Carlton Chapman once had this story to tell. Flying domestically in the late ’90s, he happened to strike up a conversation with an elderly co-passenger, who was curious to know what the fit, handsome young man did for a living. “I play football, sir,” Chapman says he told him.
“You can make money playing football in India? I never knew this…,” the gentleman expressed surprise. Even before the ever-helpful Chapman could offer further, he continued, “So, does India have a national team and all?

“Yes sir, we do,” said Chapman, “In fact, I’m the Indian captain.”

Back on solid ground, narrating the incident, Chapman flashed that famous buck-toothed grin that was as much a trademark in the 1990s football of India as his tireless running on the field was. “That gentleman was otherwise quite knowledgeable. Yet, I had to re-introduce myself to him. Now you know how much we still suffer with recall?” he had then said simply.

In 1997, the 50th year of independent India, the old ways were slowly taking leave, yet older perceptions clung on. Markets were open, sponsorships available, television was being privatised and football was suddenly a commodity to be hawked; ‘potential’, ‘lucrative’ and ‘exposure’ were the operative words, yet suddenly, a few thousand or so feet up in the air, a just-appointed Indian football captain was gently being jolted into his strange reality.
Chapman, who died in Bangalore on Monday, always embodied that predicament – the risk of anonymity.
That he was talented, well-turned-out and industrious to a fault – a coach’s dream for the work-rate he logged in training and in play, each time – would eventually count for little as his self-effacing manner and retreating personality would always struggle to find a starting spot in a rapidly changing and loud, if not necessarily sound, social environment of football. Despite his lack of English, IM Vijayan always had a sense of self preservation and Bhaichung Bhutia a dash of urbane smartness. They were the other two bona fide Indian football superstars at the turn of the century, yet, Chapman, providing them with a hundred crosses for their many goals, would be happy to remain in their shadow, even if that meant slowly receding away from the frame as passing time makes you question your own relevance.
A certain walk-in for any club coach throughout the 1990s for his unique versatility and all-round play, Chapman, you could say, fell between the gap that comes with the churn of generational change — you are on the cusp of something, but not sure what.
A second-generation Anglo-Indian from the sports-rich neighbourhood of Bangalore’s Austin Town, Chapman was a trend-setter of sorts in the modern game. A certified blue riband footballer in training and education from the inaugural Tata Football Academy Class of 1992, considered by many experts as TFA’s best-ever batch, he embraced professionalism. He was confident enough in his ability to discard the safety net of a secure job and inadvertently set the current-day template in the Indian game. Chapman redefined the idea of the working-class footballer and lived by it, but then perhaps, something faster than age happened to him.
As the 2000s arrived, and his playing skills lessened in demand, the assuredness on the field of play was replaced by an uncertainty and ennui untypical of him. It was then whispers of his fondness for the bottle made the rounds. There were a handful of coaching spells, most notably as assistant coach at TFA where he showed he eye for spotting talent and unearthed a fine batch of youngsters, but these were just phases.
In a time that has made Robinson Crusoe’s of us all, stranded yet oddly self-sufficient, that Chapman died of heart failure during a pandemic is particularly poignant, almost cruel in its deception. That he passed aged just 49, is even more unjust and hard to take. Because at 49, you’ve hardly even begun to regard your legacy, belonging and associations.



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