Football Expert Views
Our ultimate goal is to see Nepal playing football at the highest level in 10 years - Sudeep Sharma, Co-Founder and CEO of NSL
The Nepal Super League has completed its inaugural season with Kathmandu Rayzrs FC winning the first league title, for some it may seem like a small step towards top flight franchise based football in the country, for many others it's a big step towards promoting the sport and getting exposure by being in the football news. The NSL is giving aspiring footballers in the country a chance to fulfill their dreams and make the sport a viable career option, which will eventually raise the standard of football and the profile of the national team for years to come.
In an exclusive interview with SPOGO, Sudeep Sharma, Co-Founder and CEO of Nepal Super League speaks about it’s creation, reception, grassroot development, overcoming challenges, dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, involvement of international players and future goals.
Q 1) What led you to create the Nepal Super League? What sort of reception has it received?
This plan (to create the Nepal Super League) was initially created by our team along with the ANFA President in 2018 but we needed to wait for a few years before we finally started the Nepal Super League. Our mission is to create a positive impact in the life of youth through sports. "Youth development through sports" has been our motto since the inception of the league. This is what always drives us to do better for the Nepali youth and society. The reception has been really overwhelming. Support from players, fans, media and everyone else has been inspiring. We've so many positive things to take from this season.
Q 2) How much of an impact has Nepal Super League made at the grassroot level?
It is our first step towards creating a proper platform for Nepali footballers. We've been able to create a base or let's say a stepping stone has been created. Our primary focus is youth development through sports, hence we always aim to work towards this goal. Talking about the impact the Nepal Super League has made at the grassroots, I'd happily like to share that 5 uncapped boys have made their debut in the national side after their performance in NSL. These talented boys who were in C and D category initially played a remarkable role for their team and were picked by the national coach. I believe there is still a long way to go for grassroots development but we've started our journey towards it. I'd also like to add, our franchises are also eager to work for the grassroots development through their academy, age level tournaments etc. It's an essential part of Nepal Super League teams to have their own youth academy and we'll work towards it soon.
Q 3) What are the various challenges that you have faced to make Nepal Super League a reality? How did you overcome those challenges?
There have been numerous challenges since the start of the Nepal Super League. The stadium was going through reconstruction after the devastating 2015 earthquake when we initiated the plan. Then as we all know that the pandemic struck in 2019 and things were kept at standstill but our team worked together to overcome all the challenges and we were able to pull it off during this difficult time. We also got very positive support from the National Sports Council and the Nepal Government.
Q 4) How has the participation of international players boosted the standards of Nepal Super League? How beneficial would the presence of foreign players benefit Nepal’s homegrown talent?
21 International players and foreign coaches from various countries putting their best effort was an icing on the cake for the Nepal Super League. This has been one of the highlights of the NSL and will certainly help the upcoming youth players. Sharing the same dressing room with the foreign players will give them an opportunity to learn a lot and at the end of the day this will help boost their confidence. This will ultimately help for the upliftment of Nepali football.
Q 5) How did the Nepal Super League navigate through the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic to ensure the league is conducted safely?
This was a very challenging task of course. We followed all the guidelines issued by the Health Ministry of Nepal. All safety precautions were followed at the stadium, hotels and elsewhere. We're thankful to all seven franchises who followed all the guidelines to ensure hundred percent safety of players and the whole squad. The Nepal Super League Health Department closely monitored this process and didn't compromise on any issues.
Q 6) What are your goals and ambitions for the Nepal Super League in the future? How do you plan to achieve them?
We are really happy that we're able to create a platform for the future. We plan to create an ecosystem where all teams function in a proper manner and have created a blueprint for it. In the coming years, the Nepal Super League will run in a caravan format in at least three cities. Double round robin league that would run for at least six months is our priority. Ultimately, we plan to run the league in a home and away format after a couple of years. Along with all seven franchises, we plan to create our own stadiums, youth academies in all seven regions of Nepal. This is a dream created by our chairperson Ashrayata Karki Chaudhary and we've been working very hard along with her to achieve it. Our ultimate goal is to see Nepal playing at the highest level in the next 10 years.
Hyderya Sports FC aims to play in the I-League and Indian Super League - Syed Akeel, Chief Executive Officer
It’s only fitting that one of the most beautiful places on our planet is a location where the ‘beautiful game’ of football is played. Kashmir has endured its fair share of difficulties, but football is proving to be a welcome distraction for the Kashmiri youth, who are not only keeping up to date with the latest football news, but are also being given the opportunity to showcase their talent and skills at a professional stage.
In an exclusive interview with Syed Akeel, the Chief Executive Officer at Hyderya Sports FC spoke about his vision for the club, grassroot development, overcoming challenges, navigating the COVID-19 pandemic and future goals.
Q 1) What is your vision for Hyderya Sports FC? What needs to be done to make it a reality?
Right from the beginning, Hyderya Sports FC has been trying to involve players from all over Kashmir. We want to promote players who don’t have basic equipment or training at the grassroot level and give them a big platform to perform. Our vision is to participate in the I-League, a national level tournament and after that if things go well we would also participate in the Indian Super League which is a goal for the future. To make this vision a reality, we are dedicating a lot of time going to many districts to scout for players. Kashmir has the talent, but unless we don’t give talented players the opportunities it will be wasted. We create such opportunities at the district levels and rural areas by spending money from our own pockets. We are associated with one of Brazil’s academies and in the future, our goal is to start our own academy.
Q 2) How does Hyderya Sports FC aim to promote football at the grassroots to unearth more local talent?
We do trials in every district after a duration of three months. The selectors decide if an aspiring footballer is capable of playing for Hyderya Sports FC and our talented coaches teach players techniques and brush up their skills. At the grassroot level, we face challenges when the parents don’t allow their child to play, and it becomes our job to motivate and convince them. We want the youth to play football instead of taking drugs and that’s why providing opportunities in football is very important.
Q 3) As Chief Executive Officer of Hyderya Sports FC, what are the different challenges that you have faced and how did you overcome them?
Managing a club in Kashmir is a really tough challenge, as there is a limited time when practice can be held and not many grounds to play on. There is only one turf to play on in Kashmir and the other grounds are not well maintained or equipped which increases the risk of injuries for players. Fayaz Ahmad Sofi, President of the District Football Association in Jammu & Kashmir has played a great role in promoting football at the district level. He helps us with solutions whenever there are problems such as the two lockdowns we have experienced, article 370 and our sponsors stopped supporting us at that time. It was very difficult to but over time we devised a plan with the help of the management and football association where we all came up with solutions. Other clubs get special grants, but Hyderya Sports FC has not got a single rupee from the governmen.
Q 4) How has Hyderya Sports FC navigated through the COVID-19 pandemic? How much of an impact has it made to the club?
It really hurt us as the team was preparing for the I-League, we have to participate in one of the qualifying rounds from Jammu & Kashmir. Players were already here while some were struck outside and were not allowed to come here due to COVID. There was a lot of stress as Players were stuck in their rooms and were not authorized to go out. We came up with an initiative to bring each and every team member, associate and management to Zoom meetings. Providing them with lectures, proper training on how we can come up with this in order to keep our players stress free as it affects their performance. For example, if players are taking on the field after two months, there could be a lot of issues and injuries as well. Hence my technical team and directors were up to the mark, also my physiotherapist guided them well on remaining at the top of their fitness and what diet needs to be followed everyday. Although we were not authorised to go anywhere and were working from home, each and every player was updated through zoom meetings regarding everything.
Q 5) According to you, what needs to be done for aspiring footballers in Kashmir to consider the sport as a viable career option?
Kashmir is blessed with a lot of talent and we have a lot of clubs and teams which are owned by government organizations or corporate houses. We have a J & K Bank Football Team, who has accommodated a few players on payroll so the team management or club doesn't have to pay the players. According to us there should be a proper platform for each and every player wherein players can promote themselves. We have a lot of other clubs here but in the name of Kashmir they enrolled players from outside. Majority of players are from outside and they are not promoting players from grassroot levels. We hope that with the blessing of God, help from the management and the Football Association, we will be able to bring a change in this. Mr. Fayaz Ahmad Sofi, the District President of Football Association and has always been there for support and often comes with his technical team and interacts with people and their family members. Besides, we also have a female team where we promote girls as well, to participate in games and break free from their stress as the lockdown in Kashmir began in August and we are still in the same position since then.
Q 6) What are the future goals of Hyderya Sports FC? How does the football club plan to achieve them?
The future goal for Hyderya Sports FC is to qualify for the I-League. We want to play in the I-League this year and after that we want to qualify for the first division, ]which will make the team play in every corner of the country. You must be aware of teams like Mohun Bagan and Real Kashmir, they are the first division teams. Right now we are in the second division and once we qualify, we will be in the first division wherein we can promote the candidates or players. We also plan to participate in the Indian Super League in future.
My aim is to train champion athletes and ensure that they bring laurels to the country.- Chelston Pinto, Strength and Conditioning Coach of FC Bengaluru United
The demands of sports in today’s day and age requires athletes to remain at the peak of their physical and mental prowess. With sports science, data driven analysis and high performance training, athletes are constantly breaking records and pushing the boundaries of what the human body can achieve even further.
To delve deeper into this topic, Mr. Chelston Pinto, strength and conditioning coach at FC Bengaluru United speaks about his journey so far, the growth of fitness in India, the importance of mental training, overcoming challenges, working with different sporting organizations, maintaining fitness during the lockdown and his future goals in this exclusive interview with SPOGO.
Q 1) What motivated you to get involved in strength and conditioning? How much potential do you see in India for the growth of fitness?
I’ve played sports from a very young age and when I made the transition, it was clear to me that I wanted to be connected with sports throughout my life. During my teenage years, when I was playing, I faced a lot of challenges with regards to training and injuries so when I finished my graduation, I joined a training center and felt it was the right way forward. I wanted to take up strength and conditioning, become a coach to help future generations of athletes to perform at their maximum capacity. Over the last few years, fitness has really caught up not just amongst athletes but the general population as well. There are a number of football pitches that have come up on rent as well as badminton courts and it attracts the corporate crowd to step out and play. There are a number of running groups across the country and that has motivated the general population to run on the weekends and practice by themselves during the week. The main reason I see so many people taking up fitness in India especially is because of online fitness influencers and the number of gyms that are opening. They have spread the word about how fitness can be really beneficial to someone. This is just the start and over the next few years I can really see fitness booming, especially with more qualified coaches coming in and a lot more education about the right fitness movements, nutrition and performance guides.
Q 2) How do you balance fitness with all the other activities in life? What is your day to day routine?
I don’t have a fixed structure to my day because I have to depend on the athletes and teams that I work with. For me, playing football and my strength routine is something I do regularly and as a strength and conditioning coach it’s very important for me to stay fit throughout the year and work on myself continuously so that I can deliver the best to my athletes.
Q 3) At the highest level, when the margins are so less between the strength and conditioning of elite athletes, how important of a role does mental health play?
Mental training is as important as physical or skills training. I feel that if an athlete cannot handle pressure, more often than not he or she will come out with an unfavourable result. It’s very important for athletes and coaches to design programmes where training is done under stress, fatigue and pressure situations so that they meet those demands that are expected of them in a game-like situation. Those situations need to be created while the athlete is training and I believe it’s very important for an athlete to go through this a number of times before doing it in a match. During a competition, there is a lot more pressure at the highest level with regards to the crowds coming in, there’s a lot more at stake but with experience athletes can handle it better. We as the general population must understand that athletes are just human beings and are bound to make errors at some point of time. They should not be judged as extraordinary individuals who need to deliver all the time. It’s the responsibility of the media and fans to be a little more realistic with regards to results they expect from athletes just so that we maintain a good ecosystem around the sport.
Image credit: FC Bengaluru United
Q 4) What are the various challenges that you have had to overcome in your journey so far?
The first one would be education, with regards to strength and conditioning, we don’t have a top quality degree or a masters in India. For coaches to specialize in this field, they have to go abroad which is not financially viable because in the end most of us or me in particular want to help the athletes of our country. Secondly, entering the sports industry as a beginner was difficult because 10 years ago people were not accepting the fact that a newcomer wants to come in the industry. I’ve had to face a lot of no’s at the beginning but it taught me to be self dependent, make my way up the ladder by myself and I could handle that because of the lessons sports has taught me, that when you’re down you need to pick yourself back up. It took me a few years but I’m glad I went through it because today I can see the younger generation going through the same and it’s only right for me to guide them and also to show them the hard way. I know for sure that if you’re self dependent, you learn by yourself and figure out a way to reach the top, that’s the best life lesson you can have. Even though my goal was always to train athletes so that they can perform to their maximum ability, I had to start with the general population. I had to understand people, learn how to sell and these are skills that still help me and I’m glad I was exposed to a wide variety of people with different objectives such as fat loss, housewives who wanted some sort of physical activity during the day. Elderly people who wanted exercises so they don’t have back pain and that experience really helped me. When I came up the ladder, training athletes was a lot easier because I started training at the grassroots, kids from the age of 8 to 10, 10 to 12, 12 to 14. I’ve gone through the whole process and it really helps me take care of a wide variety of athletes from different sports.
Q 5) Which are the different sporting organizations that you have worked with? How does the training regime differ from one sport to another?
I started my career as a group trainer in a gym, training the general population. I did that for about two years and then got myself certified for personal training and group training. Later I started my own company called Rapid Sport Fitness where I initially began training the general public at rented 5 aside grounds and in government parks. I had a passion for sports and ensured that I transfer that passion to the people I train. For example, even though we were training for three days a week, most of the people had a goal of running 10kms or playing a game of football or badminton during the weekend and my aim was to ensure that they play the game pain free and to their maximum potential. The aim of my training was to ensure whatever work I do with them in terms of strength and conditioning transfers into their sport at the end of the week. It gave them a goal while they were training and that caught on, so from one centre I moved to seven different centres across Bangalore and six months later I had gathered myself enough to start a small gym and continued with my outdoor programs. I also started training athletes at grassroots levels at that point of time. I grew with the team, got a couple of partners who helped me grow my brand and one and half years later I moved into a much bigger space in the heart of the city in Bangalore where I got a 7500 sq ft gym. That was a performance centre where I trained athletes and the general public. I tied up with a lot of academies and teams and in a way I was living up to my dream. Along the way I trained at a lot of tennis academies, the most notable of them being the Rohan Bopanna Tennis Academy which I continue to train with my team. We have a structure at the sports school in Kanakapura where we run an entire performance program. Apart from that I also train FC Bengaluru United where I have a dual role of player cum coach. These are the two major organizations I am currently working with. Prior to this there were plenty of football academies, tennis academies, track and field athletes, some International hockey players and a few Ranji Trophy cricketers that I had trained.
Q 6) What would be your advice to people with regards to maintaining fitness at home during the lockdown?
We are all going through a difficult time and it's important for us to keep ourselves physically active because of the numerous benefits it could have in defeating the virus. First things first , move around as much as possible. Even for people who are working from home it is important that they make sure they are moving out of their seats every 20 to 30 minutes, walk a few steps, move around and stretch a bit. Apart from that, if people should workout at least four to five times a week for a minimum of 30 minutes depending on what they like-it could be yoga, strength or High Intensity Workouts (HIIT) to keep themselves fit and mentally in a good space. I also recommend everyone to start with at least 5 to 10 minutes of meditation anytime during the day. It will really help their breathing and their mental space. Also there are plenty of programs available these days with online fitness coaches, gyms doing online sessions, and a lot of professionals that are willing to offer help. Just with the help of a few bands, you can do a lot of work with regards to your body to keep yourself healthy. Ideally there should not be any excuses with regard to not having gyms open or being able to go outdoors. Staying fit can happen anywhere, you only need to be determined to do it.
Q 7) What is your vision and goals for the future? How do you plan to accomplish them?
My goal is to ensure that sports is accessible to all people in the country and just to spread the awareness of fitness and living a balanced lifestyle. My vision would be to scout, nurture, educate and train champion athletes and ensure that they perform at the highest level and bring laurels to the country.
Indian football is a sleeping giant with a lot of untapped potential
Mumbai born footballer Karan Sawhney’s journey is an inspiring story of talent, hard work and the courage to pursue his dream. From playing in the I-League and Indian Super League to working behind the scenes as an expert commentator at Star Sports, he has done it all and is setting his sights higher.
In an exclusive interview with SPOGO, Karan reflects on his journey so far, the challenges faced by footballers in India, the importance of mental health, his fitness ventures and plans for the future.
When did your love for football begin and when did you feel that it’s a sport you can pursue professionally?
I started playing football when I was 7 years old. It started with inter school matches, playing on the beach, on the streets of Bombay. That’s when I realized I love this game and want to pursue it as a career. My dad was a cricketer and initially I started playing cricket but when I started representing Maharashtra at the Under 13 level in football, my love for the game only grew from then onwards. I just went with it and progressed to the Under 14, Under 16 and after my 10th grade in school I was selected by Tata Football Academy, a residential academy where you have to train for 4 years. Only 18 players are selected in India and that’s where my professional career began, in 2008.
Taking a trip down memory lane, how was your experience being at the youth set up of Mahindra United? You have also scored against the Inter Milan Academy side, tell us more about that.
Mahindra United was one of the only professional teams at that time in Mumbai. I was selected when I was 12 so I was lucky to get that professional training at such a young age. It really helped me develop my skills and physicality while I was there. Speaking about Inter Milan, this happened in 2009 when two of us from the Tata Football Academy were selected to play in the Gauteng Future Stars Tournament. It was an Inter Club World Cup Under 17. Inter Milan was in the same group as us along with Kaizer Chiefs from South Africa and another team from Africa. We were excited to play a team of such a stature and even though we conceded two goals, we didn’t give up. We got a freekick, there was a deflection right outside the box, I controlled it on my chest and saw an opening at the first post and curled it past the goalkeeper. We celebrated like we won the match because it was a really proud moment for all of us in the team.
Who were your idols in the world of football as you were growing up?
It started with David Beckham because of his personality and he was one of the few players we would see in the media. My real idol has been Cristiano Ronaldo, I’ve always admired him, loved his game because of his work ethic. He has played for different clubs in the world, he has been the top scorer in different leagues, he has won the best player award multiple times and I’ve heard stories about him from my coach at Kerala Blasters René Meulensteen who coached Ronaldo at Manchester United. He was coach under Sir Alex Ferguson for seven or eight seasons and also won the Champions League with Ronaldo. He used to tell us that Ronaldo was the first one to come to training and the last one to leave. That really inspired me that in spite of him achieving everything he has in world football, he’s still the hardest worker in the room.
Who are the people who have supported you the most in your journey so far?
My parents have supported me throughout my career, any decision that I have made in football, whether it was moving to Jamshedpur at the age of 15 because most of my friends were going to university at that time or choosing professional careers in different fields, my mom and dad supported me throughout because this is something that has never happened in my school. Nobody from my school has played in the Indian Super League or the I-League. It was a tough choice because leaving a city like Mumbai and going to Jamshedpur for four years. Even though they were worried, I had their 100% support right from the age of 7 until now.
What are the challenges that aspiring footballers face in India? What can be done to solve them?
One of the challenges that young footballers face is the access to professional training that is not easily available in India, If you go to a village in the Netherlands or Spain, you have top academies in every three kilometers and you have a lot of football grounds everywhere and access to good coaches at the grassroot level, which is a good set up at an early age. For example, the training I received at the age of 15 or 16, players in Europe receive that kind of training at the age of 6 or 7. Just like any other sport or profession, repetition is key and you need to train a certain number of hours in a certain way to really push forward and achieve greatness in that field. I would say that the Indian Super League and the I-League has brought about a massive change in terms of grassroot levels in the last few years, but there is a long way to go. You need residential academies, a professional set up, especially in cities like Mumbai or Goa where there is so much talent but a lot of parents do not encourage their children to take up football as a sport. I think that can change once the grassroot set up changes.
Do you think footballers in India need to work on the technical aspects of the game rather than their work ethic?
In 90 minutes, an Indian footballer would probably run as much if not more compared to European footballers but I would say that more than technically it’s the awareness and getting that kind of training at an early age along with nutrition and access to sports science. When I was at Tata Football Academy, Kerala Blasters or Bengaluru FC, a lot of importance was given to what the player does off the pitch as well. If you’re training for three or four hours a day, what you do for the next twenty hours is the most important. The way you eat, sleep, strength training and the way you think, which is the most important. Indian football is a sleeping giant, there is a lot of potential and if this set up becomes a part of it then there’s no looking back.
How important is mental health in the life of a footballer?
If you speak about any sport, they say you are only as good as your last game and there are so many ups and downs in football every single day. Today you could be a star of your dressing room, of your fans, your club or country, but the next day you could be the villain so prioritizing mental health is very important. We had sports psychologists in certain clubs that I played for where even the coaches guide and advice you that you shouldn't let emotions affect your game, what they mean is that if you score a hat trick, that shouldn't get into your head or you have missed a winner or scored your goal or anything else, that shouldn't get inside your heart. You should find a balance between both and that's why mental health is so important. A lot of football players, especially the younger ones get affected very easily, so a sports psychologist coming into Indian football will really help in changing the mindset not only towards the game but also on your approach towards the game, your approach on how you handle winning a game, winning a tournament and also defeats.
How has your experience been at the I-League and the Indian Super League?
It’s been the best experience I’ve had so far. I’ve been playing football for the last 16 years and the struggle of getting into professional football is hard, but is worth it if you stick around. The facilities of the Indian Super League right now are world class. The coaches that you train under, the way nutrition is taken care of and the teammates you get to play with are at a very high level. I was at Kerala Blasters in the same team as two of my idols, Wes Brown and Dimitar Berbatov. That wouldn’t happen if I hadn’t reached this level. The kind of insights you get from these kinds of players that have played at that level is unmatchable. The experience of winning matches, playing under 60,000 fans, especially in Kerala the Manjappada fans are the noisiest and the best fans in the world who I have played under and The West Block Blues of Bengaluru FC. The experience has taught me so many things, such as not to let things get to your heart. There are certain instances when the fans are all for you, supporting you but there are also instances where your team is not winning and about handling pressure. It’s key because if you’ve been a professional footballer at that level, most of the players can then go ahead and take on any challenges that life throws at you head on. Football is such a game where you have ups and downs probably at every moment. In one second, you may have given a great pass but in the other second you might not have tracked back or made a major mistake which has led to your team conceding. This experience that I have received personally has helped me grow as an individual, shaped my personality, my communication skills and also the way I take decisions in life.
You are involved in various fitness initiatives such as Fitness Legacy Continues and The Tribe, tell us more about them.
Starting with Fitness Legacy Continues, this was a gym that my mother and I started in 2016, in Juhu, Mumbai. I have always loved fitness, my family has been in the fitness industry for more than 85 years, so fitness was always in my blood and I have been very passionate about it. Fitness Legacy was started in 2016, it's running very successfully and it's been a great experience and a journey with FLC. Regarding The Tribe, we started it in 2019, I have two other partners, Robin and Anushka with whom I co-founded The Tribe. We started on the beach and on the turf, conducting group sessions as a hobby, but during the lockdown, on the first of April we decided to do a two week virtual program to train people and donate the proceeds to animal shelters and daily wage workers. At the end of two weeks, people started calling and messaging us saying they had a lot of fun and to extend it for another two weeks, thus we thought of going ahead for another two weeks and people started enjoying and seeing results. Since then, because of all of the clients whom we call our friends and the love that we get from them, this has become something that we do full time. We have a virtual platform and have reached out to more than five or six hundred clients, friends from 17 different countries around the world and it's been a lot of fun. Hopefully we are able to deliver and able to put in the same energy day in and day out.
You have also been an expert commentator for the Indian Super League matches. What has that experience been like?
It's been something unreal because it's the first time in my life that I've been behind the scenes in football. I've been an english expert and a Hindi commentator on Star Sports for the Indian Super League. I am getting to know how football works behind the scene and it helps me stay connected to this sport. I love talking about fitness, that is something I can always do and I'm getting to speak about the thing I love the most in this world that is football, that's my first love. It's been a great experience and it comes to me naturally, I don't need to study the topic or think so much about it. I’m getting to work with some of the best experts and commentators such as Paul Masfield and Anant Tyagi. These people have been in the industry, Masefields has also been a commentator in the Premier League while Anant Tyagi has been in Indian football since the inception of the ISL. I’m getting to learn so much from them and more importantly, it helps me stay connected and talk about the sport that I love.
What are your plans for the future?
Right now I’m completely focused on virtual fitness and being an expert commentator for the Indian Super League. These are the two things that I’m currently focused on. My plans on virtual fitness, to elaborate a little more about that is to be able to cater to as many people across the world and get India on the map in terms of virtual fitness. Not many individuals in India are doing virtual fitness as a career, but the three of us have started conducting different types of training such as functional, strength and conditioning, kickboxing, yoga and we give a lot of importance to mental health and also nutrition. We want to give this offering to as many people across the globe, reach out to people in the interiors of Africa, established countries in Europe and America. I also want to be an expert commentator on Star Sports and help Indian football reach the Asian Championships which we already have. Mumbai City FC has already reached the AFC Champions League, FC Goa has also reached the AFC Champions League. I want to see the Indian national team achieve great heights and win the World Cup.
With the increasing popularity of football amongst the younger generation, what message would you have for young, aspiring footballers in the country?
When I say young footballers in the country, I mean the players in the age group of 12-15 because when you are making a decision to play football professionally, those 3-4 years are key for you to develop your skills , your physicality, so my only message is to be consistent. Football is a sport which at the end of the day shouldn't affect you or your heart, so staying consistent through the ups and downs is very important. The most important thing is to believe in yourself. If you believe you are good enough, nothing else matters and those three or four years from the age of 12 - 16 are formative years where consistency is key. It’s important to stay disciplined because it's easy to get distracted at that age and let the outside world affect you. If you give yourself four of five years of consistency and discipline towards the sport you love, then there is no looking back.
The power of sports brings communities together and builds memories that last a lifetime
Few things unite people as effectively as sports. In a country like India full of diversity, sports brings everyone together in a way nothing else does. Sports is not just what you see on the television, it all starts with playing on the street, in your locality and with your friends. It’s the bedrock which lays a foundation for every sporting competition at the highest level.
In an exclusive interview with SPOGO, we spoke to Siddarth Sabapathy, Director at Community Football Club of India and founder of Sporko Sports, a sports management company and academy with over 600 kids in 10 centers across Mumbai. He spoke about the benefits of community sports, the challenges that he has faced at the grassroot level, participation of women in sports, India’s potential and sporting culture and his future goals.
Sports has always been an activity that involves the community, what is your understanding of community sports and it’s benefits?
I’d like to share a short story about this. When I was in college we used to play football in local maidans and grounds which is when we realized that we should start something where all of us can play football in a more structured and easier manner. We started a small league in the area of Vile Parle in Mumbai called the Vile Parle Premier League. We organized that league for 7 years and we used to have 1500 to 2000 spectators by the fifth and sixth year who were locals from Vile Parle, Andheri and the suburban parts of Mumbai. That’s where we understood the power of sports because it gets the community together and helped people bond over the game of football. That league was my first experience in how a sport can build a community. Sports is always considered a recreational activity but it’s more than that. It’s about the connections we make that can last forever. It taught me how a community can be shaped through sports.
According to you, how vital of a role does community sports play in the upliftment of the impoverished?
Sports is the best way to give equal opportunities irrespective of financial status, caste, creed, gender or religion. One of the major powers attributed to sports is the upliftment of the community. At the Community Football Club of India we have seen that when individuals play sports, they leave everything else behind and develop values such as leadership. One example from our Academy is that the coaches ensure that young children aged under 10 and 12 respect elders and say no to racism. Sports have the ability to imbibe such wonderful values in kids at such a young age and we hope they take it along until the end.
What are the challenges that you have faced in promoting community football? What can be done to overcome those challenges?
We come from such diverse backgrounds because Mumbai is such a cosmopolitan city and one of the biggest challenges we face is that sports is not looked upon as a viable profession by parents or stakeholders. Even though there is nothing wrong in sports being played recreationally because it improves your health and stamina, sports played professionally at a district or state level is not considered seriously because footballers are not paid. Unlike other sports like cricket, football is not lucrative or sustainable as a professional career. We also need more clubs because we only have a few ISL and I-League football clubs but we need 2nd division clubs. In Maharashtra, we used to have 5-6 clubs six or seven years ago but unfortunately now due to various circumstances most of the clubs had to shut shop. We only have one football club in the whole of Maharashtra which is a big challenge. Community Football Clubs like ours are semi-professional clubs and are the second part of the ladder. We need more clubs that we can feed our players to and even though Mumbai City FC is a blessing, we need more such clubs to pick up players from the youth team. Coach education is another challenge and we need refresher courses that help coaches evolve their knowledge and learn new techniques which unfortunately does not happen. I feel our coaching is still very traditional and even though the process is happening, it needs to be expedited. We are far better than where we were before but it has a long way to go. Convincing parents that football is a viable career option is another major challenge especially for middle class and upper middle class players. These are some of the challenges on the broader scale and even though people blame infrastructure as a challenge, I believe it’s the optimum utilization of infrastructure which can only be done with more competition.
How important of a factor is community sports to encourage more women to participate especially in the rural areas?
That’s a major challenge and only in the last 2-3 years has football for women been promoted even in the urban areas. Participation of women in football has increased recently because of a better IWL (Indian Women’s League), the number of teams that participate in it along with recreational football leagues that have come up such as the Women’s League. In rural areas, if we are able to train girls when they are young then they will have a better view of sports. I would like to share an experience about a girl who started playing with us from the age of 8 but when she turned 14 her father refused to let her play football because people at her house did not want her to play with boys. The challenge was that we didn’t have enough girls playing football because unfortunately it’s considered to be a ‘manly’ sport, especially in rural areas. If that perception changes, we will see a lot more participation, especially in rural areas. In the urban areas, that perception is already changing especially because of the AFC Championship that will be played for women. Seeing women footballers on the television will help convince many parents to support their daughters to pursue football as a career. There are already role models for women in cricket, badminton or tennis and even though there are role models in football such as Ngangom Bala Devi who represented Rangers in the Scottish League and Aditi Chauhan who has played for West Ham, we still need more especially rural women to become role models to inspire more girls to participate in the rural areas.
How much potential for growth do you see in Mumbai and India as a whole in football? What needs to be done to fulfill that potential?
I believe we have a lot of potential because there are so many individuals playing football either at a recreational level or the professional level. Unfortunately, what we lack is a ladder where if a child who is playing at the school level wants to pursue it further, there is a vacuum between the ages of 16 to 20. We require more tournaments, matches, scouting programs and I think that’s very essential. A lot of talent gets wasted at that age (16 to 20) because a good player at 14 or 15 playing at the school MSSA level will normally end up playing at the Mumbai Football Association in their respective divisions such as the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, Super or Elite but there are not many competitive games at that age group which has created a vacuum. In Europe or South America, players at the same age group get very good competitive exposure and that’s where we lack. If that can be worked upon, which is already happening and India has hosted the Under 17 World Cup for boys and girls and we are looking at hosting the Under 19 and 21 as well. The biggest challenge will be the competitions we can create for the youth and if we can overcome it, which I’m sure we can in the coming years then we will be able to create better professional footballers and we will see better results with the national team. It’s a work in progress but we are better than where we were a decade before.
How important are initiatives promoting sports such as football at the community level to raise the overall standard of sport in the country?
For any footballer, their first brush with the sport is the local league that they have played in and this principle applies to any sport. Community Leagues increase participation for any sports because more people start liking the sports and this leads to representing their local teams which is the beginning of their football career. Education seminars about the prospects of pursuing football as a career also goes a long way in convincing the parents to support their children. Football other than a career also teaches values such as leadership, teamwork and discipline. These factors create a conducive atmosphere for the growth of football and community level football leagues are definitely required. Community level leagues also help participants make new friends and memories that are cherished for a lifetime. Not everyone who plays football wants to make it a career, many play recreationally but unfortunately we do not promote participation in sports. There are parents who would only support their child if there is a possibility of him becoming a player but if there is no chance of that happening then the child cannot play football. Many footballers who come into the sport are involved because of the fun of it and Community Football Leagues retain that enjoyment.
Do you think India needs a ‘sporting culture’ for the youth to consider sports other than cricket a viable career option?
With 11 clubs in the ISL, many I-League and 2nd division clubs, parents have started considering football as a career option. Unfortunately, due to India’s population and few clubs, not everybody can make it big. Remuneration is important at the district and state level which requires small sponsors and investors to create sustainability at that level. At the age of 19-20 when an individual is making a decision for the future, having some sort of scholarship or rules similar to what exist in the IPL where Under 22 players are mandatory will help more young people join the sport while getting some remuneration. There needs to be a return of investment because parents will not invest beyond a certain point. Small leagues that give medals or get a sponsor to help footballers at the age group of 16 - 18 will ensure fewer dropouts and more individuals pursuing the sport professionally. Football also has a short shelf life and after a certain age, the body does not support playing the sport at the highest level. There needs to be a plan for a post playing career and footballers need to be well taken care of after retirement. Sustaining footballers after retirement due to age or injuries through government jobs or a scheme will help convince more parents to support their children in pursuing the sport.
As Director of the Community Football Club of India, what are your plans for the future?
We are a feeder club that identifies talent and gives them a platform to perform. We also provide solutions to problems at the grass root level that exist in whichever cities we go to. For example: if Mumbai does not have many youth football tournaments, we will organize them and help the District Associations to start their own leagues at the Under 8, 10, 12, 14 and 16 level. We recently organized a small league in the months of December - January for Under 20’s and ensured all the COVID precautions were taken. As an Academy, our goal will always be to identify talent, take them to a certain level and try to help them progress to the next level at a club which plays in the ISL or the I-League. My dream or my ambition one day would be to see if we can play in the I-League 2nd division and go up the ranks. That’s still far away because we have to create a sustainable model at the top level by taking it step by step. Right now we are quite comfortable in introducing children to the sport, teaching them the nuances of football and solving the problems that the district or state association faces in our capacity. We are trying to create a small community that started off in Mumbai, we are already doing some work in the Konkan region and we are looking to create a football body in the Ratnagiri district as well. Our focus basically is to teach values of the sport alongside introducing them to the game and take them to a certain level.
Building the right foundation with technical football training
If you ask a football player or coach about the importance of technique, they'll probably say it's one of the most important qualities of a footballer. We regularly see glimpses of the technical ingenuity of players in the European leagues. What's stopping India from producing such talents? There could be a myriad of reasons. Arsene Wenger says that if you don't have the technical ability by the time you’re 14 years of age, you can forget about becoming a professional footballer and most top coaches agree. Does it mean you can't become technically better if you’re more experienced in age? Of course not, you just learn faster at a younger age.
Technique plays a big role in terms of creativity of the players, an area that requires focus in Indian football, as per our national football team coach, Igor Stimach. The idea is only as good as the execution, which usually comes down to technical ability. Technique is crucial when it comes to one’s 1v1 ability as well.
What is technical ability? Technical ability is basically the foundation on which everything else is built. Your dribbling, passing, shooting technique, ball control and everything that you do with the ball.
Countries that are doing well at football have always ensured they have a flourishing grassroots infrastructure in place. They focus on developing a strong technical base for their players from a very young age, as young as 5 or 6, and that remains their primary focus at least until the age of 12. Tom Byer, the author of ‘Soccer starts at Home’, believes kids should be given a football as they’re learning to walk. Many top players like Messi, Neymar, Ronaldo, Iniesta etc started engaging with the ball between the ages of 2-5 years.
They also work a lot on their movement and motor skills. These days everyone spends too much time in front of a screen – either their phones, laptops or their computers, for reasons mostly unavoidable. That is exactly why, almost all people, kids especially, need to move a lot in the outdoors, be in the sun and give their bodies a chance to explore different kinds of movements. Developing problem-solving abilities, having spatial awareness, experiencing teamwork all contribute to making a well rounded footballer. When you’re able to move better, you’ll be able to play better. This is why, when you’re working with kids or adults, it’s always best to look at it with a 360-degree approach - where you work on how efficiently they move along with how good they are with the ball at their feet.
However, in an academy or club setting, it’s difficult to develop these things due to the large numbers of participants and the time restrictions, especially now that artificial turfs here charge a huge sum by the hour. When you have a big group, it provides very little chance to work on individual strengths and more importantly, fill in the gaps in terms of weaknesses due to the fewer number of repetitions. Repetition is everything. Get enough of it and you’ll start to see the change.
Individual training might not require as much space as team training, but a lack of playing space in the urban environment acts as a big obstacle. Public parks, grounds and gardens, while few may be around, aren’t nearly enough. There’s a massive economic and cultural component in this - it’s not possible for everyone to be able to afford to pay every time they wish to play or train. Hence, all the more important that the change happens at a community level. If hands are joined and heads work together, a big first step can be taken in the right direction.
About the author
Deep Moorjani is an ex-pro footballer and an AFC C license football coach. He has represented some top clubs such as Air India (U20 I-League Captain), PIFA (2nd Division I-League), and Castelo Forte (Lisbon, Portugal) among others. He’s the current Head Coach of the Kenkre U12 & U18 I-League teams after having worked as a coach at the Barça Academy, Mumbai and Western Sports Foundation.
Why did the European Super League collapse and what’s in store for the future?
It’s been a roller coaster ride for the football world in the last week with 12 major clubs from across Europe announcing the creation of the European Super League that threatened to rip apart not just the Champions League but the domestic club competitions.
For a better understanding of the subject, let’s go back and try to understand what the European Super League is all about. The ‘founding clubs’ of the newly proposed ESL consists of Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspurs, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Juventus, AC Milan and Inter Milan. The intention was to add three more clubs, possibly the likes of Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Paris St. Germain, however it’s still unclear whether they refused to take part or weren't invited in the first place.
With the global pandemic taking a heavy toll and destabilizing the existing European football economic model, the Super League’s objective was to improve the quality of football matches with blockbuster fixtures where top teams and players could compete with each other regularly. However, if you delve deeper into their business model, the Super League is a ‘closed’ competition in which the founding clubs cannot be relegated based on poor performances and the incentives for clubs to participate in this breakaway league would be purely financial.
When the European Super League was announced last Sunday, the proposal seemed broken and disjointed to say the least. With the involvement of 12 teams in just three countries and seven cities, the announcement not only seemed premature but also unplanned. Managers, players and shareholders were kept in the dark until moments before the press release. There was no PR plan for the day after the announcement, a mediocre website to say the least and no broadcasters on board. What followed was an uproar with fans taking to the streets and social media to vehemently object against financially motivated initiative.
To make matters worse, the managers of these football clubs were left high and dry to face the media while the decision makers lurked in the background waiting for the storm to pass. Manchester City’s manager Pep Guardiola openly criticized the format of the Super League, saying that ‘it’s not a sport when success is guaranteed’. He urged the 12 owners of the founding clubs to explain why they have taken this decision instead of the managers defending the actions of their employers. Liverpool’s manager Jurgen Klopp reiterated his comments about the Super League that he made in 2019 about hoping that the Super League doesn’t happen but the developments are out of his control.
Even footballers spoke against the European Super League with the likes of Bruno Fernandes, Luke Shaw, Marcus Rashford and James Milner making their thoughts clear on the subject. The overwhelming response against the Super League led to Manchester City, Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham quickly announcing their withdrawal from the competition just 48 hours after announcing their participation. This domino effect resulted in Atletico Madrid and Inter Milan also following suit, leading to a swift collapse.
What can we expect from the European Super League in the future? Florentino Perez, the President of the ESL has reiterated that the 4.6 billion pound initiative is on standby and the clubs have signed a ‘binding contract’. Perez remains convinced that the Super League is the way forward to maintain the interest of the younger generation and ensure the financial stability of Europe’s elite football clubs. He has claimed that the partners are working on a new proposal and the Super League is far from over.
The 12 founding clubs face the possibility of sanctions not just by UEFA and FIFA but also from their domestic leagues despite many having already announced their withdrawal from the Super League. The most damaging aspect for these football clubs would not be the monetary loss or the deduction of points but the fractured relationships between the decision makers (owners and chief executives) and the fans. Ed Woodward, Chief Executive of Manchester United has already resigned following the collapse of the European Super League with Chelsea fans calling for the resignation of Bruce Buck, Arsenal fans asking Vinai Venkatesham to step down and Man City’s CEO Ferran Soriano and Liverpool’s chairman Tom Werner finding themselves in similar positions.
It remains to be seen what the future holds for the European Super League but the one thing that has truly come to light is that football club owners are not as powerful as they think. As the legendary football manager Sir Matt Busby once said, “Football is nothing without fans” and that has never been more true than it is today.
How data analytics is helping the German National team fulfil their ambitions
Football is competitive business, both on and off the pitch. The sport is constantly evolving to find newer ways to gain an edge over other teams, and bring in the silverware, glory and jubilation for the fans. A trend we have seen emerging is the use of data analytics that has helped the German National team gain key insights that has helped them dominate the game. The German Football Association teamed up with SAP to use data analytics and improve the Die Mannschaft’s in game strategy. This led to the development of two new groundbreaking technologies, SAP Challenger Insights and SAP Penalty Insights that helps evaluate not only the performance of the Germa n National team’s competitors, but also their own gameplay, player movements and defensive strategies. By analyzing this data, the German National team has been setting their side in a way that can exploit the weaknesses of their competitors and customize their own training programs to suit their players strengths and weaknesses. The key lies in the money invested in the technology used to provide data and the personnel employed to analyze the metrics to give the German team a competitive edge. Taking the data and extracting key insights from it has made the German National team one of the first and most effective adopters of this technology that has played a major role in their success. With the use of data analytics, the German Football Association has managed to tailor in game tactics, optimize player performance and prevent injuries to fulfill their ambitions of becoming a dominant force in the football world. The SAP Match Insights also helps the German National team process vast amounts of player performance data to optimize performance. Video data from 8 on field cameras helps the coaches analyze performance such as speed, position and possession not only of their own players, but also the opponents to tweak the tactics for maximum advantage. Showing this data to the players was as easy as simply sending it to their mobile devices. The SAP DataViz team with SAP Lumira and SAP Predictive Analysis provides visualizations, analysis and infographics at every stage of the tournament to study competitors and individual match - ups between the players before every fixture, leading to German Internationals being better prepared than their counterparts. Football is all about the numbers. Whether it’s goals scored, points gained or lost, speed, accuracy, possession and the list goes on. Amidst the fanatical support football enjoys across the world, it’s the numbers that can make all the difference in deciding whether a team fulfills its aspirations or not. The German National team were one of the first to jump onto the analytics bandwagon, but certainly won’t be the last as other teams run the risk of falling behind in a footballing world that’s constantly evolving. Written by Saad Rashid, Sports Enthusiast. The opinions and views expressed in the blog are strictly personal opinion of the author.