An infectious cackle of laughter fills the ground as a bunch of five-year-old schoolchildren dribble colourful footballs behind Colaba’s RC Church in Mumbai. Two coaches and a few mothers watch from the sidelines, as do 23-year-old Atul Gupta and 33-year-old Arpreet Bajaj—too young to be ambitious parents raising the next Wayne Rooney, too concerned to be just curious spectators.
Gupta and Bajaj run a football academy called Soccer Schools of Excellence (SSE), probably the latest entrant in a potentially lucrative business that’s more often than not propelled by genuine passion for football. They are one of several academies that have been cropping up steadily in the city, their numbers impossible to ascertain. The people getting their hands dirty, the founders of these academies, come from varied fields—former footballers, international franchises, soccer moms or just entrepreneurs—as Mumbai sits on the cusp of a football revolution.
Free kick: The Premier India Football Academy trains 600 students across eight centres in Mumbai. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
Hundreds of children above the age of 4 are joining these academies, which are run professionally with modern methods and international inputs. With encouragement from parents across classes, Mumbai is raising a generation of young wannabe footballers not blinded by Sachin Tendulkar’s genius, but enamoured of David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
Till last year, Gupta worked as a research analyst with Edelweiss and Bajaj was a New York-based stockbroker. Personal issues led them to get involved with family businesses in Mumbai, and play football in the backyard again. But this time, their professionally trained business minds saw an opportunity.
“We would see 40-50 children on different grounds being trained by one coach in an unorganized manner and realized that more needs to be done,” says Gupta. “There was a demand, but not a structure.” SSE started in February, and now has 96 children from different schools. They are trained in batches by five coaches of the academy.
Play ball: (top) Children at the Soccer Schools of Excellence, which Atul Gupta (above, left) and Arpreet Bajaj started. Photographs by Kaushik Chakravorty / Mint
The husband and wife duo of Nirvan and Anjali Shah runs the Premier India Football Academy (Pifa), which has 600 children across eight centres in the 4-18 age group. Their USP, since 2003, is to take children to camps in the UK—10-day trips that include training at clubs such as Manchester United and Liverpool, among others, playing friendly matches with local teams and watching a Premiership match.
Dennis Fernandes, an engineer with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, mentors Steadfast Sports and Adventure Academy (SSAA), a venture with a social cause: creating sports ambassadors. He says that of their “300-400 children, one-two may make football a career, but the others would benefit in health, social interaction and becoming lifelong fans of the sport”.
These are just a few names: Their agendas might be slightly different but there is a commonality about the academies. They want their coaches to be well-trained and conversant with modern methods. Many are trying to bring in an “international element”—be it trainers from Europe or sending children on package tours to Madrid. Most say they are either making a profit or getting close to it, or at least see the potential for it.
Parents such as Asha Prakash Shinde, whose 15-year-old-son Pratik trains with Steadfast, are so eager to send their children on the foreign trips that they are willing to make significant sacrifices. Shinde, whose husband died a year ago, works in housekeeping and says she might take a loan to send Pratik to a camp in the UK in mid-July. She was even willing to sell a piece of land the family owns in Pune. “He works hard and this makes him happy. This is our hope,” says Shinde.
In the late 1990s, when ESPN started telecasting the English Premier League (EPL) live, it gave Indian audiences a weekly taste of international football and generated the first spark of interest. TAM figures show that the EPL reached 37 million people in 2009, over 25% of these viewers in the age group of 15-24, with 12% viewers under 14.
The change in mindset that is propelling interest has come not only from EPL-induced popularity but also from parents. Anjali Shah says the parents she deals with do not complain about their children neglecting academics any more. The generation that was introduced to international football two decades ago through television is now the well-earning young parent who sees potential in the sport as a career.
People associated with the sport feel Sunil Chhetri’s entry into the American Major League Soccer (MLS) will give the sport added impetus. It will also help that Chhetri is in the same league as Beckham, one of the men who has unknowingly inspired a generation of young footballers.