Johann Cruyff (1947-2016)ImageRob Mieremet/National Dutch Archives
In The Court of Johann CruyffText Priya Pathiyan
It’s four o’clock in the evening. As we turn in to the St. Xavier’s Football Ground at Bhoiwada in Parel, a rather down-at-heel location in central Mumbai, it’s the sounds that assail the ears first. Coaches whistling sternly; kids shouting with the exuberant abandon of youth; other teams cheering loftily from the bleachers as they await their turn to engage on the field. Even the raucous crows hopping excitedly on the periphery of the dusty playground seem to be in a competitive mood.

PLAY!

At the far end of this football frenzy is a relatively serene spot. There, the younger kids are playing a friendly game on springy AstroTurf that muffles sounds and doesn’t lead to clouds of dust hanging on the humid Mumbai air. There are smiles and an air of camaraderie that’s only heightened by the golden sunlight streaming into the court through the gauzy green cover overhead. This is a Cruyff Court, made to precise specifications by the Cruyff Foundation, an organisation based in Amsterdam.

Started in 1997 by the legendary Dutch professional football player Johan Cruyff (voted European Player of the century in 1999), who passed away in March this year, the Foundation focuses largely on making football accessible to all by setting up Cruyff Courts in several countries. The one we are visiting in Mumbai is one of more than 200 such courts set up across the world.

So what exactly is a Cruyff Court? A representative of the Foundation explains that it’s basically a smaller sized football field, which is suitable for a seven-a-side game for young players. The concept stems from Cruyff’s vision of giving children back their green playgrounds, which we once enjoyed but which now are often sacrificed due to urbanisation and expansion. Besides being a physical space for play, it’s also meant to be a mindspace with an inclusive thought process where everyone under 15 is welcome, regardless of gender, social status, religion, size or ability. Fair play, respect for others and personal development are emphasised here.

Shoot! IMAGE Priya Pathiyan

THE FIRST HALF

Prakash Coutinho, who belongs to the Mumbai District Football Association (MDFA), the official body for development, conduct and organisation of football in the city of Mumbai and its suburbs, ushers us into his onsite office for the low-down on how exactly this Cruyff Court is special. “They (the Cruyff Foundation) have done up the full ground, built it to a certain height, levelled it perfectly and added AstroTurf,” he says. The superior quality artificial turf was supplied by TenCate/Greenfields while the surroundings were given a facelift by Akzonobel. Initially funded by the city of Amsterdam, the city of Amstelveen, Tata Consultancy Services, Gassan Diamonds, De Vreede Advocaten, Port of Amsterdam, ABN Amro, Amsterdam In Business, Accendium and the Somaiya Group, the project came about after an agreement was signed between the Cruyff Foundation, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), the Amsterdam Municipality and the MDFA.

Prakash Coutinho (centre) and the MDFA team
IMAGE Priya Pathiyan

They surveyed many areas and opted to build the court at this spot as they felt it would impact a high number of under-privileged children positively. While Lilianne Ploumen, Dutch minister for foreign trade and development, inaugurated this ground in June 2015, it took a while for the court to be play-ready. But once word got out in the football fraternity that such a court existed, there were a lot of enquiries. “It was used through the day in the cooler months of late 2015 and early 2016,” says Coutinho, explaining that it will again have teams lining up to book slots once the rains come to the city in June.

THE SECOND HALF

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as Magic Bus, which uses play to bring about positive change in children’s lives, have been booking this court on a regular basis. The use of the court is free, even to the surrounding municipal schools that don’t have their own playgrounds. When we asked the boys what they like about the Cruyff Court, one piped up with the cheeky yet telling reply, “It’s like a poor boy getting to ride in a Mercedes car!”

While the MDFA has taken on the onus of maintaining the Cruyff Court now, real estate entrepreneur Pranav Marwah,

who is also an avid football enthusiast, has volunteered his own staff to help manage the logistics of bookings (which are also carried out by the BMC and Magic Bus). He has financed a chunk of the upkeep as well. In the last month, the court has seen major changes. The protective fencing has been raised to enclose the entire area, right up to the top to ensure that unauthorised individuals don't climb over and enter. Lights have been added, so games can be played after the shadows lengthen too.

Lining up for kick-off IMAGE Priya Pathiyan

THE SPECTATOR

From education and research to business and design, India and the Netherlands have had many shared interests to collaborate on over the years. And yet, nothing cements international friendships better than when countries come together to promote sports. Perhaps the best way to encapsulate the essence of the Cruyff Court’s role as a bridge between the nations is a little six-year-old girl with tattered clothes who was hanging about near the boundaries of the football ground, watching the game with wide-eyed wonder. “One day, I will play here,” she said confidently when we asked what she was doing there, adding, “The big foreign football hero said I can.”

Now isn’t that the true realisation of the late
Johan Cruyff’s vision?

A magical picture of the master in action IMAGE Jack de Nijs/National Dutch Archives