SHANGSHAK, India (AP) — When someone asked the captain of independent India’s first national soccer team why they all played barefoot at the London Olympics in 1948, he is said to have answered: “We play football in India. Whereas you play bootball.”
The captain of the team, Talimeren Ao, was a Naga, a group native to India’s northeastern frontier where most people trace their roots to Myanmar or China. Decades later, his words still ring true.
In Naga villages, children playing soccer barefoot is a common sight. Sometimes balls are made from pig bladders or rag-stuffed pomelos. And when the matches are played, the entire village turns up to show support. Parents carry infants on their shoulders. Young boys make bonfires to keep spectators warm.
The story is no different in Shangshak, home to the Tangkhul Nagas, where two neighboring villages played a match on Saturday.
The match was just a friendly — neither village has a formal soccer club — and rather than soccer drills most of the home team’s players spent their morning helping paint a fellow villager’s house, a common practice in a community where the culture of helping neighbors remains deeply ingrained.
In India, cricket is the only sport that matters. Like Bollywood, it is one of the few things that knits together a disparate nation of nearly 1.4 billion. But the fervor for soccer is felt deeply in India’s northeastern states.
The region with a little over 3% of India’s population is home to almost one-fifth of the national soccer team.
In a largely Hindu country, most Nagas are Christians. They’re ethnically distinct from most of India, and for decades, Naga insurgent groups have been waging a fight for independence.
Most Naga villages are perched on mountaintops, originally built long ago to spot approaching enemies when the region was little more than a forest. But on nearly every hilltop, a soccer pitch springs to life.
“We learn to play the game from the time we start walking,” said A.S. Ngayaomi, 20, who was a substitute in Saturday’s match.