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Football pepped up with spice

Football crazy Kerala has something more to watch than the game this time, the Zeebra girls. PRIYADARSSHINI SHARMA finds out more about the cheerleaders and what fans feel about them

SPORTING TEAM The Zeebra girls add zing to the Santosh Trophy matches on in the city PHOTO: R. RAGU

Move over, the Ronaldos and the Ronaldinhos. Bye-bye, `Bend it like Beckham' and `curl it like Carlos'. Now desi football has its own glamour quotient, The Zeebra girls. As the 60th Air India Express Santosh Trophy plays itself out and as curtains come down on the event, where the crowd build-up began after the cloud build-up receded, one found the regular boisterous and keen soccer fan morphed into a tele-genic soccer supporter with painted faces, coloured bodies, tonsured heads et al. Adding zing to the keenly contested games, between tackle and pass, between golden goals, bicycle kicks, funky hairdos, tantalising tattoos, our desi version of the Laker girls, the Zeebras gave Indian football atmospherics a glamour that was hitherto missing. But with this came divided opinions.

"Glamorise a sport and its fan following multiplies. The game begins to be followed. This helps the players, the coaches, everyoneStars are created and the standard of the game improves," says a sports fan, who is pleased with this commercial flavour.

New concept

Says Rufus D'souza, former captain of the Travancore-Cochin and Kerala State hockey team and a football coach, "the concept of cheerleading is new to the game here. It makes the whole atmosphere very attractive. It has added a new dimension and has been done very professionally."

Chorus the Zeebras , who indeed did `dhoom machale' (created a sensation) in the stadium as they danced to the famous number and cheered the players.

"Though we don't understand the local language we heard the crowd say, `we want the Zeebras'. We have added the fun element to the tournamentand now follow the game keenly."

The eight young and peppy girls, Akansha Varedkar, Shruti Shrestha, Smita Gondkar, Sofea Chickara, Semmon Shah, Pankhuri Awasthi, Neelima Kakkar and the 18-year-old Sumona Chakravarti, are absolutely thrilled with this assignment.

Into ramp shows, music videos, films and modelling, the girls are all excited about this new trend. "With this football will take off. The crowds here do hoot, catcall but it is bound to happen in most cities. But the vibes have been good. You know the Bengal player Noel Wilson said that he was thrilled to see us cheer him after he scored a goal. Venkatesh, the Indian captain, is our hero." But will this glamorisation bring the crowds to watch the game? Says Kakkanad Marty, a die-hard soccer fan, "the Zeebras may bring some people to the ground but the genuine football lover will not come because of them. Neither will the cheer girls improve the quality of the game. It will certainly help the television channel get viewership. Only pumping money into the game will help raise its standard. India today ranks 132nd in international football."

Purists and conformists of the game agree. "It's a pity that one has to resort to this to make soccer attractive. It's ridiculous," says Jaison Cooper, a State Government employee and a soccer fan. Adding another angle to the debate, says Leela Menon, a journalist and women's activist, "it is a totally unnecessary expenditure and an uncalled for intrusion into the culture of Kerala. It also sets a bad example to the local campus crowd."


Reacts Sidharth Goswami, cousin of football legend Chunni Goswami, and a Kochi resident, "they can be ignored if you want to. To sell a pen too the ad has a few women. "

India coach Syed Nayeemuddin too has a word towards `Indianising' the cheer squad.

Said Nayeemuddin, "it's a good thing because it supports the game. The crowds are enjoying. The girls enjoy performing. Maybe they can Indianise the dance." And Shruti who was mobbed for autographs in Goa during the Federation Cup, earlier this year, says there is a surprise element to their dance for the Santosh Trophy final. A local touch perhaps. The entourage that goes with the Zeebras are make-up men, hairstylists and dance choreographer.

Commentators John Helm and Henry Menezes strongly approve of this new trend. "They are simply superb," said Menezes. "Cheering squad is a common thing in European football. It excites the crowds," said Helm. Venu, a spectator said, "people are more interested in them than the goals. When a goal is scored all eyes come to the podium to watch the girls cheer."

But reacts another spectator, Steffi Sabatini, her name virtually raising a sporting fantasy, "who wants the Zeebras? Do you think anyone will watch them when there is Vijayan?"

But soccer star I.M. Vijayan differs, "Anything that is visually appealing is good for the game. The Zeebras in Indian football add a certain international flavour. The players too feel the game needs the glamour."

And going by the crowd response, with the Law College boys dressed up as the Zeebras, with posters screaming `We want the Zeebras' this new trend in Indian football will probably be more than just eye candy. There will be more song and dance from the Zeebras at the NFL, which begins five weeks from now.

Glamour quotient

Enjoying the attention zeebra girls off the field

Says a Zee official on the introduction of the Zeebras, cheerleaders, "Selling football to the masses in India is not an easy proposition. In this cricket crazy country, it would always be a battle to win eyeballs especially in markets outside Bengal, Kerala and Goa. An innovative approach was necessary and thus came the Zeebras. In line with international concepts of cheerleaders backing major sporting spectacles and each sport club having their distinctive brand of cheerleaders, ZeeSports introduced the Zeebras as their mascots of promoting Indian football.

Eight girls were chosen and then trained and groomed in cheerleading acts and mannerisms. We also went the extra step in ensuring that coming to the ground to watch the game was a complete experience for the fans. Music and dance performances were introduced at half times.

"A live DJ was always present to pump up the volume through 25,000 watts of music and entertain the crowd. Drummers and face-painters were put into the stands to get people in the mood for enjoying the game." From different parts of the country, the Zeebras work out of Mumbai and are into films, modelling, music videos, with Akansha having a few cinema assignments in the South and Shruti being a Gladrags finalist, 2004. She is also into theatre. During the Kerala vs Delhi match one of them got hit by the ball and since then the cheer girls have decided to always keep the eye on the ball while the crowds have their eyes on them.

(With inputs from Stan Ryan)

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