Set the ball rolling

Bengaluru FC’s Richard Hood on his dreams of a brighter footballing future for the country.

Updated - October 12, 2015 08:16 pm IST

Published - October 12, 2015 03:51 pm IST - chennai:

Hood wants kids as young as four and five to be introduced to football, so that they spend time with the ball, get comfortable running, and start to enjoy the game.

Hood wants kids as young as four and five to be introduced to football, so that they spend time with the ball, get comfortable running, and start to enjoy the game.

As dawn breaks on a cool morning, a hoarse shout rings through the Bangalore football stadium.

“Get the ball moving!”

There’s a sudden flurry of activity as 15 boys in the blue of the Bengaluru FC (BFC) Under-19 team start their drills. It’s a diverse group of players: some of them discovered the game through facilities at international schools; others found their calling on maidans in Bengaluru’s football-crazy neighbourhoods like Gautampura.

Now, this select set of boys trains together in the Bengaluru FC Youth Academy, with stipends covering their football expenses, and the chance to one day play for the senior team in the Indian I-League fuelling their ambitions.

The passing on the pitch is quick, but it can be ‘quicker’, as another shout reminds the players. The thundering voice belongs to Richard Hood, the 28-year-old Head of Youth Development at BFC. Hood had originally dreamt of being a professional footballer – “Played football every day from the time I was 11 or 12. That was all I did” – and had even travelled from Chennai, where he represented both his school and district football team, to Europe as a 17-year-old, to train with clubs there.

But then barely a year later, and just about a month before he was to fly to Denmark for a playing stint, an injury ended his career. “I just disconnected,” Hood recalls about that time in his life, “Football had been the most important thing. Once I realised I couldn’t get into it, I decided to switch off and try something else.”

He moved from job to job, even working on the sets of Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited . But when the football itch didnt go away, he volunteered to help out the kids playing the sport at Abacus, a Montessori school in Chennai.

Soon, well-wishers started to encourage him to put his football acumen to more use, and gradually, he found a renewed sense of purpose, and a way back into the game he loved.

As he passed one coach-licensing exam after another, becoming the youngest Indian AFC ‘A’ license holder in the process, doors opened up for him to take on coaching positions in the country. And even though his dream to play in Europe had been cruelly cut short, it was what he saw there as a teenager that shaped his career.' “I would see three-year-olds and four-year-olds undergoing training there every day,” he says. “The biggest problem is that in India we don’t start when the rest of the world starts. The stuff that we’re coaching a 16-year-old here, you wouldn’t be teaching even an eight-year-old in Europe.”

Hood, who also holds the UEFA ‘A’ license, and is working towards the UEFA Elite Youth ‘A’ license, breaks down his youth development plans. He wants kids as young as four and five to be introduced to football, so that they spend time with the ball, get comfortable running, and start to enjoy the game.

“Then from the ages of six to eight, they get serious,” he says. “From 12 to 13, you figure out the positions they can play. And from 15 onwards, you can identify the ones who are definitely professional material.”

A national team, Hood feels, is representative of the quality of the youth football programme in that country. India, at the time of writing, is 167 in the FIFA men’s rankings. I ask Hood how he gauges success when the task ahead seems so enormous.

“India is really low on the pecking order in terms of producing competent football players,” he responds. “Success would to be produce two or three players over the next 15 to 20 years, who go on to play in better leagues. That would be a big, big success, because that would produce a better talent pool for the national team.”

He emphasises the importance of being patient with young talent, and assessing success with a long-term view. “The creation of talent requires a 10-to-14-year commitment from an academy or club,” he says. “That’s the sort of vision we need people all across the city and all across the country to implement.”

It’s a vision that is easy to buy into when I see Hood at work, moving up and down the pitch with hardly a moment’s rest, shouting, instructing, and demanding the best from his players. As the training session draws to a close, I see a boy walk up nervously and apologise for his mistakes on the pitch. Having seen Hood’s tough love so far, I half-expect him to dismiss the apology. Instead, he gently tells the boy to not worry about it.

“Everyone makes mistakes,” he says, in a tone that is more elder brother than coach. “Just keep your focus.”

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