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Catching them young

 RAAKESH NATRAJ
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FOOTBALL The rains did nothing to dampen the spirits of the 40 children, under the tutelage of two UEFA-licensed coaches, in Chennai for four days

Inspiring kids Football coaches Nicholas Jones and Mathew Elder Photo: V. Ganesan
Inspiring kids Football coaches Nicholas Jones and Mathew Elder Photo: V. Ganesan

I t is the day after Deepavali, and the inside of the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, Chennai looks no different from the rain-ravaged pathways leading up to it. The skies are, of course, threatening to open up any minute, the pitch is squelchy underfoot, and training cones and discs are littered all over. The royal blue of Chelsea, the ivory white of Real Madrid, and the lusty reds of Liverpool and Manchester United seem well on their way to a toneless grey.

But all of it doesn't seem to have dampened the spirits of the 40-odd kids stomping about, some in endearingly oversized bibs, under the tutelage of Nicholas Jones and Mathew Elder, UEFA-licensed coaches here in Chennai for a four-day stint.

At 10 in the morning, the football camp organised by the Premier India Football Academy (PIFA), already into its penultimate day, is in full swing. Fifteen promising footballers from the city's St. Bede's AIHSS, some of whom have already represented the state in their age-group, have had their entry fee waived.  At the end of a drill, Jones, a Manchester United Development Coach, shows his wards how one juggles the ball with his feet circumscribed by a smallish patch of cordoned-off grass, for minutes on end. For a minute and fourteen seconds, to be precise. The kids have dubbed him ‘Rooney,' as much for this skill as for the uncannily similar balding pattern that the coach shares with the United front man. The similarity, of course, ends there. Wayne Rooney's re-negotiated contract earns him around 200,000 pounds a week. Coaches take home anything between 12 and 20 pounds an hour, working mostly with schools. Football through the school route in India though, is yet to catch on, according to Latha Subramaniam, who was instrumental in bringing the camp to Chennai. “One big challenge we face when we approach some well-known schools is that the physical education teachers are very reluctant. As a parent of a football player myself, I would strongly suggest that parents stop depending entirely on schools when looking for the right coaching for their wards,” she says.

The goings-on, meanwhile, have sufficiently interested Tamil Nadu's assistant football coach Robin Charles, who makes an appearance at the touchlines. “Their methods are quite interesting,” he says. 

S. Arvind, a participant in the camp, is in agreement. “While warming up, we usually just run around the pitch. Here, we were introduced to a drill called ‘King of the Ring', where you are grouped into a circle, and continue dribbling while edging out the rest. It was quite engaging.”

Taking a break from the coaching, Mathew Elder, an ex-Everton academy player, explains his methods. The daily exercises are centred around a theme, and frequent tests measure the student's progress. The kids are periodically informed of their progress, giving them a fair idea of the areas they need to work on. And the exercises, surprisingly for a four-day camp, aren't piece-meal. Each routine reinforces concepts related to the central skill, all the while encouraging the children to develop awareness about their game. When the focus is on shooting, it is not purely on putting the laces through the ball. “You also need control, so that your first touch doesn't take the ball all over the place. If there is a defender, and he knows you are right-footed, your touch has to take the ball across goal, and you then shoot with your weaker foot,” explains Elder.

A drizzle sets in, but the crew plugs on. The weekend was a mixed one for the coaching duo. Jones, who assures us that he would catch United's weekend kick-off against the Wolves, would have been witness to an injury-time winner by Park Ji Sung. Elder, a Liverpudlian, would see Fernando Torres gun down league leaders Chelsea. Sunday, however, belonged to Jal, as the unremitting rains kept the gang indoors. (PIFA organises international camps annually, and the certificates provided are recognised the world over. For details, call 97890 12939.)

 RAAKESH NATRAJ

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