“The country is finally waking up to the importance of having a progressive grassroots program”

unnamedWith the FIFA declared World Grassroots Day having passed us by, we decided to have a few words with Sylvester Peter on the efforts being made to strengthen the grassroots of football. Peter’s My Angels Academy came to our attention in 2012 and his work with underprivileged kids has been an inspiration while his work also makes him a good judge of how the development of the game at the most basic level can be taken forward.


Compared to when you began, today, what is being done for grassroots in India?

From when I started, there has definitely been an improvement even if there remains a lot to do. The one thing where I can immediately point towards is the budding age level tournaments like the U-9’s and U-10’s which wasn’t so prevalent. These tournaments were both at a local level and also at a pan-India level meaning the engagement is now happening not just for certain age groups or in certain areas of the country. Also the country is finally waking up to the importance of having a progressive grassroots program.


Having coached kids for so long, what were some of your biggest challenges in trying to nurture talent?

Most of the kids that I have helped had no idea about the game. They never played football as they’re from slums and therefore the very first task was to cultivate the interest. My very first student was a rag-picker while a few others were being consumed by drug addiction so that should give you an idea from where the Angels concept started. Considering their background I was not only be a football coach but also a mentor in their everyday lives. Teaching them proper conduct and etiquette went hand in hand with how to deal with 1v1’s and shooting.

In my opinion, this second part is just as important in today’s scenario irrespective of what the background of the child is. If footballers are simply trained they could be winners on the pitch but off it they wouldn’t be the finished product. This is a challenge that I’ve taken and one which more coaches should take. The best academies in the world aren’t just sporting institutions; they impart education and groom the child into a better human being.


Are India’s gradual fall from grace from a continental superpower and their current FIFA ranking a testament of the failure to do enough when it comes to grassroots?

In the 60’s the team we had was a strong one but it was also aided by the rest of Asia still coming to terms with professional football. Now 60-years have passed and while they’ve caught up we were for the large part still at a standstill. The word ‘grassroots’ – with regards to football – hasn’t even been in our dictionaries for very long. Despite the repeated warning by legends, nothing substantial was done on grassroots development and the rut eventually set in. Even a decade ago people wouldn’t comprehend the idea of a U-9 tournament. Back then, for the most part it was all about U-15’s and above. Only now we’ve woken up to the idea of a having tournaments for kids who’re below the age of 15.


From a coaching standpoint, what do you see as a hindrance to development of talent?

I think in the end football is all about expression and so if that expression is not allowed then players might not grow into the finished product we all want to see. For example in tournaments where my Angels participate, more often than not I see coaches trying to play the game from the sidelines. Do you think this will be tolerated in Europe or South America? Coaches should speak about tactics and make players aware of their positioning but to actually scream from the sidelines ‘shoot’ or ‘pass the ball’ is a huge psychological hindrance.

The players, especially the younger ones, have to be allowed to play the game and learn from their own mistakes. The coach must not give the players absolute freedom on the pitch and must know when to intervene instead of constantly trying to intervene at every junction of the game. Also I know of some coaches whose constant berating of players creates a negative environment for their own players as well as for the opposition. I don’t think that is congenial for the development of players.


Have the football related organizations made a difference?

The AFC has a course fixed for grassroots coaches and it is run according to FIFA guidelines. Having completed this course I can say that it was beneficial and the content being discussed was both interesting as well as updated with the current trends in tactical understanding of the game. To create better players, you need qualified coaches and we can use a comparison in universities. The best universities normally have a good faculty. The coaching certificate is a sort of university degree and even if doesn’t speak volumes about the coach’s acumen I think it is a reassuring factor.

The AIFF must also be commended as they’ve stepped up in their efforts to improve the development at the most basic level. The AFC content for the grassroots coaching courses was executed by the AIFF and I was satisfied by what I saw. We must also thank our lucky stars that the AIFF has roped in the likes of Rob Baan – technical director for the Indian National team – and Scott O’Donell – AIFF academy Instructor. Baan has been very specific about the need for a proper grassroots setup and his suggestions are being implemented. I would go so far as to say that even if we execute on 50% of what he feels needs done then we will have a good showing in the FIFA U-17 World Cup.


What, according to you, would be the best way to set-up an overall program?

In India, when one speaks of footballers being ‘produced’ most people don’t think beyond Tata Football Academy (TFA).  I admire the work being done by the TFA but I think their productivity would’ve increased many-fold had they also had a ‘grassroots team’ – basically a team that represents the TFA.

So if given the freedom I would like to break-up the development stage into three parts: grassroots exposure, grassroots training and grassroots team. The training aspect is self-explanatory while the exposure section would be to engage the trainees in as many competitive matches as possible and finally I believe the setting up of an academy team is essential so that they can compete and hone their skills before turning professional. Playing a few competitive matches is fine but if the academy team can play in say a league format, the benefits could be immense.


Can you single out any grassroots development work in India that could be seen as a model?

Definitely the work being done by the Manipur Football Association is exemplary. The FA along with the help of dedicated individuals has managed to tap into a football manic region and the results have been excellent. In a recent seminar one of the presenters from Manipur showed a presentation where they highlighted a 10-year Santosh Trophy plan. This is something that’s never been before. The state is also at the forefront of women’s football – their domination of the Santosh Trophy is ample proof. Another area where the state is a torchbearer is the engagement in villages where sustained efforts have been made for quite some time. The makeup of the state teams will reveal how the village demographic contributes to their success.


So, grassroots developments should definitely not be seen with a blinkered city based approach?

I think engagement at a grassroots shouldn’t be isolated to the urban areas or to the mid-tier towns, instead they should be spread equally where the opportunities and training shouldn’t be disparate just because these aspiring players happen to be from some remote part of the country. This ‘elitist’ mentality should change and it will help football grow as well as fill the parents with pride when they see that despite the social and financial constraints their child is excelling at a national or state level.


Outside of academies, do schools have an equally important part to play? How should this be handled?

Engaging schools is an absolute imperative. Too many times I have seen schools possessing good football programs but on the long run these players seldom choose football as a future. Something must be going wrong once they reach higher classes. School tournaments have to be held as often as possible.

When it comes to schools one thing we should all play a part in eradicating is overage players. In tournaments, especially at a school level, players’ registration is a huge issue. When the tournament has specified the age required to participate, I don’t know why people register overage players? Is the temporary success so important? They fail to realize that by doing this they are ruining both the competition as well as the player whose age they’ve manipulated. This malpractice is sadly rampant and needs to be monitored closely.


Here’s hoping that we all encourage talent to those who want to play the game. We would like to thank you for your time.

I certainly hope so. Thank you.


Sylvester Peter is the life and football coach at My Angels Academy (http://www.myangelsacademy.org/  Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/MyAngelsAcademy) He can be reached at sylvestersoccer@gmail.com & myangelsacademy@gmail.com