Sports, Work, Bodies, Play: Sevens Football in Kerala (Interview with Dr. Veena Mani)
Updated: Mar 30, 2022
This is an edited transcript of our conversation with Dr. Veena Mani, Assistant Professor, Stella Maris College, Chennai. Dr. Mani's primary work is on the intimate relation among sports, gender, and nation in Asia. She completed her PhD in Humanities and Social Sciences at IIT Madras and is seeking to develop the domain of sports studies in Asia as a field to study social change, politics of body, and anti-colonial practices. You can read more of her work here.
What led you to your current research interests?
I wanted to study society from an angle which was not explored much in the South Asian context. I used to play basketball while I was in school and the experiences I went through were not reflected in the papers I read for my undergraduate or Master’s program. My experiences were gendered, contextual, and they were talking about some change that was happening in the society. So, I wanted to explore certain social questions, through sport. That was my initial project.
My particular project of sport, i.e., football in Malabar, was because I was interested in masculinities. I wanted to know what was this thing called “masculinity”—we were using it a lot but we were not quite sure of what we meant by that term. And I thought sport was an important analytical site to look at masculinity because we usually associate “masculine” with things related to sport. So, football was just a gateway to looking at masculinity.
What is Sevens Football and how is it played?
Sevens is not a “formal” sport. This category of “formal”, “non-formal” kind of breaks down when you actually go to the field. When you do fieldwork, you know these categories won’t make any sort of sense! As per official documents, this is not a “formalised” sport, this is not a “standardised” sport.
Sevens football, as the name suggests, is played with seven players on each side in relatively smaller grounds. There are no particular dimensions for these football grounds because this sport was shaped because of a lack of proper football stadiums. You can play it anywhere—the beach, the maidan, a school ground. The dimensions of the court do not matter much. The rules are similar to those of Association football, it’s just that it is more localised and flexible—when you’re playing, the fouls are not particularly determined, it depends on the referee.
There are also Sevens tournaments now. In those spaces, the rules are kind of standardised but this is still a spectator sport.
Certain forms of violence is rewarded—the crowd expects some form of action. Sometimes the time is also adjusted, depending on how the game is happening. So, if the crowd is really bored with it, they rush up the game!
What is the spectacle of a Sevens football match like?
It’s an extremely sensual experience—visually, sound-wise, smell-wise. It will be similar to a festival in Kerala. There will be drums, flutes, balloons, people chanting, different coloured flags, different kinds of banners, and flex boards. There will also be hawkers selling local snacks, peanuts, and lottery tickets. It’s a mix of many things.
You will hear English songs like “We Will Rock You” and “Waka Waka” in many of these spaces because they are now associated with the sport football. There is a lot of promotion work happening—announcements about the sponsor, what do they do, and also about the charity work that goes with the tournament. Usually, the money collected through the selling of tickets will be used for some charity purpose—that could be anything, treatment of someone in a poor family or for marriage expenses of a woman in a poor family. The cause can vary but it’s usually announced that “We are not taking this money, the organisers are not doing this for profit, we are doing this for the community”. You can find all these narrations in the tournament space.
What is special about the commentaries during Sevens football matches?
The commentaries during these matches are extremely interesting. They can be a research material by itself! It’s so fascinating because they narrativize the game and they tell a story which is far more fascinating than what is actually happening on the ground. They bring these comparisons, these very exotic images—they do that even for the native people. For example, a commentator once said “his hands look like iron bars”…in Malayalam this would sound very appealing! They would bring in vernacular motifs, vernacular images, and many beliefs about certain countries. They have not been to Africa but they would imagine how things are there and they would cook up these images…it’s an art in itself. There are particular commentators who are well-loved and wanted by the people.
It’s there in the gaze, right? The spectator and the player, you’re visually consuming the bodies. The degree of the exoticisation varies. If it’s a player from Nigeria, it’s different, and if it’s a local person, if he’s from that particular region, there will be different kinds of stories that come with him, including comparing his past exploits and bringing in the history of the region he belongs to as well. They say that it is a legacy, he’s a “son of the soil”.
Who tends to play Sevens football?
The sport is defined through who plays it and who watches it. Any football player who is interested in the sport has some kind of access to these tournaments. You’ll find players from age 15 to 55, or even 60, playing the sport. You’ll also find professional footballers who are part of football clubs in Kolkatta—Malayalis who belong to these clubs—also coming to play Sevens football because Sevens football is lucrative. My research also focuses on how Sevens football is an important source of non-formal work for many players. Sevens football is a masculine space, the players and spectators are almost always men. The tournaments take place at night, I hardly saw any female spectator.
What is the experience of foreign players?
I spoke to players from Sudan and Ghana. “Sudani” is a name which is generically used to call them—they can be from Nigeria, Ghana, any of the African countries but they’re called “Sudani”. When I spoke to them, they were happy that they were able to come and play here but they also talked about how they were alienated from the general public because of certain racialised perceptions. People loved them while they played but outside people didn’t know how to deal with them, how to treat them. For example, if you see them on local trains, they will be very guarded—a policeman might come randomly and ask them to show their papers.
They’ll be mostly very conscious in certain public spaces. But in sporting spaces they’re celebrated, they love being there. Most of them are very young—18, 19 years old. There are many football agents and managers in Malabar who have a network—they bring players and distribute to certain teams. So, it’s not like each team would invite a particular player. There would be certain contact persons and they would bring a dozen of them and then the African players can negotiate whether they want to play for a team. They can also negotiate whether they want to be connected to that team for only a game or for the whole season. The players can then decide how they want to go about it.
How did your positionality as a woman researcher affect your fieldwork?
That’s a very important question, because it’s all situated research. I went there as a PhD scholar affiliated with IIT Madras. I had a very clear identity. But most of them thought that I was a journalist! They are used to journalists coming there to study the “football mania”, as they call it. Especially during World Cup season—you’ll see streets coloured, decorated with flags of many countries (no Indian flag there!), boats painted in Brazilian and Argentinian flag colours. It’s a very happening space.
The people in my primary fieldsite, clearly, from the moment they saw me, knew I was an outsider. I almost felt that I got access to many football spaces because I was an outsider.
Otherwise, they were conservative in many ways—they did not like when women they knew came to these spaces. Women were seen in many of the formalised Association football spaces—tournaments that were happening in stadiums, in the city. But women are not usually visible in the local Sevens football spaces. My position as an outsider was very useful for me—it allowed me to ask questions, it allowed them to be comfortable, to an extent, to speak to a woman.
It took me some time, however. Most of them had particular scripts—they were so practised with certain stories. For example, if you ask them about why is this region interested in football, the immediate answer that you get, from more than one person, is that “football is in our blood”. It’s so scripted! As a field researcher, it takes some time to unpack this script. Interestingly many of the important stories from my field, I got from the woman family members of these football players. They told me interesting stories which the men were not very comfortable talking about. For example, how football was a form of work—I got that from the wife of a football player. She shared with me how it is very difficult to play in the summer but the player has to go and play because it was an important source of income for the family.
Is sports political? How can sports create active citizenry?
The question of the political was something which came out while unpacking the ‘script’—it was there, it was quite visible, but it was explored only when that script was demystified. Because they repeatedly tell you that sports is apolitical. They would say that there is no religion, there is no political party, there is no affiliation, it’s just football.
So, football is seen as this neutral space where they can bring together people from different political ideologies or religious affiliations. While that is true, football was also extremely politically charged—in the sense that it was embedded within the social.
Football was played within a set of social relations. For example, access to particular public spaces is mediated, there is some sociality working there. As for the conduct of tournaments, you will see the importance of football tournaments when you see the important people coming there. For example, people associated with the local panchayats or big business families, they would come to the field because it gives them particular social capital and a certain visibility. You can also see this in how certain fan associations use these spaces to push their agendas. While working for the “upliftment” of football, they also work towards asking for things which are important for their community and region.
One particular example I talk about in my paper co-written with my PhD advisor Dr. Mathangi Krishnamurthy is how a particular fan association demanded for claim over a public land. The corporation was trying to convert a particular ground into a slaughterhouse and the people in the neighbourhood didn’t want a slaughterhouse there—they thought it will cause more pollution, plus certain stigmas associated with slaughterhouses. So, what did they do? They converted that land into a football ground. Overnight they started playing there every day, conducted events, and declared that this is a football ground. And now the corporation trying to convert a football ground into a slaughterhouse would create a lot of drama, especially in a place where football is of high value. So, this particular fan association used the popularity of football in order to secure public land and to keep it as a public land.
How does sports reflect certain stratifications in society?
You’ll also see all sorts of hierarchies, inequalities within the sport. Even among men you will see different kinds of masculinities being present—masculinities associated with caste, class, what kind of occupation do you do, etc. However, it is important to understand there are also possibilities of subversion within sport because it brings together different kinds of people. It cannot stay exclusive—you need people to watch football. Also, because it’s a regional, local business, the stakes are much higher. You want to bring people together, especially in times of the popular sports appearing on TV. Hence, these local tournaments are also competing with televised sports. So, you need more people coming to these tournaments. The organisation has to address these issues of representation and exclusion.
In many ways there is also a tendency to naturalise certain bodies. For example, you will see the bodies players from particular communities or particular castes being stereotyped. As “some people are more violent than others” for example.
Can a local, non-formal sport such as Sevens football be categorised as work? Is there a workers consciousness present among the players?
There are studies that look at professional sports through the lens of “work”. You will find plenty of articles that talk about injuries in professional sport, or pay inequality among men and women. But my research is different from these studies because here we are talking about a complex context where even the naming of sport as a form of work opens up a lot of questions. It’s a relatively new thing. Looking at Sevens football as a kind of work and the identification of football players as workers began a few years ago in Kerala when the Sevens Football Association was formed. There are a couple of associations that ensure that the players have insurance and are taken care of.
However, the workers consciousness question is still in play, we don’t know how that will happen. Especially because Sevens football is seasonal and not formalized. It becomes difficult to define and identify who these players are. They might play for one season and they might not play for the next—the identity is fluid.
Having said that, it’s important to see how this particular question—of football players as workers—came up during the COVID-19 pandemic. The LDF (Left Democratic Front) in Kerala were doing a lot of welfare measures to keep people safe in their homes—distributing rations, food kits, vegetable kits to each household, forming community kitchens. During this time, a particular football player made an appeal to the Chief Minister asking to recognise that they had also lost their jobs. So, the rations and the vegetable kits were given to everybody. That moment was important for these players—we were talking about loss of jobs, we were talking about migrant labourers, construction workers, and at that point football players thought that “we also lost our job and that needs a discussion”. That visibility and recognition of work and the work that they lost became important especially during the pandemic.
Interestingly, many players did not like that framing—they didn’t want to be identified as football workers because it was also a matter of honour. “This is something we do, it’s not work”—because work has a difficult connotation especially for players from working class backgrounds who wanted to separate their work and play.
Most of the players that I interviewed were also fishermen; fishing was their work and football was something “that I play for myself”. They wanted to maintain that script. Hence many players opposed this definition of football as work. It's not a very easy definition, it’s not an easy identification. Yes, they love the money that comes from the sport, but the association is also stigmatized in many ways. They don’t want the script out there that they’re doing this for the money. They want the narration that they play the game because they love it.
How did notions of masculinity manifest in the Sevens football players?
Throughout my doctoral research, the question, of what are these masculinities, became more open and open, I was trying to close it, grab it and give it a neat definition but that definition always escaped me because the more you talk to these men, the more you learn. At many moments I wondered if there was even something called “masculinity” because it was very fluid—it would appear at a moment and it would just go away.
Izzat (honour) was a very important way for them to speak about both work and family. For example, for one particular player from a working-class family, his wife not having to work outside was a matter of izzat—this is different from keeping one’s wife inside the house—because the work opportunities available for that woman were not very “respectable”. This family belonged to a fishing community, so he thought that by giving her a choice to stay home, it’s adding to the izzat of the family. This also points to certain working conditions available for these women. They might be educated— most of the women I met had completed their secondary education, they had even started their college education. However, the access seemed a little muddy, it was not a smooth progression to white collar jobs. Hence izzat for men was also attached to the role of a provider, especially for a community that was always put in government data as economically and socially backward, so the aspiration to become middle-class was very important to them.
In those moments, the aspect of masculinity was very clear— you have to be the protector and the one who provides for the family. At the same time, their romantic relationships were not particularly sticking with the available notions of masculinity. The men were performing a “feminine” position in love. I say this while reserving every problem of binaries of masculinity and femininity because it's also problematic when I say they are “feminine” in their love relations. The men were okay with being vulnerable in their romantic relationships. Outside in the playing ground they could be very tough, but they could be extremely vulnerable with their wives and girlfriends. In their loves, they played many roles.
That is why it was very difficult for me to put them in boxes, so after a point I just did away with the boxes I had. I was just telling their stories.
How does access to public space determine who plays the sport?
Yes, access to public spaces has a correlation with access to sports. Because you began playing not in football academies, but by the roadside, on the beach. Only if you have access to these public spaces that you can become a player.
In Kerala, most of the public spaces are extremely gendered, especially sporting spaces like maidans. If you don’t have access to these spaces at different times, then you won’t have access to that community. That was one thing that I found—how access to public spaces was important for you to have access to sporting spaces, because both of them are the same, at most times.
What is changing right now is the institutionalisation of these spaces. Now, especially in Malabar, you will find a lot of academies and schools encouraging girls to play, so in those spaces women and girls are playing football. They would progress in more formalised channels—they would play for their school, then they would play for their zone, then they would play for their district, and then for the state, and then for the nation. They follow the formalised channel while many boys begin in the informal space, in the public space. But even for them, parents prefer the academies, because the aspiration to be a professional footballer, as opposed to Sevens footballer, is visible. This is again related to the aspiration to be middle-class. Most of the older players want their children to play in academies, and at the same time they also recognise the importance of playing in local Sevens football, because they think that would increase their stamina, roughness, and their resilience. Both the football academy culture and the local tournament culture go hand-in-hand.
You can watch Dr. Veena Mani's interview here!