Saturday, September 17, 2011

Football in the Air

Earlier this year I wrote about an initiative within Manav Sadhna to bring the game of football (soccer) to the local slum kids and other youth in the surrounding community. Things started humbly with Jesus holding a weekly practice with any kid that was interested at the Ashramshalla. I later joined to help run the practices. Meanwhile a solid group out of the UK called Football Action contacted MS wanting to sponsor equipment and a football field to be built for kids to enjoy the game. Before I left India last March we had a meeting with some of MS coordinators about ramping up the activities: get more kids involved, recruit coaches/mentors from the local community to organize teams and hold practices, and work towards setting up a league for kids to hone their skills, compete, and grow the sport; and all along the way coordinate with Football Action to meet on joint objectives.

Six months later I am back at MS and eagerly joined Sunday morning's practice couple weeks ago to see the progress. Through emails, it seemed that things were really taking off, but I wasn't prepared for what I saw. There were over 50 kids, split into 5 teams representing 5 local communities, spread out in practice sessions across the ashram premises. Each team was engrossed in organized drills, led by a group of crackerjack coaches. The coaches are all "big brothers", MS volunteers from the same communities as the members of each team. The coaches led the surprisingly diligent players in jogging, passing and volleying drills, small-sided games, keep-away, shooting, and of course scrimmages. One especially strict coach, Rahulbhai, was barking orders as the kids ran in a wide circle and did the drill I used to do where you bend down and touch the ground with left, right, and both hands when commanded. Then go up for an air header. Incredible! They were having trouble running at the same pace and subsequently the circle got deformed and uneven, but was still a thing of beauty.

I later learned, mostly from Aaron who has been leading the training sessions, that these teams have been training hardcore for the past two months. Some teams get together daily to practice. Daily! On the weekends, there are sessions with multiple teams, and those regularly run for 4+ hours. Nimo works at MS everyday, and he told me every time he walks through the Ashramshalla he sees kids playing football. "Football fever has swept up these kids, cricket has been totally forgotten," Nimo remarked. Basically football is in the air and the kids can't get enough of it.

I was really impressed with the progress since Jesus and I were running a raggedy practice with ~12 kids every Sunday. We struggled to get the kids to pass and dribble. Now they were keeping space and intelligently passing. I participated in and watched some 3-on-1 keep-aways and was happy to see that a number of passes were being strung together. Some of the kids showed exceptional talent. I told Aaron later that what was most delightful was how you'd be watching 2-3 minutes of very ordinary football with standard repeated mistakes and lack of control. Then out of the blue a kid would do something brilliant. A delicate jumping touch to stop the ball dead, or a series of creative passes or striking the cone on a rifling shot. Breathtaking. One of my selfish goals for this project was for it to eventually produce one player who makes the Indian national team. It can definitely happen.

I attended this week's Sunday morning practice and helped run a match with Rahulbhai and Aaron. Saying it was an incredible experience doesn't nearly do justice. There were 14 kids, 7 to a side. As we separated them into teams, Aaron asked whether we could assign them positions (3 defenders, 2 midfielders, 2 strikers to a side) in an attempt to get them to spread the field for passing instead of bunching around the ball. I was skeptical, it was a tall order since the kids have yet to fully grasp the ideas of playing off the ball and giving their teammates space to accept a pass. But with a lot of help from Rahulbhai, we were able to explain to each team how they were to stay in specific zones on the field and handle specific roles. We even mandated that the attackers not be allowed to cross back into their own midfield, which was an artificial way to keep them ahead. But once you give kids the structure to play soccer the right way, they naturally understand what they are to do.

The game was intense and also instructional for the kids. I played ref and also paused it several times to make them aware of positioning, spacing, and passing options. Throughout the game I paced the sidelines laughing and skipping in delight as the kids made one athletic and/or skillful soccer play after the other. There was some tenacious on-ball defending and tackling, the kids are naturally aggressive on the ball. Some memorable headers/facials and lots of hand balls, and even a few intelligent back passes which was one of the more rewarding moments (they realized possession is more valuable than ball position). The climax moment of the match was an absolutely gorgeous goal by one of the teams where Mitesh and Ravi played a perfect 1-2 game down the defensive third and put the ball into the corner of the goal. From my angle on the field I craned my neck to watch the play develop and the shot trickle through, and when it did I ran to the two players to celebrate as if I had scored. It was easily the most joyful moment of my last 18 days in India. I couldn't have been more proud.

The game ended 3-2, well fought by both sides. In the recap, Rahulbhai emphasized that the kids still needed to work on their spacing and respect the positions on the field. Also to work on trapping. Aaron spoke next and said something memorable: in the 8 weeks he's been at MS, playing countless hours of football with countless kids, this, finally, was the best match he had seen. After breaking up we hugged gave knowing looks that had been part of something amazing. The next day I get an email from Aaron who was also still on a high from the experience. "What a match... ten times better than the World Cup final!" Couldn't have said it better.

One of the edges that has come up with this project is working with an organization that has a pre-defined vision and goals for the project. Football Action stepped up and committed to sending a bunch of equipment, including balls, shoes, and even uniforms to MS to distribute to the kids. They sent a portion of it to Ahmedabad a month or so ago. Balls, uniforms, and even shoes. And this is all top-of-the line stuff, really high quality. But the problem is that there isn't enough equipment to match the number of kids that are participating. If the equipment was distributed to only some of the kids, it wouldn't be fair. So a deficit that didn't previously exist is created. We probably would have been better off buying enough equipment locally at cheaper prices. Meanwhile top of the line Man United jerseys and Nike Mercurials sit unused in a locker at Manav Sadhna while 52 kids play soccer outside barefoot.

A big reason why he have this situation is that the number of kids participating was unexpectedly high. But this is only a problem if we are unable to respond to the dynamic situation. Football Action approached MS originally with a vision to build a soccer field, complete with goals and lines, in or around the local community. Once the field gets built, their team would make a visit to the site, get to know the community, and have trainings and exhibition matches with the kids and other local people as the press looks on. This is their signature contribution, having followed this blueprint successfully for a community in Africa. While it's a wonderful thing to do, this is a different context with different constraints and requirements. There are a number of other expenses that have come up that need immediate attention. Equipment is just one. Another is paying a modest financial incentive for the coaches who have stepped up and dedicated significant time and energy to the project, despite their own time demands to make ends meet. Another is funds for snacks to offer the kids after practice. Many of the kids lack a nutritious diet. Instead, the coaches are spending money from their own pockets to provide the kids a snack. A third is setting aside money in case of injuries to players. A previous ultimate frisbee project at MS screeched to a hault when one of the players got injured and needed surgery, but the backing organizations couldn't offer any financial assistance. These are real needs, and it's easy to miss them when you have your own idea of success. To me this is a microcosm for how international aid agencies work; caught up in their own pet projects, many agencies miss being responsive to the unfolding situation on the ground.

If I ran Football Action, I wouldn't make a trip to the site after the field gets built there; I would travel there as the first thing. Get to know the community, talk to the local organizations, play some football with the kids and get a feel for what could work. Then create a timeline and budget that fits the context and get everyone to buy into it. But in an era where MBAs are rewarded for creating a model that "scales", we get seduced by the idea of one size shoe fitting all.

1 comment:

  1. Great idea and work! Lot more effort needed as you said but a beginning with so much enthusiasum is worth dreaming a wonderful result and evem if it doesnt happen who cares, after all the journey matters, as we believe :)