Grassroots development is the foundation of every sport. It creates a base for the sport and plays a significant role in developing interest and infrastructure.
The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) defines grassroots football as 'all football which is non-professional and non-elite.' The AFC intends to bring everything together by providing access to football regardless of age, gender, physical condition, skin colour, religion or ethnic origin.
The main motive of grassroots football is to increase participation and increase interest in the sport. It also seeks to promote diversity, friendship, technical skills, teamwork & reduce racism and discrimination.
With more than 200 countries playing sports, it is very important for a nation to develop the game with a bottom-up approach. Youth and grassroots development must be a holistic approach and should be inclusive irrespective of region, class, creed or religion. It also needs to be object-oriented, designed according to the nation’s requirements.
In that context, Sportskeeda recently caught up with Jayadev Mahapatra, the man behind the Ardor Football Academy and Mata Rukmani FC.
Mahapatra is a social entrepreneur with a passion for football. He has transformed the lives of many underprivileged kids in Odisha, Chattisgarh and Jharkhand with the motto "Right to play" and "Football for all", which are vision and mission statements for his grassroots football development program.
Here are excerpts from the conversation:
Q. You were the Assistant Vice President of GE Money and then Barclays Bank. When and how did you figure out that football is the 'way of life' for you?
Jayadev: The journey began when I was in school. Football never left me irrespective of who I worked for, GE or Barclays. Barclays was one of my last companies.
Irrespective of who I worked for, I kept playing football. Football never left me. It's my soul, it's my passion. Everyone feels that perhaps I will die on the football field. It is the burning fire inside me that keeps me alive.
During my time in the corporate world, I kept playing corporate football and continued with my coaching license exams. I kept upgrading myself. The JD Boys were formed while I was in my corporate life. We have played in a lot of tournaments in Delhi, especially the Delhi League. Though while at Barclays I injured myself quite a bit.
Q. How did you conceive of the idea of running a grassroots football program?
Jayadev: During my school days and my formative years, I played for the Rourkela Steel Plant and was also a part of the Tata Football Academy camp, which was when I was surrounded by a lot of football.
We did not have the luxury of the internet back then. But while working with corporate companies, I witnessed a steady decline in Indian football, especially football in Odisha. I did not see any footballer coming up in Odisha after 1996. Grassroots football simply vanished into thin air with other sports making great inroads.
Indian football, at that point, seemed to be languishing. Some states have had players come up and play in national colours, especially from West Bengal, the northeastern states and a few from Goa and Kerala. But in Odisha, football seemed to be fading away at that point.
Also, with time, things became more commercialized. I have never paid to play football. As a youngster, I learned to play football from my coaches and teachers and it was all free of cost. Steadily, there was a growth in playing facilities that came in exchange for a price.
In big cities, the booking charges were Rs. 1500/- for an hour. I felt that the right to play was dying. Football is not just a sport. It was a life-changing experience for me. There are a ton of life skills that a kid learns, in his formative years just by playing sports.
Here’s an example. Recently an international hockey player’s kid came to me. He is just 10 years old and chose to play football so we began training him. In the final game of a particular tournament, this kid was on the bench and since then he stopped playing football. He was unconvincible later.
Funnily, in today’s times, kids are usually pampered a lot and are not used to seeing losses or defeats. This does impact the psychology of youngsters growing up. Learning to take a "no" is as important as anything else in life.
Sports is an important life skill that builds character. In team sports, you recognise the variables that function in and around a group of players and hence understand the impact of decision-making. Whether in sports or academics, we usually put the kids on the path to some sort of achievement. The fun part somehow goes missing.
Q. Ardor Football Academy was set up in 2012. What was the core idea behind the creation of this football program?
Jayadev: Playing football right from a young age should be within everyone’s reach. There should be fields that are accessible to everyone. We want to ensure that children, irrespective of their background, should have the right to participate in sports.
Through the concepts of “Right to play” and “football for all”, which we run as part of our vision and mission statement, we have tried to ensure that children get access to sports at no charge. We also ensure that the child goes to school.
In underprivileged areas, families aren’t too concerned about what their child is up to because the parents are usually busy earning a livelihood for the family on the table. Usually, in these areas, the child is witness to different aspects of hardship and that automatically makes them tougher.
If you look at football stars who are icons, they are usually from underprivileged backgrounds. If these kids go in the wrong direction, they can end up as problems for society. But if their energy is channelised into something positive, like sports, there cannot be a better way to mould them and if you manage to create a few players who can make it big, it creates hope within the rest.
Thankfully, we have been able to do that. We have been able to create stories that are relatable to these underprivileged kids. Players like Sunil Soren and Ranjan Soren, who made it to the age-group team of Bhaichung Bhutia Football School and are now part of RoundGlass Punjab FC’s developmental programme are idols for the rest.
Chandan Nayak, who was a part of the programme, was selected to train with Bayern Munich's U15 side and has become a household name for these kids as well.
The hero should come from within. We should not look for heroes beyond our borders. So, through our community programmes, we wanted to impact the lives of kids across communities. The programme is designed for anyone without any discrimination. We have coaches and talented players who are shifted to focus groups, where they are trained to be the next big thing.
Q. In grassroots football, India is still lagging behind, especially in terms of infrastructure and approach. How does the Ardor Football Academy intend to address that?
Jayadev: We have an intensive training regime coming from licensed coaches and these people are regularly upgrading their licenses. We try to implement methods that are used in more developed footballing nations. We want to produce the best players for the country. But all this can happen if we get the kid young.
While I was with Barclays, I travelled a lot across the world and learned a lot about their programmes to grasp why we are still lagging. We do not have a strong grassroots program around the country. In schools, there is mostly a PT class that does not suffice for the adequate teaching process needed in sports. Hence, it should be mandatory to make sports a part of the curriculum to ensure a sound talent production system.
Schools in the United States and Europe have five to six disciplines in sports for kids of tender age. Every school must have this system in their curriculum. They also have dedicated coaches and support staff for each discipline. Sports can be massive job creators as well. If state governments started this process in government schools, the number of jobs that would be generated out of this would be massive. Through the “right to play” programme, we are advocating all this.
Sports have to be a part of our lifestyle and our education curriculum and cannot be seen as a separate entity.
We develop community coaches within the slums. Usually, the most senior player gets the role based on certain parameters. This is to keep track of the other kids because, in slums, the environment is not that good. There are chances where a kid can go astray in a short period of time. You spot a talented kid and then train & nurture him/her but the kid suddenly picks up a bad habit.
As such, community coaches play a very important role in our program. Community coaches are selected through a lengthy and difficult process. He has to be a role model for the rest of the kids. Community coaches ensure that we have a proper stranglehold in the slum.
Q. The Ardor Football Academy works with children from all backgrounds using a very cost-effective method, and is currently funded by CSR donations. How did people initially perceive this program before coming on board?
Jayadev: Honestly, the Ardor Football Academy never received any CSR funding till 2021. You only know of Ramakant Achrekar when Sachin Tendulkar makes it to the Indian team.
When we started, I only had the D License exam cleared. But while working for Barclays and travelling abroad, I took my Grassroots coaching license course from the UK. I picked up a lot about ways to run a Grassroots program during my stay in the UK. My instructors were from Brazil, Spain and Germany and grassroots football is like the bible of football. According to them, it is essential to be good at the grassroots level to churn out good players for the future.
I have other businesses that fund these programmes. It was all good till before the pandemic. But since the initiative has grown to multiple locations, it requires sustainability. That’s when I started knocking on people’s doors and asking for CSR funding. That was also when I started providing schools with paid programmes. Steadily, our program has found its way from one school to another.
But even schools were shut down during the Covid-19 outbreak. That’s when we bagged our first CSR funding from Paradeep Phosphates. They gave us a project in a village near their factory to run a community-based football programme.
Q. Chandan Nayak was selected for Bayern Munich U15 in 2016, while Ranjan Soren and Sunil Soren are now with RoundGlass Punjab FC. Many more from your grassroots program have been spotted and are now training with an I-League or ISL outfit. How did you find these boys and what made them special?
Jayadev: When we started our programme in Odisha, we used a ground close to the Kalinga Stadium that was usually used by people from the slums to organize festivals. We cleaned the space and started conducting our program. Initially, 10-15 kids came to participate. Slowly the numbers increased as we included a tiffin for the kids.
We gave out kits to anyone who was a regular. That’s when these three boys were identified and they were equally prolific at the time. They picked things up very fast and did everything possible to make it big. We put a lot of pressure on them to see their mettle.
Frankly speaking, back then hardly any scouts visited Odisha to spot talent. I went to Bhaichung Bhutia Football School and told them that I have been training these kids for three to four years. I asked them to visit our training facility and organize basic scouting if possible. Initially, they asked me to bring these boys to their facility for a trial. They were slightly hesitant about coming over and bearing expenses for the scouting trip. But I insisted, saying that if they came over, it would send a strong message to the children of our program knowing that BBFS wanted to scout them. Interestingly, these three boys during their visit.
Very soon, these boys started grabbing the attention of everyone around them. Chandan (Nayak) became the second-highest scorer in the youth I-League and Sunil (Soren) was adjudged the best midfielder. When these boys became the talk of the town, Bhaichung Bhutia came to the matches to watch them play. These three boys simply showcased brilliance in every match in the league.
Today, because of these three boys, my programme has become a success. Now I get calls from so many teams from around the country who want to come over and scout for players.