Sunday, February 27, 2011

Beautiful Game

Jesús and I have been running a weekly Sunday morning soccer practice with Manav Sadhna kids in the Gandhi Ashram. From 8-10am we warm up, do drills, and play with any of the slum kids that are interested. Jesús, a fellow soccer fanatic, started the sessions couple months ago, and since I've been here I've joined as coach #2. Personally, I have four motivations for being involved. First, I am anti-cricket and happy to introduce an alternative sport, any alternative, into the lives of these kids. Second, soccer has given so much to me, shaped who I am, that I love to give back to the game by sharing it with others. Third, it's a way to plug myself into Planet Manav Sadhna doing something I'm passionate about. Fourth, it's the best game ever.

We play in Gandhi Ashram outside Manav Sadhna, jockeying for space with the cricket match that's also usually going on. The surface is sand, which is not ideal because of all the dust that gets kicked up and breathed in, but open flat grass areas are few and far between in these parts. Typically we have about 10 kids, but the number is fluid as kids get bored and go play cricket, new ones come, old ones come back, etc. It's a constant flux and flow of players, which is a bit of a problem when you're playing a team game.

But the competitive dynamic with cricket next door is great because it's the ultimate test of how interested the kids are in the game. Right now they are just learning, so it's pretty ugly out there. Just a bunch of little terrors in a crowd kicking the ball in a random direction, chasing, then repeating. Not exactly the beautiful game. But I believe firmly that if they actually played soccer, in the proper way, it would eventually topple cricket.

So we are teaching the game from the fundamentals: dribbling and passing. After two laps around the play area and stretching from neck to quads we do passing drills. Everyone get in a single file line, and I'll pass you the ball and you pass it back. Having the kids pass to each other is too slow because their kicking is wild and the ball is constantly lost. "Ek, beh. Ek, beh. Ek, beh." I yell out repeatedly to get them to think and do two touches. One, receive and trap the ball; two, look up and make a pass with the inside of your foot. Then we have them dribble in a straight line. The drills are all about introducing a sense of control and calm in the body-ball relationship. But the drill they like best is volleys, where we toss it in the air and they let loose with headers. They get really into it, reeling back and letting fly. They also particularly relish chesting it where they just spread eagle their little torsos at the ball to send it back.

After drills I like to play keep-away to hammer at dribbling and passing. Jesús thought it's too abstract with no goal to attack, but I feel it's a necessary intermediate step in the progression from drills to full-on scrimmage. You only earn points by passing. Four passes in a row by your team without the other team breaking it up and you get a point. The game typically degenerates to kick and chase, with points earned by two teammates finding the time to make four quick touches to each other one foot apart before the opposing team comes barreling in. It's a start.

Then scrimmage. By the time it comes the kids are pining to simply play unrestricted for goals. Just like when we were growing up. The game is start and stop, with the ball frequently going out of bounds and no real passing. There is frequent picking up and touching the ball with hands, which is old cricket habits. We beat it out of them by giving one minute penalties in the corner for any hand ball. Also one constant game within the game is fighting. These kids get into fights all the damn time. There are tears (usually from the ones who instigate), and at least two situations a session where someone storms off the field in angered protest. Half of our job is cop, gathering the culprits, making the crying stop, making people say sorry to each other. The other half is doctor/therapist for when a kid takes himself out of the game, sits in a corner, and rubs a cut on his shin. You go over, tell him it will be OK, tell him he was playing so good and he should get back in. So far my favorite kids are Jagdish, a talented player but an untamed hothead (Rooney); Kamal, a diva who basically plays so he can complain that people hit him (Christiano Ronaldo); and Ritesh, the calm elder statesman (Giggs).

Of all the coaches I had in my career, the one this experience brings to mind most is Mike Bland, a 20-something who coached us when we were maybe 12 to 14. I keep thinking how much of a pain we must have been for him to handle all by himself, how remarkable it was that he had us as disciplined as we were, how he probably did a lot more babysitting than I was even conscious of, and how calm he seemed through it all.

There is an organization based in the UK called Football Action which has contacted MS recently about collaborating to bring soccer to Ahmedabad in a big way. They want to fly out, build a legit pitch in the community, hand out equipment and balls, and conduct coaching sessions with the kids all with the aim of spreading the beautiful game and using football as a means of education. It's a great initiative, and we are excited to explore working together. First step is building a critical mass of local interest in the game from kids and coaches, which is work done one practice at a time.


  1. Show the kids this:

    A friend who is into cricket as you are to soccer was distraught when he read this article about the detriments of cricket (but you'll find it amusing!):

    It's grrreat that you're passing on something you love, what was once passed onto you.. the cycle will continue :)

  2. Hats OFF! Manav Sadhna kids are a lovely bunch and they deserve this exposure. I am glad someone has taken time out.

    Unfortunately althought cricket is a religion in India, sport for some reason has never been on the top of people's lists.

    All the best!