Ray Curtis: Get your kicks

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When I accepted the position of head coach at the Liverpool Football Club International Football Academy —DSK Shivajians — one of the bonuses for me was that it was going to be in a cricket-loving country. I make no secret of cricket being my guilty pleasure, a release from my day job if you like. Like many people, I am looking forward to the test series between England and India and will be exchanging views with the locals here in Pune. But will we be part of a dying breed of die-hard cricket fans?

I arrived in India in February and quickly realised that the national sport may not be carrying the hearts of a whole nation, the way it did previously. The pleasant surprise for me is that football or soccer, if you wish to call it, is rapidly gaining popularity.

Is this because of access to viewing the EPL (English Premier League) and other European matches? Is it because more European clubs are coming to India trailing soccer schools and other initiatives? Are they tapping into a market where statistically there should be a talent return, bearing in mind the population of this country. Or is it that the new generations are just bored with cricket and see soccer as a more exciting sport? Do youngsters see the financial returns available at the top level?

Personally, at this time, I believe it’s because they actually love the game and seek the reward of pure enjoyment.

My belief was reinforced as I travelled across the country seeking out the best talent each area had to offer in the under-17 and under-19 age groups. My scouting mission took me to the Northeast cities of Aizawl and Shillong, down to Goa and on to Delhi and Mumbai, finishing back in Pune. These areas were chosen as new hotbeds of football. Places that allowed local talent to showcase their skills wishing to be selected for our academy.

I have seen around 3,000 players since being here, each and every one of them showing enthusiasm and a will to succeed. I will be honest and say the skill level of the raw talent on display has not been high, but there is a love of playing football as passionate as any player I have seen back in the UK.

Of course, there are technical differences, there are physical differences and certainly as far as tactical awareness goes, India is still naive. What is common to players back home is the willingness to improve and make a success of their chosen sport. There is lots of commitment from local coaches too. Without them football in any part of the world will not progress.

It is the speed of progression and the quality of what is being delivered that I question. Coaches have to be organised, enthusiastic and patient. Their knowledge should be technically sound. They should coach from the positive, allow players to make mistakes and learn in a positive environment. Get the answers from the players through guidance and support. Concentrate on what goes well and not dwell on the negatives.

My experience to date is a little concerning. If this wonderful country wants to succeed and deliver young players to the world stage, I believe there has to be a change of mindset and maybe thousands of years of culture. Allow the players to make mistakes, allow them to ask questions, allow them to express their skills without fear of failure.

This philosophy is good enough for my own club LFC, so why not here? The need to support quality coaching with good facilities, funding and equipment is a cry heard all across the football world. Many countries have committed great financial support to grassroots, coach development and support programmes. I would say all the players competing in the 2014 World Cup must have received quality coaching from a very early age to put into place the fundamentals and develop them into the world class stars of today. Of course, there has to be some natural talent but this alone will not take the player to the highest level.

As a youngster, Steven Gerrard always stood out at Liverpool academy not only for his skill but also for his desire to improve. I know he still has that desire and often seeks guidance from Brendan Rodgers in how to take his game forward. Jamie Carragher who recently visited Pune is another example of a player wanting to be the best he could possibly be at all levels of his career. Both of them will also tell you that without the support of quality coaches in their early years they would not have reached the level of playing over 1,200 first-team games between them for their beloved Liverpool.

Does India need a change of culture when it comes to this wonderful sport? Is it willing to invest in quality, honest coaching and are owners going to allow the specialist to make decisions on players for the good of the game and not for the good of a short-term business deal. Players need to take responsibility also. My personal view is that the only reason Indian football has not progressed as it should is because it is delaying the inevitable.

A growing band of youngsters are crying out to be given the support in terms of coaching, facilities, diet and fitness advice and most important the confidence to live their dreams. There is immense promise in India. It will be tragic if it goes to waste due to a lack of vision at the top level.

(The writer is head coach at Liverpool International Football Academy — DSK Shivajians, Pune)


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