It was a cool, cloudy, evening in June 2014, and Mahesh Raghav reached the cricket ground in Ghamroj village of Haryana at his usual time to coach the village’s young cricketers. But, much to his dismay, none of his 50 trainees turned up. He waited for an hour before walking back home, angry and hurt.

This had never happened in the 10 years he had been coaching the village children. The next day he visited some of them to find out what had kept them from attending the regular training session.

“What I discovered baffled me. It was the time of the FIFA football World Cup, and they had secretly bought footballs and had been practicing the game in the mornings without I getting a whiff of it,” says Raghav, sitting at his house in Ghamroj the window of whose large living-cum-bedroom provides a beautiful view of the Aravallis.

“They flatly told me that they were no longer interested in cricket and would rather play football. But they wanted to retain me as their sports coach. So, I had to choose between cricket and football, I chose the latter,” Raghav said.

Over the next few days, Raghav, a famous cricketer in his area, and his pupils donated their cricket bats to youngsters in a neighbouring village. “I had recently bought the bat for ₹25,000, but I knew I would have to give it up if we had to pursue football seriously,” he says.

Four years on, Ghamroj, about 15 km from Gurugram, has earned fame, far and wide, as a village of footballers. There is hardly a youngster in the village without a football — and you can see many of them dribbling a ball in its well-paved streets. In a short span of time, the once-cricket crazy village has produced footballers who have played both at the state and national level and also in the Youth I-League for clubs such as Delhi United.

The village’s switch from cricket to football has all the ingredients of a Bollywood potboiler — there was no footballing infrastructure in the village, no coach, no training equipment, no football pitch to begin with. But what the village youngsters surely had was a determination to play the game.

Spurred on by Raghav, the villagers pooled funds — about ₹ 3 lakh — and bought football gear and equipment such as gloves, net, goal posts, ladder, markers, and corner flags. And the cricket ground was converted into a football field. “We got our initial training from Youtube. We watched top players such as Messi and Neymar for hours, trying to understand their game,” says Yashvir, 18, who played in the I-league last year and hopes to play for India.

Two years back, the players of the village also formed a club — M2M football club — with its own logo and jerseys. The club currently plays in rural tournaments and if the trophies that adorn the desk of Raghav are any indication, the team has been on a winning spree.

Raghav, who otherwise works as a property dealer and also took to Youtube to learn football, devotes eight hours every day training the village kids and taking care of their sporting needs. “The idea behind the club was to play football in a professional way. Our club hopes to play in the I-league soon. We are trying to affiliate the club to Haryana Football Association,” he says.

In 2016, impressed by the village’s passion for football, the Delhi United football club decided to train Ghamroj’s footballers and plans to make it ‘a model football village’. “Their footballers have great talent, which is amazing considering that the village adopted football recently.

Our club wishes to set up a residential academy to help develop football in the area,” says Krishan Kumar Ekka, head coach, Delhi United Football Club’s football academy, who trained Ghamroj’s footballers one-and-a-half years back. “Today, I can say Ghamroj has the best team in Gurugram and one of the best in Haryana.”

While the village has many talented football players, Vikas, 21, who earlier this year played for the Haryana state team in Santosh trophy, is the young man everyone is convinced will bring sporting glory to the village. The walls of his spartan living room are festooned with medals he has won in various tournaments.

“We are hopeful our son will soon play for the country and change the course of our destiny,” says Kamlesh Devi, his mother, showing off the many trophies her son has won. The conversation is interrupted by the grunts of buffaloes outside.

Football players of Ghamroj have their own favourite teams and favourite heroes, and these days they remain awake late into the night to watch the FIFA World Cup.

Deepanshu 18, a Real Madrid fan who started playing football four years ago, says his role model is Cristiano Ronaldo, whom he calls the best player in the world, but Yashveer, his fellow footballer, and a Barcelona fan, is quick to contradict him. “The best player is Messi, he is a magician, ” he says, watching a FIFA cup match on LED TV. Deepanshu is not convinced, but he does not want to contest the claim — at least not in front of us.

In fact, it is the rise of Iceland over the past few years that gives these budding footballers hope of India’s chances of making it to the FIFA World Cup. Iceland, whose FIFA rating in 2012 was only 131, is now playing the World Cup; so there is no reason, they feel, why India, whose current FIFA ranking at 97 is better than that of Iceland in 2012, cannot play the World Cup by 2026.

They believe that cricket is fast losing its popularity in the country. “A time is not far when like in England and West Indies, in India too cricket will become a game of the people of a certain vintage. cricket will eventually lose to football,” says Deepanshu. There are many children in the village who can talk about Messi, but know little about Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Kamlesh, for example, can talk pretty eloquently about why Neymar is such a great player. “I love his crazy speed dribbling,” he says.

Ghamroj’s football dreams got a sudden, unexpected jolt in April this year when the Gurugram forest department took over the football field surrounded by the Aravillis — it is easily one of the most picturesque sports grounds in the country — saying the land came under protected forest area. But the villagers say the land belongs to the Panchayat, which had allowed them to develop a football field.

About 100 footballers sat on a hunger strike to reclaim their land. The strike was broken only after a minister in the Haryana government promised that the ground would be returned to them. But the promise, the villagers say, has not been kept and they have had to develop another football ground. “This is panchayat land. Our footballers have become victims of petty local politics. This incident also illustrates the attitude of the government to sports. ” says Rajbir Chauhan, a panchayat member.

It is 5 pm, and the sky is overcast with a hint of rain. Raghav’s training session is scheduled for 5.30pm. He has arrived early on the day to show us the place. Unlike that June day four years back, when he found himself alone in the middle of the cricket pitch waiting for his trainees, he is delighted to see everyone has arrived much earlier. “I am sure now my trainees will never disappear like they did four years back. Football indeed has much greater pull than cricket,” says Raghav.

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