Football in a world where Messi and Ronaldo are unheard of

I recently began my stint as a football coach with Just For Kicks. This happened because I fell in love with their motto: personal growth by developing life skills through sports. While I was thrilled, I was also aware of the environment I would be stepping into. Just For Kicks reaches out to that chunk of society where most schools do not have a playground and kids, the access to sports. For those wondering how this is different, let me share my insight: an average child interested in football with access to the internet, not only knows who their favourite player is, but also knows of the cars they own. They are particular about jerseys and other football merchandise that they like.

My first session as a football coach

Contrast that with my first session for the U-10 team at a government school in Bangalore. I was engaged in a conversation where not a single child had ever watched a game of football. No one could name a player, let alone their favourite.

The gravity hit me like a brick when I realised that these kids have no football ‘heroes’ to aspire to.

Most of us dug our heels in and learnt skills because we were inspired by our heroes. Without heroes to aspire to, I needed to find another way to motivate the kids. After introducing them to some basic skills through drills, I decided to play a game and incorporate these skills. That’s when I realised something else: no one knew what a game of football was all about.

football coach

Learning the game as a football coach

In a casual conversation with the children, I learnt their definition of the game. For many, football was just kicking the ball in all directions. The terms  ‘team’, ’goal’, ‘defender’, ‘goal-keeper’, ‘penalty’ were as unfamiliar to them as were the multiplication tables of 7. The most endearing part of this conversation was when they told me that they would decide the winner in a game of football based on who kicked the ball the highest or the farthest!

Going into this, I always knew the challenges of working with children especially those belonging to the lower economic strata. But this hit me hard. In less than three months these children would be part of a football tournament. But none of them even understood the game, let alone knew how to play it. I decided to continue the coaching routine. I decided to focus more on the basic skills while building the concepts of the game slowly. A proper match could wait.

Just For Kicks runs a ‘Beginning of Year’ assessment for all children who undertake the coaching to benchmark their ability at the start of the year. The assessment tests both physical fitness as well as football skills. The physical fitness tests included vertical jumps, stork tests, plank tests, a short sprint to name a few. Not only did these children surpass my expectations as a football coach but they also made a statement – a bold one.

I witnessed eight-year-olds (boys and girls) hold their plank positions for almost two minutes. Some ten-year-olds did so for almost three minutes. I watched in awe as shy, under-confident and timid children stood on one leg for three to four minutes with the concentration of monks, unperturbed. Some may argue that it’s easier for these kids as they are leaner and tougher. But I want to say that I saw these kids ready to give up and with just a little encouragement, they went on.

Most kids were able to push their timings by a minute or two. And while they did so, I could see them battle pain. One girl bit her t-shirt while maintaining her plank position. One boy took the stork leg test barefoot, but his facial expression gave away a feeling of discomfort or pain. When it was time for him to switch legs, he asked me to pause. He wanted to remove a small stone from under his foot!

They all had in them the determination to show me that they were better than what I presumed. I decided to use this as a fuel to motivate them further. At the start of the next session, I praised each and every child for their performance and saw what it meant to them. Children love showcasing their abilities but what came to my awareness was their desire to prove that they are in no ways inferior to anyone; classmates, seniors or even their football coach.


A day in the life of the children I coach

For every positive aspect in their lives, there are at least a few negative ones that place their future in uncertainty. None of these children come diligently for coaching because they see themselves as football players. Neither do they come because they love the game. They came initially because they loved spending time on the playground and continue to do so because they feel they can prove themselves here. A day in the life of these children is challenging. I learnt that some of the children come to school only because of the free meal provided. Most children, despite repeated requests, come for coaching on an empty stomach and many, sadly, have no answers to why they do so.

I implore everyone reading this to challenge children positively because these challenges push them, make them think and drive them to succeed. Let’s give these children the chance and opportunity that they deserve.

Welcome to a world where Messi and Ronaldo are unheard of, goals and fouls are exotic terms, a football is bounced more than it is kicked, but every child knows the term ‘football’ and wants to play it. This world is a reality. And I for one am proud to be a part of it.


This is an edited version of the post Football sans Messi and Ronaldo by Sujeeth Panikar.

Sujeeth Panikar Written by:

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