Let's football: ISL gets game's foot soldiers talking in India

  • Shantanu Srivastava, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Dec 06, 2014 14:26 IST

This happened in 2007. Fifa president Sepp Blatter called cricket-crazy India a sleeping giant of football and declared intent to wake up the giant.

Cut to present. Clothed in glitz and inspired by IPL cricket blitz, Indian football - languishing at 170th position in the Fifa world rankings - is trying to reinvent itself in the form of Indian Super League (ISL).

Burgeoning Bollywood presence and a sizeable television audience make for a delectable recipe, only that the broth is still uncooked. There are stars from abroad, but they are spent-forces. For an Indian league, however, they still have good enough games to go with their marquee names.

To expect the moon from the maiden season of ISL would be reckless because it will take time to occupy mind space. Young footballers in the nation's capital are pragmatic enough to acknowledge that.

They are following the league, but a large chunk of the youngsters and students confess their heart lies with European leagues and English football. It is not to suggest the ISL has failed to reach out to its primary target. Far from that, but a lot of work and play remain.


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Rupesh Kumar, head of Mumbai operations of Bhaichung Bhutia Football Schools, admits his academy has seen a spike in queries since October 12 - the day the ISL took off at Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata.

"Earlier, we got 70-80 calls a day. The number crosses 200 now. However, how many will eventually translate into admissions is hard to predict at this stage," Kumar said.

Kishore Taid, one of the founder-directors of the school and a technical director of Delhi Dynamos, agrees. "The response of children towards football has always been very encouraging. While ISL clubs have not really been able to attract kids in lower age-group, there is considerable interest among the 15-17 year age-group."

The ISL is succeeding in a space the I-League was hoping to corner. "Almost nothing positive came out of I-League. The good thing about the ISL is that it has put a lot of focus on Indian football.

"The challenge is to better it every year. Champions League and EPL are really big among these kids," Taid said, turning his gaze on a bunch of smartly dressed children plying their trade on the lush green football field of Laxman Public School.

Zen Meer, a Class 5 student of Gyan Bharti School, Saket, seconded Taid's views in no uncertain terms. "I follow the ISL when I find time, but I want to play for Real Madrid. I like Del Piero though," Meer chuckled.

Pragyat Karna, a Class 6 student of Modern School, Barakhamba, jumped in. "But Del Piero is too slow."

Taid countered. "But have you looked at the way he turns on the field. He is 41, but still manages to dodge three defenders in the box. Look at (Robin) van Persie. He used to take notes from the age of six."

Kshitij Kumar, a Class 5 student of Amity International School, Vasundhara, nods in agreement. Given a chance, Kumar would like to play for Chennaiyin FC in ISL.

Incidentally, Kumar was part of the 11 mascots selected from India, Brazil, China, South Africa, South Korea and the United States to escort the Reds (Liverpool) players during their first game of the season against Swansea City this year.

While Kishav, a Class 6 student of American Embassy School, admitted to not following the ISL at all, Karan Nair of St Mary's School, Safdarjung Enclave, had a rather technical observation.

"ISL teams always seem to play long ball. They do not pass as much as they should. I like dribbles and tackles," Nair said, and to illustrate his point, added, "My favourite player is Ronaldo. He is fast, his overall vision is good. He is equally good at passing from outside the box and shooting from close range."

Predictably, it is hard for the children to maintain their concentration on the game throughout the session. To counter the same, the academy focuses on variations. "We play a lot of four-a-side games. Such games help children in taking quick decisions, plus they get a feel of the ball," said Rupesh.

The scene at the Arsenal Soccer School is no different.

Raghav Kauthiala, a member of the school's marketing activation team, said, "The ISL has made an impact, but it will take a few seasons to actually seep in. Initially, parents were a bit apprehensive, but gradually they are becoming appreciative of their children taking up football. Now with ISL, they can at least get a sense of financial security for their children should they take up football as a career."

The children have no such big picture concerns.

"I play football because I love the sport. It is much more physical, than say, cricket, and more enjoyable," said Siddharth Kaul, a Class 10 student of DPS RK Puram. "The ISL is in its first year, we should not compare it with other leagues. Despite a lot of ageing players, I find the standard of game in ISL pretty good," Kaul, who has played in zonal-level competitions, added.

Prajwal Sinha, a student of Homerton Grammar School, Faridabad, was equally emphatic. "Every league has its class, and I think ISL should be given some time to develop. I agree Indian footballers are not that good, but gradually they will get there with guidance from their foreign counterparts in the league. ISL is a wonderful platform for new players," Sinha said.

"I always wanted to become a footballer, even before the ISL came along. That's why I travel from Faridabad to practice in Delhi. Even among my peer group, cricket is fast disappearing. Football is really coming up fast, and ISL will surely help its rise. I think ISL is motivating people to take up football," the Elano-fan added.

Hemanya Baweja, a Class 7 student of Birla Vidya Niketan, Pushp Vihar, admitted to not following ISL much. "But it is very nice as compared to the I-League, and it is giving good exposure to Indian players."

Cheerleading all the way from Vikaspuri slums

If you thought only elite academies have been impacted by the ISL, here's the surprise.

My Angels Academy, a one-room centre in the slums of Vikaspuri, may well stake the claim to be one of the league's more passionate cheerleaders.


(HT Photo)

The academy, run by holistic trainer and motivational speaker Sylvester Peter, is more than just a football academy though. The academy's 'angels' come from nearby slums, and are taught yoga and dance, apart from football and academics.

"Football is the biggest tool to meditate. Almost 90% of these kids were beggars; some were into drugs, some even slept in MCD dustbins. I pick these underprivileged kids and try to make them better human beings. None of my angels swear, despite the surroundings they live in. Football teaches them to stay competitive and disciplined," Peter said.

A typical day at the academy starts at 4.30am when the children assemble for practice. Peter says there is a lack of support from locals, most of whom see education and sports as a waste of time, but insists mutual love with his 'angels' keeps him going.

"We regularly participate in local tournaments and have defeated all major teams in their backyard," he added.

Two of the academy's boys, 16-year-old Raj Kumar and 12-year-old Anand, have been selected to play for French club FC Metz. Though the boys could not elaborate on the junior's programme they have been selected for, they proudly flaunt their Metz jerseys.

"We have even created a special jingle for Delhi Dynamos. We have been in the stadium to catch the action live on multiple occasions, but funding remains a problem. I have spent Rs 15,000 from my pocket to get tickets for all of us. Maybe, the ISL should consider giving us some discounts," Peter said.

Tabrej, a Class 7 student of Sarvodaya Bal Vidyalaya has been to four ISL games already, and is willing to watch a few more. "I watch it on TV regularly and want to attend more matches. My favourite player is Del Piero," the 11-year-old said.

Mohammad Tanjeer, 17, is among the academy's brightest sparks. "He has two troublesome brothers. His father is a mason and mother works as a maid. His father assaults his mother every single day and Tanjeer wants to make life better for his mother via football," said Peter.

Tanjeer was selected by DSK Liverpool International Academy in Pune earlier this year. However, the academy, supported by Liverpool FC, remains out of bounds for Tanjeer for want of funds.

"We needed about Rs 5.3 lakh to send Tanjeer (abroad) and we don't have that kind of money. Tanjeer was a drug addict. He used to sleep inside dustbins, but football has helped him come out of that life. It took me five years to change him," Peter said.

The ISL, however, has come as a ray of hope for Tanjeer. "Some guys from Delhi Dynamos have approached me, but I don't know yet. Given a chance, I'd like to play in ISL. I follow it on TV regularly," he said.

"On one of our recent visits to the JLN Stadium, we met Zico. We waited for him well after the match got ever, and it was very gracious of him to actually come and meet us when he was about to board his bus. He even posed for photographs with us," Tanjeer added.

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