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Children who dreamt of becoming the next Tendulkar are donning football jerseys instead. Could this flood of football academies mark the entry of a new favourite sport, asks Nishita Jha

Photo: Tushar Mane

AS THE Indian team lifted the ICC Cricket World Cup among a sea of euphoric supporters, elsewhere 1983 became the year that fans of a different sport would rue forever — as the year that football died. For the generation that followed, worshipping Tendulkar and the Men in Blue, the thought of any other sport — especially football — equalling cricket as the most popular sport in India was laughable. We still remember being great at hockey once, we have had our tennis champions and will even watch badminton to root for a pretty Saina Nehwal, but it’s been a while since mainstream India (outside the football-obsessed pockets of Goa, Kerala, Kolkata, Hyderabad and the Northeast) tuned in to Indian football. For years, especially post the phenomenon that was Sachin Tendulkar, parents packed off children in throngs to cricket academies. Yet suddenly, the past five years have witnessed a barrage of football academies like never before. Three-year-olds are tottering about in Manchester United and Arsenal jerseys. Could a switch in sports loyalties be afoot?

“Indians are watching international football like never before. It’s packaged sexily, the sport is more enthralling than cricket and the timings (matches telecast on weekend) are perfect for our social calendar. The Indian football team still plays on Wednesday afternoons,” says football analyst Novy Kapadia, 56, wryly.

While most people agree that the subtle shift in loyalty began around the time that satellite television and ESPN entered our lives, with the prestigious UEFA Champions League and English Premier League (EPL) matches beaming into living rooms, Kapadia also believes this was the death-blow that sent Indian football into history’s attic. “Compared to the glamorous sport we were now watching, full of heroes and passion, Indian football seemed like a dud. Our players were paper tigers.”

What had been sorely missing for the past few decades — a young ardour for the game — seems to finally have been roused, with increased football viewership among the middle and upper middle classes. Back in 1992, when Bill Adams, an ex-community football coach at Leeds, came to New Delhi, he found that public school teachers were ‘ruining’ his son’s ability to play football by using outdated techniques of training. What started with a casual coaching session for Adams’ son and his friends, turned into the Super Soccer Academy (SSA) in 1998, with over 600 trainees, eight regular coaches and six temporary coaches today.

Common goals Young football enthusiasts fine-tune their skills

Photo (L To R): Pintu Pradhan, Dhananjay TK, Tarun Sehrawat

Most academies in the past few years followed the blueprint of Adams’ initiative — children between the ages of six and 17 are grouped according to age and ability, attending between two to four classes a week, while the talented players receive advanced training on weekends. The SSA has now evolved into a football education system, training individuals in everything to do with football — workshops for coaches on subjects like sports psychology and fitness training, to a consultancy for budding sports managers. If these new academies manage to live up to SSA standards, the future of football could be truly promising.

Eleven-year-old Manasi’s personal inspirations are Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Lionel Messi

Adams travelled all over the country from Srinagar to Indore, helping organisations develop junior-level football teams, academies and leagues. In collaboration with the India Youth Soccer Association, the SSA provides weekly ‘girls-only’ coaching for football players aged between 11 and 18. Till date, six children from Adams’ academy have gone on to play for the national squad in different age groups, and about 16 have played for their state teams.

Chetan Misra, 30, is a football enthusiast who tapped into India’s boom of cultivating champions. An engineering student who recently gave up his job in the US to open a football academy, Football First, in New Delhi, Misra says understanding football is the new mark of being ‘globally cool’. “It isn’t restricted to watching matches on television. As more families take their kids outside the country for vacations, they are exposed to a glamorous sporting culture full of stars, apart from cricket.” Football First, which is only a month-and-a-half old, spent its first six months aggressively marketing football in Delhi’s schools. Misra (who played college football in the US) and his team of internationally trained coaches exhibited skills and techniques before accepting enrolments for their first summer coaching camp. Football First has four centres in the Capital, with about 20 children each, aged between six and 16. At a fee of Rs 1,000- Rs 1,800 per month, Misra says most of his students belong to middle class or lower-middle class families, and watch the EPL religiously.

FOR THIS bunch dressed in shiny Rooney, Messi and Ronaldo jerseys on a sweltering Delhi morning, football is more than just a way to while the lazy summer away. Mohammed Noor Alam, 13, is vexed about having to talk to a girl in the middle of football practice, but answers questions with a studied politeness. “We are paired with players who are better or worse than us so that we can learn from them or guide them. Our coach doesn’t yell at us when we go wrong, but he won’t let us leave the field until we get it right. It’s the only way to learn.” The grim teenager’s mother, Roohi Zubair, a schoolteacher, is waiting patiently at the reception for her son. Alam has been babbling about football for the past four years almost non-stop, she smiles, “I thought it was finally time to see whether he was any good.” Zubair, a single mother who stays with her son at Delhi’s Zakir Bagh, brings her son for coaching four times a week, because according to their deal, Alam has to go back to studying and quit coaching once the vacation is over.

Unsurprisingly, it is usually the parents and pundits who dismiss hours of sweat on the field as a way to keep fit. Swimming could have kept their children similarly preoccupied for less money, yet here they are. “A lot of parents prefer cricket as a sport but come here on their child’s insistence. As children develop a keener interest in football, they know that most international players are technically sound by 14. They want to start learning the language of football at a young age,” says Dara Sunny Daimari, 31, a partner at Rootz Sports Academy, Hyderabad.

Deepika Kenkere of Bengaluru wanted her son to stay off the computer and enrolled him in football coaching as a last resort. At the centre, she was mildly shocked when her nine-year-old daughter Manasi insisted on being enrolled too, but didn’t hesitate in packing them both off for training. “Initially, I would get bugged because they insist on playing all over the house, but I realised how much more they were learning — they would come back dejected from losing a match but learn how to deal with defeat, they figured out how to channel their aggression by kicking a ball around. Sometimes, they even get me and my husband to put on football shoes and play with them,” laughs Deepika. While the number of girls at coaching centres is noticeably lesser in most cities, particularly due to the lack of female coaches, the ones that do stick to playing are a determined lot. Two years later, Manasi, still an avid footballer, shows us her school project on personal inspirations — Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Lionel Messi.

While football was always played in local parks and neighbourhoods, for decades, there was no system in place to nurture young talent and lure players to play for team India. But like the memories of an old love that refuses to fade, there were tales of our tryst with football. Legend has it that old Delhi’s Karim’s only became popular when the Hyderabad Police football team slept on the floors of the restaurant, their fans thronging the hotel day and night for a glimpse of their favourite players, ordering kormas and kebabs as an excuse to gawk. Kolkata would (and still does) come to a standstill when East Bengal played Mohun Bagan (MB), fishmongers dialling sports journalists to enquire if they should stock hilsa (a favourite with EB fans) or jhinga (the preferred dish for MB followers). India had qualified for the World Cup once before in 1950, right after Independence, but the combined prospect of playing with boots (Indian players had only played barefoot till then) and of travelling by sea for a month to reach the appointed venue in Brazil, failed to tempt the players, and the team withdrew their qualification.

There were other blips in the horizon. When the Sao Paulo football club toured India in 1984, the realisation that India could be a footballing nation like Brazil led to the formation of the Tata Football Academy (TFA) in 1987. But for 10 years after TFA, there were no other big academies to encourage young players. Contrast this with football clubs like Barcelona, whose legendary academy La Masia has been responsible for training some of the most awe-inspiring players — Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez. Even the Arsenal academy, set up as late as 1998, and responsible for grooming players like Jack Wilshere, is focussed on grooming boys as young as eight or nine into international-level football players.

The fact that football legends of the world have primarily hailed from Third World countries should be heartening for Indian football fans! Arsene Wenger, manager of Arsenal football club, firmly believes the combined pressures of poverty and population are conducive to producing sporting greats, which is why he has expanded Arsenal’s catchment area to Africa and India, apart from central and south America. In collaboration with Tata Tea, Arsenal organises inter- school tournaments in the metros to look for budding talent. Selected young players are taken to Arsenal’s academy for a short stint in specialised coaching. FIFA’s Sepp Blatter grandly declared that India was a ‘sleeping giant’ when international clubs like Bayern Munich and Celtic have launched talent hunts all over the country.

But it would be foolish to ignore the obvious carrot-and-stick implication here. India, with its ever-widening middle- class and thirst for upward mobility offers a huge seller’s market for international football merchandise, a far greater temptation for international football clubs than the promise of undiscovered talent. Yet, in order to even figure on the international football map, collaboration with foreign academies and clubs is imperative. Hyderabad-based coach A Robin, who graduated from the first batch of TFA in 1998 and went on to play for the Under-19 football team believes that TFA was miles ahead of other academies because they sent students to Germany and other footballing nations for training spells. “In a nation of a billion, it’d be ridiculous to say we cannot find 22 players with enough talent, brains or the physique to become world-class players. The only problem is that most avid footballers have grown up playing with faulty techniques, have little or no knowledge of sports diets, physiotherapy and professionalism.” Several academies such as the Chandigarh Football Academy and the Premier India Football Academy (Mumbai) now send young players to train abroad.

THIS IS perhaps the main reason that cynics have begun to see a class distinction in the game. A far cry from the raw, unbridled talent and enthusiasm of traditionally-football crazy areas where children needed little more than a ball for hours of competition, academies have turned football into a business, a lucrative one at that. Now, there are football uniforms, trips to other cities and foreign countries added to the coaching fees. “Yes, there is a class difference between those who grew up watching the game as it is played in Europe and those who grew up playing it in their colonies,” says Bappaditya Bhattacharya of Rootz Bengaluru. “But the only way to develop a talented base is to connect those two classes by getting them to a level playing field,” he smiles, pleased at having inserted the mandatory ‘sports is the greatest leveller’ analogy.

For Misra, dealing with Delhi’s swish set was a little complicated. “I had to find a way to connect the kids with what they saw on television and what was on the field. Initially, I had coaches who didn’t speak great English and were from underprivileged backgrounds. The kids refused to take them seriously, saying ‘he looks like my driver’.” Misra doesn’t judge his students for their class bias. “We work hard to fit in to their idea of ‘cool’ so they take us seriously,” he explains, fiddling with his Ray-Bans.

Little Brazil Gowthamapura’s entrance pays tribute to a bizarre assortment of deities
Little Brazil Gowthamapura’s entrance pays tribute to a bizarre assortment of deities
Photo: Darshan Manakkal

Kapadia agrees the main reason cricket reached a fever-pitch in the country was because the BCCI treated it like a profitable business, assiduously marketing its tournaments, and making sure players were performing all year round “like the Gemini circus”. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) failed to tap in to a booming trend. In spite of the fact that Japan set up the J-League four years after the Indian National Football League was set up, Japan qualified for three successive World Cups (1998, 2002 and 2006) and won the Asia Cup in 2000 and 2004. In addition to lacking the machine-like zeal of the Japanese, we also lack the funds to give young players incentives. The annual budgets of our top I-League clubs like MB is about Rs 7 to Rs 10 crore per year, the lion’s share of which is spent on acquiring foreign players. This year MB acquired Nigerian player Odafe Okolie who was wooed with Rs 1.5 crore and a Mercedes. Which leaves top Indian footballers like Baichung Bhutia, S Venkatesh and Alvito D’Cunha with Rs 50- Rs 60 lakh per year at the peak of their careers if they land endorsements. Most other I-League players spend the rest of their off-season looking for employment because they make only up to a lakh a year. The top I-League players (those playing for bigger clubs like MB) make Rs 5 lakh to Rs 10 lakh per season (three to four months). A footballer from a comparatively inactive state like Delhi would make only Rs 30,000 a month. Compare this to cricket where even a Ranji cricketer easily makes Rs 35,000 a month.

‘The kids refused to take underprivileged coaches with poor English seriously, saying ‘he looks like my driver’,’ says Misra

Delhi-based K Rama Subramaniam, 48, is one of the lucky few who has reaped the burgeoning craze for football for its financial harvest. He represented India at the 1985-86 South Asian Games, and now owns Milestone Football Academy with four centres. He charges his students between Rs 600 and Rs 1,000 per month and plans to buy a football club, which he can then send abroad to train. He wants to train underprivileged children as well.

A happy exception to the theory that football is only picking up because it is a booming industry, is the village of Gowthamapura in Bengaluru. Known as ‘Little Brazil’, almost every child here knows how to dribble a ball with panache. At the gateway to the slum is a famous life-size statue of football legend Pele, as a tribute to Gowthamapura’s resident football heroes: P Kannan, Ulaganathan and the boy from Sao Paulo.

This dismal truth of Indian football — that there is no connecting ladder from the boys playing in gulleys to the highest level of the game is what keeps it from flourishing. This is the gap private academies in various corners of the country can help to bridge. Academies like SSA, Rootz and Partha Das’ Barasat Academy in Kolkata are playing a certain role in cultivating champions. SSA was a pioneer of sorts, holding special football coaching for slum children at rented school grounds even in the 1990s, before football became lucrative in India. Rootz frequently scouts for talented and underprivileged players, offering them a scholarship and stipend to train under them, Barasat refuses to accept a fee for training altogether, choosing their students only through a difficult trial process. Although Kapadia believes the kindest estimate he can offer before India even qualifies for a World Cup is at least 30 years, he softens the blow by adding that the game can only survive till then by an aggressive grassroot training programme. Adams is of the opinion that what truly ails Indian football is not just academies and clubs trying impatiently to wish a winning team into existence, but also corporations that spend their money on the wrong things — organising football competitions between elite schools rather than investing in academies or training kids. Add to the mix, the AIFF and the Sports Authority of India, both competing for the same resources, and the future looks like a black hole for football dreams.

“Depoliticisation, professionalism, and a sustained effort to stamp out cheating” has become Adams’ mantra whenever anyone asks him what it’ll take to get India on the international playing field. Perhaps this is why the SSA has turned football training into something of a life skill: five to six-year-olds learn basic foundation skills (like running in step with the ball), then graduate to technical skills (proper choreographed moves to shield the ball from an opponent). By the end of their training, Adams hopes to create something even more important than a great footballer — an honest and fair sportsperson. And this, one hopes, is where Indian football’s real victory may lie.

Nishita Jha is a Correspondent with Tehelka.
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