FanBoyMoment worship as a spectator nation.
The future -- of Indian football and the futsal league -- slides into the background as dinner arrives. As he cuts through the beans and oyster chicken on his plate, his jet black hair bouncing off the glass wall behind him, the conversation veers to the -- what’s the word again? -- elephant in the room: his return to Camp Nou in Barcelona on November 23, 2002 for the first time in Real Madrid colours, and the infamous cochinillo, the signature pig’s head dish that was thrown at him from the stands for his ‘treachery’ when he went to take a corner.
“Did I see the pig’s head that day? No. I had to worry about other objects being hurled down like bottles, mobile phones and cigarette lighters. I saw it the next day in the papers,” he says calmly, the calmness prompting the question to him: So why did he leave Barcelona after five seasons for archrivals Madrid? “It’s a job. I wanted to change for the prestige, the money -- the usual things people change jobs for.”
Hands crossed, fork down, he says that footballing success is about luck, money and talent, a mixture of all three. “One can’t assume that just spending truckloads of money will assure success,” says one of the earliest players to be inducted in Real Madrid’s ‘Galactico’ era, when club president Florentino Perez ensured that global stars were signed up every year.
With the talk of money, comes the talk of corruption. Figo had entered the Fifa presidential elections race against disgraced incumbent Sepp Blatter. Why did he withdraw midway? “Fifa needed a leadership that would bring about a big change. It needed to be transparent, democratic. I wanted that. I withdrew when I realised that I would not win,” he says making his point.
He admits he doesn’t know much about the football played in India. He wants to know more. “So should I watch the ISL (Indian Super League) or the I-League?” Silence descends in the room -- until Figo bursts out laughing. “Well, that’s what the futsal league is for then!”
And the man, who through the evening refused to choose between his countryman and Real Madrid compadre Cristiano Ronaldo and Barcelona’s Leo Messi as his choice for best footballer, cryptically adds, “Football is about the team,” before getting up and shaking hands. One could swear that he was on his way to the Santiago Bernabeu.
Figo admits he doesn’t know much about the football played in India. He wants to know more