After experiencing top flight Indian football (witnessing Mumbai City FC's Friday night ISL victory), I was curious to find about more about the other end of the spectrum - the grassroots. It’s clear that despite the recent growth and increased interest in the domestic game, to truly develop and scale the impact football has in India will be a lengthy, generational task. It’s a theme that appears in almost every conversation I have here, everyone aware that it’s the education, infrastructure and inspiration for India’s youth that will enable growth and success for its football in the future.
In a nation of 1.3 billion people (one sixth of the world’s population), it has always astounded me that we don’t see more Indian players on the world stage. In fact, an Indian player has never played Premier League football (although Michael Chopra is credited as the first British Indian to do so), with the only real sighting of an Indian in English football being Bhaichung Bhutia (37 appearances and 3 goals for Bury, 1999 - 2004). Considering the nation’s growing love for the game, and the sheer amount of talent that must be out there waiting to be nurtured, I wondered what was being done to get the ball rolling.
"Hey! We run a small grassroots academy in Malad, Mumbai. Do drop in one of the days to see our sessions! We are @forzaindiaacademy"
When this message appeared through the Hidden Football Instagram account the next day, it seemed like fate, and later that week I was off to visit Forza India. I eventually found the turf, (which was tucked away in the car park of one of Mumbai’s many shiny shopping malls), and was greeted by their founder, Ajay. I arrived half way through their Under 10’s training session, so was invited to take a seat and watch, feeling more like an underground football scout than a journalist.
I joined a gaggle of parents and siblings watching on as the passing and shooting drills took place behind the cage, and the whole setting had a very relaxed and inclusive feel to it. The Forza India kit was a striking bright yellow, with the lettering bold and capitalised on the front of the shirts. Whilst reading their website earlier that day, I read that: "Forza" in Italian means "Come On" and is associated widely with sports, particularly football. It seemed Ajay himself had a passion for both Indian and Italian football, in particular AS Roma (more on this later), and it was nice to see such a statement of intent on every shirt.
I instantly compared this ‘European influence’ to the seemingly infinite number of the big teams’ colours I’ve seen whenever playing a game in Mumbai so far, and was much happier to see the yellow jerseys than another sea of Barca, Real, Chelsea and United shirts. It struck me as a symbolic move in the right direction for the next generation of Indian players, and typified the attitude and approach I’d seen during my opening minutes with Forza India.
The coaching itself was slick and clearly engaging for the players, with both the under 10’s and under 13’s sessions a flurry of activity throughout. The full spectrum was on show - from teaching the youngest players the principle of getting the ball in the back of the net, through to technical positioning and tactical drills for the oldest. Delivered by an aspiring goalkeeping coach (Ajay himself) his two co-founders (both qualified coaches with international experience), and not forgetting the Vinay, the Media Manager documenting the session pitch-side, this would have deserved top class academy status in any nation.
I remembered many stories told by friends of ‘traditional’ Indian football tactics from their schoolboy days, which very often consisted of ‘lumping it forward’ or dashing down the line without any real appreciation for passing and movement. By contrast, the players were put through their paces rigorously, passing in grids with military precision. Whilst they coached the defenders how to force attackers wide with body positioning and footwork, it reminded me of taking part in very similar sessions fifteen years ago in England. Conscious of how many young players across Mumbai would never even get the chance to kick a ball on a proper pitch, let alone access such quality facilities and experiences, it made me very aware of how much we take this for granted in English football, and of the challenge facing Forza India and the wider Indian grassroots movement.
As one session finished and a fresh flash of yellow shirts flooded into the cage, the departing team sat in a circle nearby for a quick debrief. As I glanced over, tactics were being mapped out by an animated coach, water bottles picked up and slid around as props in the demonstration. This took me back to the classic scene from the cultural football movie masterpiece ‘Bend it Like Beckham’, where Keira Knightley’s Dad teaches his wife the offside rule using condiment bottles on the garden table. I could just imagine one of the players grabbing the bottle and saying, “Don't tell me. The offside rule is when the French mustard has to be between the teriyaki sauce and the sea salt”. It made me wonder whether the film was ever a hit in India, and think that it would probably more relevant now than ever, for a young Indian generation keen to push back against tradition to make room for the growth of the sport.
As the sessions went on, it was clear that there was more than just football being taught. Coaches encouraged players to clap one another after every success, to thank their parents and coaches at the end of sessions, and to shake hands after aggressive or mistimed challenges. It was a perfect example of the wider value and impact football can have when paired with education, and it was inspiring to see standards being set so high for these youngsters.
That being said, nutmegs still warranted smiles and laughs (a universal statement, as so many features of football are), and there was no shortage of energy and competitiveness from the players. There were Maradona spins, Cruyff turns and stunning strikes, balanced quite appropriately with the occasional moments of scrappy chaos. One player arrived 30 minutes late, nonchalantly blaming traffic as he sprinted into the cage. Having turned up late for this very session for the same reason, I empathised, as it seems does everyone in the city, with time wasted in its infamous traffic often heralded as a ‘key part of the Mumbai experience’.
The language of football is always interesting to observe, and with such long exposure to the session, it was clear Indian football spoke Hinglish (a widely used term for the blend of Hindi and English). The flow of the formal session was often delivered in English, a language familiar (and indeed native or learnt from birth) for many. I found the Hindi would creep in to provide moments of clarity (to explain something in a different way), or at moments of tension or immediacy (when encouraging players to run, shoot and score mid-drill). It was an interesting blend, and made me wonder if there would be a ‘Hinglish Football Dictionary’ for sale on Flipkart (India’s biggest Amazon rival) in years to come.
One player who stood out was the team’s goalkeeper, flinging himself around in 1-1 training and then having an unusually big influence on the game of 5-a-side that brought the session to a close. Wandering from his area and demanding the ball at every opportunity (Guardiola-esque) even when it was by no means the right option, he was the central character in most of the short video clips I took as I wandered laps of the pitch. He typified the energy and spirit of the whole team and indeed the organisation, with the young ambitious Forza India team really making an impression on me as the session came to an end.
I had a chance to speak with them as the players departed, intrigued to find out more about how this all came about in the first place. Their founder Ajay had recently built and sold a start up business in the shipping industry, and had now decided to make the leap of faith into Indian football. A longstanding AS Roma fan, and indeed founder of the AS Roma India fan club, I asked Ajay where the passion for Italian football had come from.
‘It was Francesco Totti, at the 2002 World Cup’, he replied, ‘it was one of the first times we got international football on TV here. He was incredible, and it all just went from there’.
Ajay was quick to inform me that the AS Roma India fan club are current holders of the ‘Indian Scudetto’, (the tournament played between other Indian fan clubs of Italian teams), and that they are in the process of forming a more official bond and partnership with AS Roma now the academy has launched. Amidst all of the commercial links and connections between Indian and European football, this seemed a wholesome and mutually beneficial one.
As Ajay set out to get Forza India off the ground (completing his coaching license in Mumbai and getting started with the planning), he met Lay, the second member of the team. Lay is a football enthusiast, so much so that his teammates labelled him ‘the Wikipedia of Indian football’ due to his encyclopaedic knowledge. Lay has also represented India in Futsal, but was now turning his attention to the more traditional form of the game. They met on the coaching course, and a shared ambition to develop youth football talent in Mumbai brought them together as the start of the Forza movement.
Vipul, the second coach on the team, spoke of his recent move into the football world, and particularly of a recent inspiring trip to Barcelona, where he was invited to go and learn coaching at the prestigious ‘La Masia’ academy.
‘We always think of European football as an inspiration on television’, said Vipul, ‘but to have the chance to go and learn the game in one of the homes of football was a life changing experience’.
Interestingly, Barcelona are one of the few top European teams to have a presence in Mumbai itself, opening up their FC Bescola soccer school in the city and aiming to bring their ‘same successful methodology’ to develop talent in India.
As a group we discussed the role European and foreign clubs and players can play in the Indian game, keen to see growth and input, but not wanting to see Indian football lose its identity imitating others.
‘I think the key is to go elsewhere, learn, and bring that knowledge back to India’, said Ajay.
‘It’s not just about so and so turning up here and having a short term impact. It’s about us learning and developing things the Indian way, but there’s no harm in taking inspiration and best practice from elsewhere’.
The Forza Team is completed by a recent addition, Vinay, whose focus is on capturing and sharing the story as it unfolds in his role overseeing digital marketing, and Ashutosh, who manages Business Development.
Vinay spoke of the ‘no brainer’ decision when he was offered the role in the team, citing the fact that he can now work in an industry and a sport that he loves as the only inspiration required. Having taken a similar plunge recently I empathised with Vinay and the team, and was excited to see how Forza would develop in the months to come.
It was inspiring to see the ‘start up’ culture and attitude running throughout the team and the organisation, everyone clearly sharing the buzz created by the opportunities ahead for Forza India. In a ‘football industry’ so often dominated by giant brands and international businesses, it was great to see such a young, ambitious team of people (and in turn, a talented group of young footballers), taking on the responsibility of growing and nurturing the game in their home city. As we shook hands and I turned to leave, the image of those red letters on the yellow jerseys stuck with me, ‘Forza India’. I couldn’t help but feel what I’d seen that evening was symbolic, acting as a metaphor for the ambition and drive which will see Indian football boom in years to come.