Coach Pradhyum Reddy who oversaw Shillong Lajong FC's triumphant return to the I-league says schools can make a difference to our football fortunes
Ahead of the inauguration of the new 30-crore-rupee terminal at Shillong's Umroi airport last month, it was reported that work on expanding the runway had also begun. Now only capable of handling little 50-seater turbo-prop aircraft, landlocked Meghalaya's only aerodrome can – it has been said – handle jet planes after the upgrade. It is just as well.
Returning to the top tier of Indian football is Shillong Lajong FC, and it is not the area's air traffic alone that is set to swell. “If we can sustain ourselves in the I-League, it'll be a big boost for football in the north-east,” says head coach Pradhyum Reddy. “It is already the number one sport there. We get more fans for some of our football matches than the Indian cricket team gets for Test matches. Even at local league matches, we get 5000-6000 people – more than what Cooperage (home ground of Bombay-based Air India FC) will ever get.”
Taking charge at the start of the 2010-11 season, after the club had suffered relegation to the second division, Reddy oversaw Lajong's triumphant return to the I-League. “The target was promotion but winning the league was also important because financially it was a gamble,” he says. “After relegation, we retained the nucleus of the team; kept the same core group of players. We now have a side that has spent two years in the I-league, with experience of relegation and promotion; so they're more mature. Obviously, we hope to stay up. We don't want to be a yoyo team that just goes up and down.”
A UEFA ‘A' licensed (effectively the highest coaching badge offered by European football's governing body) coach, Reddy is in the city in his role as football advisor with LeapStart, a sports and fitness programme for children in schools across India. “The idea is to give school-going kids a taste of higher-level coaching,” he says, during a clinic at a school associated with the program. “There is a mass of interest here; we need to harness it.”
A reverent circle forms around Reddy as he makes his closing statements at the end of the clinic. “Work on what you've learnt today. And play good, exciting football. You may not win all the time, but it doesn't matter.”
“It is difficult to teach them (12 and 13 year olds) now because they haven't got the basics,” he says as they disperse. “Abroad, at this level, we would have been teaching them tactical stuff, technique. Here we're still teaching them ball-control.”
Reddy emphasizes that players need to be schooled in attractive, attacking football from childhood. “Two of our (Lajong's) players (fullbacks C. Lalawmzuala and Subhas Singh) have been called up for the national team. They were called up because everyone was impressed with their overlapping. That's what kids like to watch on TV – Dani Alves and Ashley Cole going down the wing.
But they don't know how to do it. So you've got to teach them at a young age such that it becomes second nature to them. If kids have grown up keeping the ball on the ground, it's easy. But they haven't. We play haphazard football because a lot of the schools don't have qualified football coaches,” he continues.
“We don't have enough academies – you have SAI and DYSS but they're way outside town and are impacting very few people. You've got to start at the youngest age possible and the only people who can impact that are schools. If school football improves, obviously the State team gets better. In the city, the way metros have grown, there's no space. Where can you build an academy? It has to be miles outside town. So the only people who can make a difference are the schools; because they're the only ones who have the space for kids to practise.”
Reddy, however, understands it is not sensible to pin hopes on making a living from playing domestic football.
“It is difficult for kids because it's not a financially viable option to go into football in India at the moment unless you get a salary like that of Odafa (Okolie, believed to be the highest-paid player in the I-League, with an annual salary believed to exceed one crore rupees). There are other means for kids who're successful after class 10.
They can get a scholarship and play in the US – they get a college degree for free. At the moment our players over here are not good enough to get a scholarship to play Division I (college ‘soccer' in the USA). Once we raise that level, the options are greater. You don't have to give up your education just because you choose to become a sportsman.”