Thursday, 6 June 2013

On the Ball Episode 3: what is being done at grass root level

In my first two episodes, I took a look at what the problems plaguing Indian football were and why they existed. In the third episode of 'On the Ball', I take a look at what is being done at grass-root levels.

In the third episode of On the Ball, I went to youth academies in both India and abroad to find out the foundations being laid for the footballers of the future.

My first stop was the Arsenal Soccer School in Muscat in the Sultanate of Oman. Although not part of the assignment specifically, the reason I went to the Soccer School is because Arsenal are one of the best when it comes to developing youth.

At the school, I interviewed head coach Luis Miguel Gorgulho.

"If you take India for example, we know they love cricket. Cricket is their major sport. Wherever there's a major sport that dominates one generation's physical activity [sic] it goes without saying that there's not going to be much opportunity for football," says the Englishman."By providing kids who don't normally have that opportunity to play football, already you've made a step forward."

He is of the opinion that coaches from abroad are the best way to boost the game from the bottom up in nations that don't normally have a footballing culture. For this, he says, Europe is the best place to get coaches from, given the global success of European football.

"Because our coaches are fully qualified coaches, they are going to bring a higher level of coaching," he says. "That's not to say that there aren't coaches anywhere else in the world who can't do the job, but the experience that we bring with us from Europe, which is the hotbed of world coaching and world football, that's obviously going to impart a higher level of football development in a less developed country".

This is the philosophy the SPT Academy follow. With centres in New Delhi, Assam and Bangalore, the academy offers football coaching for kids from ages 6 to seventeen. In order to give them the best training, they have roped in Javier Cabrera, a UEFA certified coach who has coached Spanish sides Celta de Arguelles and Sagrados Corazones in the past.

The training methodology at the academy is similar to the one used in Spain, he says.

"Our methodology at SPT Sports is the Spanish methodology. This is focused on the specific training," says the Spaniard. "We organise a circuit with three different drills. One drill, for example is about passing and control, another drill is about one small-sided game, a possession drill, and for example another one [is a] shooting drill. We make small groups of players and they make rotations".

Although provisions are in place to improve the quality of India's next generation of footballers, he says the level between the kids in his native Spain and here is quite vast because of the lack of training that potentially skilled talents receive.

"The level between the Spanish kids and the Indian kids is very different. Here, there is talent. Here, if these kids keep training with high-level coaches, they can improve fast."

But development takes place fastest at a young age. One of the reasons he feels Indian kids are missing out is because they start training very late. "In Spain, you start training at five years old, here most of the kids are thirteen, fourteen years old, [but] of course we have many small guys," he says. 

"This is a very big gap because when you learn to play football, it is maybe from eight to twelve years old. That phase is very important, so if you start playing at thirteen [or] fourteen, you have to recover so many things."

That imbibing with skills at a very young age is what is being done across town at the XLR8 (pronounced 'accelerate') Indoor Sports Arena. In a city where open space is scarce, indoor arenas provide children with the space they require to learn.

But Cetric Joe, who oversees soccer training, says that kids want to have fun, not learn the bookish aspects of the game when they are very young.

"At this level, kids will be really bored to do the exercises or fitness," he says, referring to the latest batch of six-year-olds at the Arena. "As soon as I see the game, I want to play the game, before even I warm up, I get inside the court, I take the ball, and I want to form a team and I want to play immediately. I don't want to do the warm-up. That is what the kids are saying."

"But the atmosphere to do the warm-up, do the exercise, before the get into the game, that is very important," he adds.

Taher says the Arena is committed to taking the coaching classes from the most basic of levels so that kids learn to play football the right way.

"If you look at the coaching classes that we have right now, we are taking them from a basic level," says Taher, who has more than ten years of experience working with kids. "If you want [the kids] to play football again and again, you have to engage [them] in playing football, let them know what it is to play football."

"You are talking about an orthodox Indian culture where the PE teachers just stand in one place, saying 'go for eight rounds, for ten rounds' (around the pitch) where kids don't want to come back. Playing football indoors is more physically tiring than playing outside".

"When you play on an eleven-a-side ground, you'll have time to rest," he continues. "But indoors, you play five-a-side in this field, this 30 metres by two and a half metres field, there, for eight people running around, they have to run every second. There is a different form of fitness that we do". 

"Physically, your fitness, your endurance, all the stuff, the game will give you".

This mushrooming is sporting academies has only come up recently. In a nation like India, first preference is given to education because jobs are at a premium in an economy which has more than a billion people. But people are now seeing sports as a viable career path, as can be seen above. Another example of the same is Ameet Nadi.

A state-level cricketer since the age of 14, Ameet's tryst with cricket met a cruel and untimely end when he suffered a double jaw fracture while batting for his team. Since then, he has been coaching at cricket clubs in Karnataka state, having recently earned his coaching certification and also works for a company that provides fitness equipment.

"There was emphasis but it wasn't very widespread, not everyone was fortunate to get that attention," says the 31-year-old, referring to the standards of sport at school level when he was growing up. "There were very few coaches who were really good and you needed to be really fortunate to get their attention.These days, the access to a good coach is better than what it was before".  

"In India, especially, where there is a surplus population, employment is an issue, especially for people who are coming from middle-class families," he says, rather frankly. "So we need to ensure that sportsmen have enough number of jobs so that more people take to sport. Even if it is a corporate, they can always concentrate on sport."

"Basically, it is about generating employment in whatever capacity so once everyone knows that there is a good chance for employment even when you are a decent sportsman, that is when the sporting culture really starts developing".  

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