Some people like to live in a bubble. Some others like to play football from inside one. For the last three months, groups of curious people in Mumbai have been sampling an amusing and ungainly version of the most beautiful game.
India is one of 18 countries so far to have launched bubble soccer, in affiliation with the International Bubble Football Association (IBFA) based in Germany. It is not uncommon for college students in the United States, Canada or London to engage in a bit of soccer aided by zorbs, which cover the head and torso but leave the legs poking out from the bottom. The aim is to score a goal while avoiding being toppled over. This requires a level of control that is nearly impossible to achieve within the bouncy zorbs.
The sport was brought to Mumbai by Convergence Events. The popularity of football, which is more global than cricket, has been growing in the country, notes Convergence founder Kamlesh Sharma. So, when scouting for adventure sports, games in this area were most attractive. Bubble Soccer is based out of Mumbai and has been hosting promotional events locally and in Pune and Bengaluru. The sport is expected to be introduced by a franchisee in Bengaluru soon.
Charging towards the ball from inside transparent globes, the players resemble infuriated jellyfish. A merciless opponent can send one cartwheeling across the field, quite like a tortoise knocked back into its shell. But it makes the original contact sport considerably less perilous due to the plentiful insulation. It takes two full minutes to inflate a zorb, which is then worn a bit like a backpack.
Each game lasts 30 minutes. The initial five minutes are for getting used to the bubble. Following this are two halves of 10 minutes each, separated by a five-minute break. There are three dos and don'ts - do not push an opponent from behind; do not let go of the handles inside the zorb; and if you fall, use your knees to pick yourself up. The referee - the only one on the scene without a bubble - has the busy job of bringing the ball back into play when it is kicked off the field. It costs roughly Rs 1,000 per head per game (groups of 30 players can play for one-and-a-half hours for Rs 30,000).
To the viewer, the proceedings may seem like a segment from Takeshi's Castle but it is not all giggles, says Sharma. "It is comical at first but also very challenging." As the game gathers speed, it gets slightly warm inside the bubble. A single match is often the equivalent of a day's workout, says Pranay Aggarwal, a real estate professional from Pune who had a kick-about a few times recently. Currently, the sport is gaining interest mainly from corporates and students.
At free events, families and even 60-year-olds try it out. Sharma's hope is to put together a team that can compete in the sport's world cup to be held in Germany next year. Priya Saraswat, a housewife from Pune who suffers from asthma, felt slightly breathless at first but got used to the bubble with some help from coaches. "I had never played football, so I did not know the rules. But they made it sound simple - just go and try to make a goal," says Saraswat, who played during a demo at Inorbit mall.
Convergence Events also has plans to bring in swamp football, where the field is a slushy mess. Another Mumbai-based events company, Mad Over Sports, offers soapy football, a purely-for-fun concept, where a cut foam surface is splattered with handsoap. Players slip and slide as they reach for the football, and rules, because they are so hard to follow, do not exist in this format. Venues for bubble soccer are not a problem in Mumbai as several astroturfs or artificial pitches have popped up in recent months. But finding small, soft fields will be a challenge in smaller towns, where organiser Sharma is now looking at the option of indoor locations like basketball courts.