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We embarked on an incredible journey to the North East to discover how football unites our nation!
There are certainly easier ways of trying to understand the incredibly diverse set of people and cultures that we find in our country. The fact that we choose to do so by driving through the country stems primarily from us being road trip junkies. But something that has very little to do with our pursuit of The Thrill of Driving makes it an even simpler call.
In all honesty, driving through the country on these big road trips is hard work. We take in very challenging roads that pass through forests, deserts and even mountains, all the while putting us in situations that aren’t exactly fun. We have been in traffic jams that last the better part of the day, have been challenged endlessly by roads in not the best shape, sometimes we even sleep in the car due to lack of accommodation in the farthest parts of our country. But there is, I believe, one reason that keeps us going through it all and wishing for more. There is simply no better way to truly know and understand a place. Period. After all how can you think of meeting so many people and really learning about the culture, traditions and amazing quirks of a place without the unplanned, spur-of-the-moment detours that road trips are synonymous with?
Before I dive into what this drive was all about, let us start with a bit of history. The year was 2015, when Hyundai organised the first ever Great India Drive, following it up with another one in 2017. On both those occasions, a clutch of automotive media houses were invited to drive the length and breadth of the country in the Creta and Tucson respectively. Continuing in the same vein and, as a sign of the times, Hyundai enlisted the Venue (that has become India’s most popular compact SUV) to journey across the country. And understandably so, the Venue has found homes in tens of thousands of Indian households and is a common thread that runs across a multitude of distinctions.
The theme this year was about things that unified India and our long term test Venue was sent to Kolkata with our final destination being Imphal. On the way we would learn about football in the East and North East of India from the people themselves. Unlike most of India, where cricket is the numero uno sport, this part of the country is crazy about football, and that was what we wanted to see and understand.
Now, I am a huge cricket fan myself and was sceptical if the football craze in the East could hold a candle to the mainstream following that cricket has. evo India’s friends in Kolkata, however, thought the best way to silence such scepticism was to invite us to watch a game at the Salt Lake stadium. And not just any game, but a World Cup qualifier between India and Bangladesh. My scepticism was kicked to the ground the moment I saw tens of thousands of fans queueing up outside the stadium. It was then buried as soon as I found a seat among the many vying for the perfect vantage point to watch the match. With the highest attendance recorded for any WC 2022 qualifier in Asia, the atmosphere in the stadium was simply electric, with every pass, tackle and shot on goal, cheered with a deafening roar from the crowd.
To really witness the true magnitude of support for the sport though, you didn’t even have to be in the stadium. The drive back to the hotel after the match took us more than an hour and a half for a distance that would otherwise be no more than ten minutes. The sheer volume of cars on the street made it a challenge that aptly demonstrated how football brings together so many from this part of the world. However, the Venue’s DCT rescued us from the traffic and started impressing with its practicality and utility even before we could start the drive.
The next day the Great India Drive was officially flagged off from the Statue of Unity in Gujarat, the world’s tallest, and we kicked off our drive from Kolkata where we were immediately made aware of the kind of place football holds in the hearts of the people. Large banners announced affinity for teams and it is certainly difficult to escape the fandom with club colours splattered across store fronts and even some buildings. We crisscrossed the entire expanse of the city as we went to the home stadiums of three of the biggest clubs in the country, Mohun Bagan FC, East Bengal FC and Mohammedan Sporting. Even though the month of October is typically the off season for football in Kolkata, we did find hordes of young players honing their craft in the training facilities that have nurtured legends of Indian football.
In the process we passed by some of the most iconic Kolkata landmarks — the Howrah bridge, Victoria Memorial and the decades-old trams. All through the city, the manoeuvrability of the Venue had us impressed. The tight lanes close to the Howrah bridge demanded inch-perfect positioning and the Venue’s steering was certainly up to the task.
After soaking in the sights and sounds of football in Kolkata, it was time to go to the grassroots and we proceeded towards Guwahati, stopping at Baharampore and Siliguri on the way. Baharampore is five hours away from Kolkata and in classic road trip fashion, Google Maps led us on an adventure that landed in the middle of nowhere with a river right in front of us. Thankfully, a bamboo raft operator offered to take us to the other side to continue our journey. Except, there was one problem. It was possibly, the scariest thing I had ever attempted doing. The raft didn’t seem like the sturdiest I had seen and getting on and off it included navigating a steep incline and decline with barely any margin for error. However, the Venue’s compact dimensions and smooth gearbox made it fairly easy for me and my sweaty palms, and a crisis was averted.
We continued onwards to Assam’s capital and set out on a 10-hour drive that was almost 500km long. The long highway run was particularly challenging with poor visibility during the late evenings and huge potholes spread all along the highway. The headlights offered great illumination and the sharp bite from the brakes made our task of avoiding those potholes much easier. We met some kids playing football on freshly-harvested paddy fields and were soon giving them company. Safe to say, we couldn’t keep up with the nimble-footed kids and were forced to retire early.
The kids however, continued merrily, perfecting their dribbles and shots, their eyes radiating something that we had seen not too long ago in the eyes of 60,000 people in Kolkata. Hope. Belief, even. Right after Team India equalised against Bangladesh, every touch, every pass was met with the belief that a winning move wasn’t too far away. Almost a thousand kilometres away, the kids in the paddy field with the ball at their feet, knew that a goal wasn’t too far away either. The stage was inconsequential. It didn’t matter.
Halfway through the Great India Drive, we had met absolute strangers as we tried to understand what the game of football meant to millions of Indians. Without a doubt, it is more than just a sport and although Team India could only draw with Bangladesh, everyone who watched it at the Salt Lake stadium would remember it for the stunning comeback that our team mounted after falling behind. The men in blue seemed to draw energy from the belief that those 60,000 in the stands and millions at home had placed in them. Not surprisingly, for 20 incredible minutes, they were unstoppable.
Our journey to understand this part of the country and its fascination for football continues as we head to Imphal, the breeding ground for India’s best footballers. You can read all about it in the second part, I’d suggest you too take a road trip to understand not just the craze surrounding football but also how the sport unites this vast and diverse region.