The other day at football practice, Zubaida's father asked if he could talk to me for a minute or two. He told me about how he'd always loved cricket more than any other sport. "I've tried pushing Zubaida to play cricket but she's always refused. I always thought it was because she disliked sports, but now I know why she was never interested in cricket," he said. "Why?" I asked. "Because she loves football the most," he replied. I smiled so hard it hurt.
This conversation took me back to a month ago when Zubaida was ushered into my class by a senior teacher. "She's a new girl, she's very shy so she might not talk much," she said. I nodded and looked at the small child standing before me. Never in my wildest dreams could I have ever imagined that she would one day grow to love playing football.
That's when it hit me, Zubaida isn't the only child who's recently grown to love the beautiful game. Children all over the country have begun to show huge levels of interest in local tournaments and the EPL. This has been possible only because of great efforts taken by stakeholders at all levels, right from the likes of John Abraham and Baichung Bhutia with the much awaited ISL , to the Mumbai Mirror publishing big reports on the local football tournaments, to training low-income students free of cost just as the Manchester United Supporters Club of Mumbai is doing for 33 of my 5th Grade kids.
Granted, there are still many flaws at multiple levels, but this is such a great year for football in India, and I am only making this claim based on the evidence I have personally witnessed at the grassroots level. For instance, a 10th Grade kid Jitesh who studies in the neighbouring school (and resides in the same low-income community as my kids) likes to help out with football practice whenever he can. A few days ago, he shared the exciting news about him being selected for the final tryouts in Pune. "Final tryouts for what?" I asked. "For a chance to go to Germany and train with Bayern Munich!" he exclaimed. I took a moment to do a couple of backflips in my head. And to think that it was only a couple of years ago when Jitesh's elder brother was among the few selected to train with Manchester United in England.
Teach For India organizes a football tournament called 'Just For Kicks' for all TFI schools each year. Last year was my first time watching the kids play at the tournament and some of the matches simply blew my mind. We had kids as young as 8 years of age controlling the ball like it was an extended part of their bodies. I know I will draw much flak for this comparison, but that level of football was as packed with action, energy and anxiety as much as our regular EPL fixtures. I left that small, dusty field in Dadar with this huge load of gratitude that day. I felt so privileged to have been one of the 80 odd people who had witnessed that kind of magic.
These are just a few examples of what I have experienced and noticed over a single year. I'm pretty sure there are a thousand other instances (however small) that will testify to the 'Football Rising' trend that is gradually picking up pace in our country. Let me sign off with an adorable conversation I recently had with one of my kids -
Arbaz: Didi, please apologize to Rooney and Ronaldo from my side.
Me: Why? I don't think you've done anything to hurt them.
Arbaz: No Didi, please aplologize to them now only, because when I grow up, I'm going to break all their football records.
Do reach out to me if you have witnessed or experienced similar trends and moments of magic. Perhaps we could compile them into one mega-post as a testament to football's rising popularity in the country!