Now that the Super Bowl has come and gone, we can all now turn our attention to India’s Elite Football League (EFLI). That’s right: Football, the most quintessential of American sports, is trying to gain a foothold (pardon the expression) in India.
I’m a sports documentary filmmaker, and when I first heard news of an American football league in India, I immediately felt drawn to make it the subject of my next film. I had been to India multiple times in the last few years for other reasons and found the experience simultaneously exhilarating, inspiring, and depressing. Things are raw there, chaotic. You see it all: democracy, pollution, poverty, hope, religious strife, newfound wealth. But when I heard about American football making a go of it there, all I could think of were the kids I had seen playing on the streets in India’s teeming cities. Lacking in sports infrastructure and stymied by a culture in which athletics is seen as an elitist pursuit, India has to be among the most under-sported places on earth. Cricket is huge, sure, but the country seems immune to the global soccer craze, never having qualified for a World Cup. At the London Olympics last summer, the world’s second-most populous nation ranked 55th in the medal count, garnering no gold medals and only one more bronze than Mongolia. Football won’t help on the Olympic front, but clearly the country is in need of more sport—for national pride, for giving kids more opportunities for play, and for bringing communities together.
My producer, Jenna Moshell, and I set out for India last June to start filming. Because EFLI teams are spread across five cities in India, two in Sri Lanka, and one in Pakistan, we spent the next few months flying around the world three times. We saw the slums of Mumbai, the villages outside Delhi, the beaches of Chennai, the lush mountains of Kandy, and ended up getting engaged at the Taj Mahal. Our documentary, Birth of a Sport, follows the EFLI from its inception all the way through the completion of the first season, which took place in Colombo, Sri Lanka in July and August of 2012.
You read a lot about India’s emerging middle class and its aggregate economic power, but the country still has hundreds of millions of people living in dire poverty. According to a study by the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, eight of the 28 Indian states have more poor people than the 26 poorest countries in Africa combined.
Cricketers are the only athletes in India who get paid for their talents. Athletes on club teams play soccer, rugby, field hockey, and badminton without collecting a paycheck. But the EFLI is paying players 15,000 rupees ($300) a month, double India’s average income. We focused our filmmaking on how this new professional league is affecting the lives of underprivileged athletes.
The leader of the Delhi Defenders, Amit “Happy” Lohchab, comes from Auchandi, a poor village outside of Delhi. When the Defenders didn’t have a field to practice on, Happy gathered his neighbors and teammates, borrowed a tractor, and worked night and day to clear a mangled field, lay grass down, paint lines on it, erect field goal posts, and stamp “DEFENDERS” in the end zone. All the local kids joined in, trying their best to learn football. Happy told me he wanted to teach them this new game; he dreamed of Auchandi becoming known all across India for its gifted football players.
Poverty isn’t the only issue the new teams grappled with. The Pune Marathas formed as a result of a merger with a team from Chennai when the league consolidated from nine Indian teams to five. But people in Pune speak Marathi; in Chennai they speak Tamil. Dinesh Kumar, who became team’s star, was switched from linebacker to quarterback not necessarily because of his arm strength but because he could speak both languages.
In order to field a team, Pune’s coach, Gopinath Balaraman (Gopi), a former Indian national team rugby player, had to find players to play a sport they’d never seen before. He began by studying YouTube videos of local athletes, assessing who had the skillset necessary for each position on the field. His wide receiver, J. Thiyagarajan, was a national track athlete and one of the fastest runners in the state. We watched him learn the sport from scratch with the help of Gopi’s co-coach, Mark Philmore, a former U.S. college football player who couldn’t pronounce Thiyagarajan’s name and nicknamed him “Tiger” instead.
The Marathas played two games a week, unheard of in American football. The league rules were basically the same as the NFL’s, except for a few minor changes, such as no onside kicks, fake punts, or fake field goals. The participants were on the whole a bit smaller than NFL players, with a few exceptions, like Mumbai Gladiator wide receiver Rahul “Sticks” Kelaskar, who is 6 feet 5 inches.
Sticks and his teammates and opponents very quickly picked up the ability to hit hard. At the team’s first-ever practice, the coaches decided they would start at the beginning, by teaching the kickoff. The players kicked the ball just fine, and the returner received it properly. But a flying dropkick on the ball carrier from the defense gave the coaches a glimpse of the unique (and hilarious) challenges their job would present.
Each team was led by a local coach—many of whom were learning the game alongside the players—and an American coach. The American coaches had various levels of experience, with just one thing in common: None had ever been to India before. Philmore, Meach Eaton, and Deante Battle were standout college athletes who had played together at Northwestern University in the early 2000s. “Touchdown” Tony Simmons spent five years in the NFL as a wide receiver. Bill Stafford, the veteran, started his coaching career in 1984 and was most recently co-defensive coordinator at Colorado Mesa University. Tyler Harlow had been a graduate assistant at Arizona State University for Dennis Erickson.
The coaches got lessons in international relations as well. In addition to changing the lives of individual athletes financially, the league is also making an unusual effort to bridge the animosity of the India-Pakistan divide. The rivalry between the two nations’ cricket teams is one of the most intense sports rivalries in the world. Their bilateral matches attract hundreds of millions of viewers. But now, fans in both countries can discover a new sport together and root for and against teams within a shared “domestic” league.
I don’t want to give too much away, but the EFLI made it through the first season. The players dealt with the same barrage of injuries as NFL athletes—even as they learned the rudiments of the sport. Will the league achieve NFL levels of success in India, and does football have the power to change the country? I don’t know. But I’ve already seen how it can change individual lives.