13,47,143 Indians shattered the record for largest attendance at the Under-17 World Cup. With India making its presence felt on Planet Football, it’s time to take stock and make a sobering assessment of where the game is headed. Wiser after their travels to the six World Cup venues – Guwahati, Goa, Kochi, Kolkata, Mumbai and New Delhi – The Indian Express reporters find out how older nurseries at traditional centres have gradually rung hollow. And, football in metros is all style – weekend at EPL sportsbars, FIFA on Playstation and ugly takedowns on Whatsapp – and little substance. This is the fourth part in the series.
Cities that once hosted the country’s most prestigious football tournaments have all but stopped venturing to the stadiums. For Delhi and Mumbai, football now means spending evenings at pubs watching European football while picking up Twitter fights over Mourinho’s managerial skills. Mihir Vasavda and Shahid Judge on the changing club culture and fan loyalty of India’s political and commercial capitals.
It’s 20 minutes to five and a convoy of SUVs snakes on a narrow muddy lane that forks towards a road that seems to be leading nowhere. The skyline of this barren path in Gurgaon features under-construction high-rises. Driving on the road, one will suddenly stumble upon that famous Barcelona FC crest with the St George Cross and yellow-red bars. Then another. And another.
The luxury four-wheelers come to a halt just outside a gate that has a Lionel Messi portrait. Cautious kids disembark from the monster vehicles, dodging past dirty puddles, trying to save their shiny cleats. Each of them is carrying personalised water bottles. A few parents too can be seen. They are carrying fresh clothes, snacks and energy drinks.
FCB Escola, Barcelona’s football school, isn’t just another academy. The facilities here are unmatched — they have a couple of lush green fields — one of them used by India and Colombia to train ahead of the under-17 World Cup — and an artificial turf. The place promises to teach the ‘Barca values’. And also tiki-taka.
“The kids here, they train the same way like Messi, Iniesta or Pique,” an employee boasts. Almost on cue, a trainee performs a couple of step-overs, which draw a few claps and ‘oohs’ from parents sitting inside a tent on the touchline. “Just like the Barcelona stars,” the employee repeats.
Thousands of kilometres away, at Mumbai’s Bandra ground, the scene isn’t too different. Upscale residential buildings surround the open-air playing field that’s strangely divided into halves by a wall. On the less-lighted side that’s muddy, barren and deserted, a handful of kids are kicking a ragged ball. The other side, the brighter half, has a sprawling modern set-up. It has floodlights, artificial pitches, a well-designed drainage system, security personnel manning the entrance, parking area and even a seating area for spectators.
Entry here isn’t free – good things cost good money. And when you note that this is one of the training areas for the Arsenal Soccer School in Mumbai, the fee is bound to be high.
Mumbai and Delhi have been in love with football for years, but over the years, their relationship has changed. They now seem to be in a long-distance relationship.
The two metros have club culture, but not how it used to be. There’s loyalty and fan-following, but not like when players and fans shared kebabs at Old Delhi eateries back in the day. Historically, Mumbai and Delhi have hosted some of the oldest and grandest tournaments in Indian football, which attracted thousands of die-hards every match day. Not anymore, though.
The cities are perfect case studies to gauge the impact cable television — and the subsequent beaming of European football — has had on Indian football.
Football, for most in the two metropolis, is about watching a Premier League match at a pub on a Saturday evening and ranting on Twitter about Mourinho parking the bus, hash-tagging ‘Wenger out’ or venting out frustration over another Liverpool defeat. The battlelines are drawn every Saturday evening — between ‘our’ team and ‘theirs’.
The mad popularity led a BBC business columnist to wonder if the EPL was more valuable to the rest of the world than it is to the English. And the clubs were shrewd enough to gain the most from their staggering popularity.
They started scholarships and opened cafes, got their yesteryear stars and did the occasional ‘namaste’ on TV to woo the Indian audience. But none were able to monetise their popularity. Until the Red Devils came marching in.
“Theatre of Dreams.”
The rickety, life-threatening stands of the Cooperage football ground in Mumbai could never justify such a tag. But the words in bold on a red plaque at the entrance of the cozy South Mumbai stadium had become quite an attraction back in the winter of 2011.
This was Manchester United’s first Soccer School in India. And a first-of-its-kind venture by a European club in the country. A Wayne Rooney cutout hung on the wall of United’s India office.
Tactics were scribbled on a board next to it as the SoBo — South Mumbai — elite dropped their kids off for the inaugural practice session. It became a status symbol and the club made no pretence about its intentions.
A one-week (two-hour sessions for six days) course cost you Rs 12,600, roughly Rs 1,050 per hour.
“Mumbai attracted us given the number of youngsters in the city. Our partners came out of Mumbai and we have some merchandising operations in the city that will include retail outlets. We could have done it anywhere, but Mumbai is the business capital of this country and it only made sense to start from here,” the club’s then chief executive David Gill had said at the launch.
They set a trend. And the others followed the piper.
Over the last few years, many such academies have mushroomed. Lured by the prospect of training while wearing the jerseys of a famous European club, EPL-addicted kids — or the sons and daughters of English football fans — jumped on the bandwagon.
Arsenal, Barcelona and PSG all followed the United way and all of them had just one thing in common – target those with spending power. Talent, in many cases, becomes secondary. Last year, the Barcelona school charged Rs 75,000 annually, while Arsenal asked for Rs 13,000 for three months.
These are the basic coaching fees. Each club offers a separate exposure tour, the cost for which runs into lakhs. The promoters of these ventures argue prices are bound to be high given the brand names associated with them.
“FCB (Barcelona) is a very premium brand, so we can’t sell it at a cheap price,” says Saugato Bhowmik, business head of Viacom 18 Media which has master licensing rights to FC Barcelona merchandise.
“The amount of money you have to put to get your kid in FCB Escola is fairly substantial. It’s meant for the crème de la crème. So, the number of people who aspire to wear FCB merchandise is a lot of millions, but the number of people who have the money is just a few thousands.”
Craig and Chetna Pereira are among the ‘few thousands’ who can afford it. Their 8-year-old son Dhruv started playing football when Arsenal held a camp at Mumbai’s St Andrew’s ground last year. Since then, they say, he has been a regular and his practice sessions have been a family affair. Chetna, who recently delivered another child, says she goes for walks at the adjoining ground every evening to watch over her son and also ‘reduce the post-pregnancy fat’. The father and the newborn too join in, making it a family affair.
At the Barcelona school in Delhi, a father of a 12-year-old child says he enrolled his kid into the academy to see him wear a Barcelona jersey. “I am a huge Barca fan so I thought this is the best way to see my kid play in my team’s jersey. The price is a small bargain,” he says.
It is every fan’s fantasy to play for the team he supports. Manas Kalra too had this dream. The Delhi teenager’s family paid Rs 21 lakh to an agent as admission fees to train at French club FC Metz. Kalra, who was in class 10, relocated to Paris. He trained with Metz for three years, from 2012 to 2015 paying Rs 21 lakh annually. At the end of the third year, he was asked to leave. “There was no reason given,” Kalra says.
Kalra would move to Munich where the dull weather and poor facilities would force him to recalibrate his career plans. He returned to India and says he was in depression. For eight months, he did not step out of his house and did not kick a football until he was coaxed by his family and friends. Today, he occasionally trains with Bangalore City Football Club. The majority who sign up for elite club football schools in Delhi and Mumbai aren’t too serious about game but do look foward to the foreign trips.
Rushad Engineer, 11, joined FCB Escola after stumbling upon their Instagram post. He didn’t miss out on the chance to travel to Spain. FCB Escola charges Rs 2.2 lakh for an exposure trip. “It’s an expensive programme. It’s meant for those who have the funds for it,” Rushad’s mother Kayomi says. “Nobody in our family, in three generations, has been abroad for sport. So we made him feel like he was a star when he came back home.”
After training under scouts at La Masia, Barcelona’s fabled academy, the trip did not end with a trial for Rushad. But the youngster was overjoyed by just getting to see his superstar idols. “I saw Messi!” he screeches. “After we played a tournament in Spain, we watched Barcelona beat Real Sociedad 3-2,” he adds, taking the names with a thick Spanish accent. His mother asserts he’s been correcting everybody’s pronunciation at home. Anupama Jain, director of Conscient Football which has a tie-up with FCB Escola, says there is a provision for scholarships. But those are rare. “Ten per cent of the seats available for the home programmes are reserved for kids who cannot afford it,” says Jain. “If a child is good enough to make it to the team that is going to Spain, then the expenses are taken care of. Essentially, the foreign trips focus on catering to the affluent.”
Three years ago, Manchester United handed out one such scholarship to a player they ‘scouted’ from a school tournament. From United’s perspective, Rajib Roy’s was a perfect heartwarming story — the son of a sex worker who played barefoot on the backstreets of Kolkata handpicked to play at Old Trafford and train at United’s Carrington academy for 15 days. The English media lapped up the story, calling Roy a real-life Slumdog Millionaire. It earned Manchester United a lot of positive press. However, there is no trace of the kid now.
Barcelona and Manchester United, of course, aren’t the only clubs to adopt this model. Such international trips are getting increasingly common, with several European clubs looking to mark their presence in India. Arsenal, for instance, charge approximately Rs 1.5 lakh per kid. “I got to play against kids my own age there. They were the same as us in terms of running speed and some were plump, but they had quick feet, and dribbled a lot better,” explains 10-year-old Yuveer Asudani. Real Madrid are the newest players in this business of training-cum-tourism. Saumil Majumdar, the CEO of EduSports, tied up with the Spanish champions earlier this year and charges Rs 2.7 lakh for a seven-day trip to the club. “The cost includes coaching fees for seven days and three days of touring, including a tour of the Santiago Bernabeu. It involves cost of travel, food and lodging,” Majumdar says, adding his trips are targeted at children aged between five and 17.
In the last five years, Mumbai’s representation in the I-League reduced from three clubs to none while Delhi has not had a representative at all. And while Mumbai has still managed to produce some quality players for the national team, the capital city has not been a regular feeder.
Shaji Prabhakaran, former FIFA development officer for South and Central Asia, calls the football academies started by European clubs in these two cities purely a ‘commercial venture.’ “It’s basically for elite people who can afford it. Many of the country’s promising talent, living in abject poverty in the deep interiors of the country, don’t even know of such projects and will never be able to afford them. It’s basically a branding exercise,” says Prabhakaran, who is the chairman of Delhi United Football Club.
A basic background check of the recent Indian teams — senior or junior, or for that matter, even the Indian team for the under-17 World Cup — shows that most of the players are from humble backgrounds with no access to the facilities these academies claim to provide. At FCB Escola, however, they talk about the curriculum and coaching techniques. The football school’s employee points to the kid who performed the step-over. “This is what we want our players to be,” he beams. “That’s the Barca way. And that is what we teach them.”
Manchester United Soccer School (now defunct): Rs 12K per week – two-hour sessions for six days
FCB Escola (centres in Gurgaon, Delhi, Noida and Mumbai): Rs 70K to 80K for one year. Two sessions per week plus matches on Saturday. Rs 2.2 lakh for an exposure trip to Barcelona.
Arsenal (centres in Amritsar, Mumbai and Dehradun): Rs 13,000 for 3 months