And still they gaz’d and still the wonder grew,
That one small head could carry all he knew.
When the late Novy Kapadia spoke on football, listeners were left speechless like the rustics, awestruck by ‘The Village Schoolmaster’ in Oliver Goldsmith’s poem. Yet he never assumed the airs of a scholar amidst the ignorant.
Few knew Novy was educated at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi or that he was an English professor, effortlessly slipping into chaste Hindi, whenever the need arose. And if true charm lies in making everyone around you comfortable, his innate humility saw him connect to corporate captains and office peons with equal ease.
“While none in the country could match his knowledge of football, his warmth and generosity made him special. His ability to make friends and his impeccable manners endeared him to all who knew him,” recalled Abhijit Sen Gupta.
“I first met Novy at the 2007 Military World Games in Hyderabad. Although he was a famous TV personality, he walked to me with a friendly smile and began talking as if we were old friends. Sensing perhaps that I loved books as much as he did, he took two of them from his briefcase and gifted them to me after a barely 10-minute aquaintance !
“Several years later I bought his finely crafted ‘Barefoot to Boots: The many lives of Indian football (Penguin).’ It’s the most definitive work on the game in the country, its sweep panoramic, the profiles of players, assessment of officials and events comprehensive.
“From the sport’s origins in colonial India, its evolution is traced to and beyond independence, through the Olympics, Asian Games and various international tournaments, while staying true to its domestic roots,” said The Hindu’s former Deputy Editor.
Although born and raised in Delhi, Novy had a pan India perspective, free of the parochialism that plagues sports and its writing in the country. Nor did he blindly believe that the last word on football had to be from Bengal. His book speaks most eloquently of the beautiful game in Hyderabad.
“The Twin Cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad have produced 14 Olympians and 21 international footballers who represented the country in the Asian Games. Footballers from Hyderabad were selected for the Olympics in 1948 (London), 1952 (Helsinki), 1956 (Melbourne) and 1960 (Rome). In the 1956 national team—India’s best performance till date, having finished fourth—eight players were from Hyderabad. In the 1960 team there were seven.
“Six players from Hyderabad have captained India…The city has given nine national coaches. Three referees from Hyderabad—G.M. Pentaiah, M. Azam and S.S. Hakeem–have been inducted into the FIFA panel. Azam had the distinction of supervising the 1974 Asian Games final in Tehran between Israel and Iran. Hakeem has supervised 33 international matches, a record still unbroken in India.”
For all his unassuming ways, Novy had rubbed shoulders with the game’s greats, such as Diego Maradona and Eusebio. His grace under pressure was exemplary. Siddharth Padhye, Creative Director, Sports Programming, Sony Pictures Networks India (SPNI) shared an anecdote.
“Novyji was a regular guest on our show – Kick Off, a part of our expert panel for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Asian Games 2018, Serie A and FA Cup from 2017 to 2019. He enthralled us with his prize stories. Such as when he met football legend Maradona, who offered Novyji a pizza while balancing a football on his left foot. His love for food was as legendary as his love for football.
“One day Novyji was running late for the Kick Off show at our studio due to a flight delay. He hardly had time to prepare or research. But as soon as he walked in, like the true professional he was, he sat us all down and we filmed the whole episode seamlessly,” recounted Siddharth, who recently helmed Sony TV’s telecast of Euro 2020, Copa America 2021 and Tokyo Olympics 2020, spanning over two months. The whole exercise, along with a 200-member workforce housed in a bio-bubble, was carried out from a specially set up studio in a star hotel.
Joseph George’s interaction with Novy will forever remain etched in the former’s mind. Seeing the nervous novice doing a show at Sony’s studio in Malad, Mumbai, Novy said something that banished the fears instantly. “Commentary is a mild variation of the stats packs you produce, Joseph,” said Novy, referring to the exhaustive data Joseph compiled for international events ranging from the FIFA World Cup to the Olympics.
“On another occasion, when India had scored four goals in an international competition, questions arose whether it was the country’s best performance ever. With broadcast time ticking and before the back-up team could trawl the internet for relevant factoids, Novyji reeled off the nation’s five best displays, straight from memory,” Joseph remembered.
No armchair critic, Novy represented Delhi in the junior National championship, played in the capital’s league for many years and even founded the Ashoka Club. A walking encyclopaedia on Indian football, his coverage of nine FIFA World Cups made him an authority on the international version too. So was he witness to the changes the game was going through, as his following observation reveals:
“Eusebio belonged to an age of innocence. Great players did not have agents and they were not constantly surrounded by TV cameras eager for a byte. They were paid well but not exorbitantly, did not have celebrity life styles and were much more accessible to fans and media alike.”
A loner married to his craft, Novy empathised with Tulsidas Balaram, also a bachelor. His portrait of India’s best forward probed pages from a painful past and highlighted Balaram’s plight, left high and dry by the nation’s football establishment, without reward or recognition.
So did he turn the spotlight on the penury of players from India’s golden era. Some could not even afford local bus fare. Noor Mohammed’s predicament was all the more poignant. After two scorching sessions of a game the only compensation he received was a cup of tea !
‘Novy sir’, as his legion of fans addressed him, epitomised William Hazlitt’s immortal line: Simplicity of character is the natural result of profound thought. Friends from the football fraternity, now playing in the Elysian Fields, would have welcomed the latest entrant to their team with open arms !
(A. Joseph Antony was on Sony TV’s commentary panel for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Euro 2020, Copa America 2021 and Tokyo Olympics 2020. The author of ‘My way—The biography of M.L. Jaisimha’ (Amazon, Apple Books), he was a Senior Assistant Editor with The Hindu in Hyderabad.)