It has been 18 years now since Arup Das founded the Indian Youth Soccer Association (IYSA) in New Delhi. Back then, the non-profit organization was founded to promote the sport of football among young children in the national capital.
Arup, a certified C-License coach, was working with a British coach at the academy of Shri Ram School in Gurgaon when the idea to conduct football leagues for young kids was conceived. Soon, the non-profit organization was organizing U7, U9, U11 and U13 leagues at the Thyagaraj and National Stadium in Delhi among other places on a regular basis.
Approximately 600-700 children enrolled in these leagues and coaching camps on an average every year; with participants coming from all kinds of social backgrounds. While private school children remained the vast majority, more than 200 children from various NGOs too participated in these leagues as IYSA continued to grow from strength to strength.
Being a non-profit organization, things weren’t so easy for Arup and his team at the start with the cost of renting football grounds, coaches, referees and equipment burning a hole in their pockets. Still, the leagues managed to function annually until 2007. After New Delhi was awarded the rights to host the Commonwealth Games, the fields that IYSA used to rent were all suddenly unavailable since they had to be refurbished for the global event.
Arup and his team were forced to halt the leagues for a period of two years due to the lack of a suitable ground.
“We wanted to use good facilities and not just any shabby ones. I looked for a bit and couldn’t find anything. So I had to close down the league for a couple of years and went back to my job,” Arup says in a chat with Goal.
During that period, Arup worked with Bharti (Airtel) who were in their process of starting an academy of their own in partnership with the All India Football Federation (AIFF).
“I was with Bharti (Airtel). They wanted to set up a football academy at one time in partnership with the AIFF. This was when the late Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi was the president and Alberto Colaco was the general secretary. The plan was to open the academy in Goa but unfortunately, the land didn’t come through from the Goan government even though the Cabinet had approved it,” Arup recalls.
However, the 2008 economic crash put paid to all such hopes as Bharti shelved the project indefinitely.
In 2010, Arup and the IYSA approached the Delhi Government for their proposal to open a football academy targeted at government school children. Initially, the proposal was rejected but soon, the IYSA were allotted an unused field at the Government Educational Centre in Vasant Vihar.
“The Delhi government answered in the negative when we sent our first proposal. It was because they had never received a proposal like that before and they said that they don’t have any such schemes. Over the years, the trust has increased between us and the Delhi government. They have seen the work we do and that we are not here to misuse their assistance. We send them a list of enrolled children every year,” the IYSA founder says.
“Basically, we are under a government scheme now where private academies can use government spaces. The scheme actually happened because they considered us as a pilot project. Now, the likes of Delhi United, etc have opened up their academies in government schools under this scheme.”
Once space was there, there was no looking back for the team as the IYSA – New Delhi Josh Football Academy came into existence.
After the team went around to every Sarvodaya Vidyalayas in the vicinity to talk to the teachers, students and parent, the Josh Academy was soon brimming with young children – boys and girls alike – kicking footballs.
At the core of the academy was the principle of not charging a single rupee to the children. Focusing on grassroots football, the Josh Academy’s coaching programme started for the age groups 9-14. In 2011, a partnership with Arsenal Community blossomed. Coaches from the Arsenal Community would train the academy children on a regular basis - a partnership which is still going strong.
Soon, the IYSA started forming age group teams which would go on to participate in the in the Delhi Youth Leagues. Within four years of their entry, the Josh Academy U19 has claimed back-to-back titles while the performance of the lower age group teams also remained exemplary.
In 2015, when the AIFF announced invitations for academies to join the inaugural Youth Leagues, IYSA was one of the first teams to confirm their participation.
Since then, the academy had gone on to participate in the U15, U16 and U18 leagues over the years. In their very second attempt in the AIFF U16 Youth League, the team qualified for the national round after topping Delhi’s Group B.
This year, however, the academy will not be participating in the AIFF Youth Leagues due to the criteria becoming much more stringent than they were in 2015.
“We joined the AIFF Youth League at the time because the criteria were pretty relaxed at the time and it was easy to join. So we got our accredited and started playing in the AIFF Youth League. Unfortunately, the facilities we have in Delhi, it is not possible for us to go too far with it. We don’t have the facilities required to play in the AIFF Youth leagues like the changing rooms etc,” Arup says.
“In the early days, there weren’t many teams around but now Sudeva has a residential academy. Even Minerva has a residential academy. Once you have residential academies, it becomes easier to recruit players since over there they can train twice a day. So we lose our best players really often.
“The very first year that we played in the AIFF Youth League, we lost two or three players to Sudeva because they were the new club at that time. So it is difficult to retain players. We have decided not to play in the AIFF Youth League this year and try to rebuild the team. Criteria for the AIFF Youth League are quite tough these days since you need a B-License coach.”
“The kick-off times are also different. Some of the kick-offs are at 4 pm and for that, our children would need to miss the entire day of school. It’s easier to do if you are a residential academy. So if boys don’t come for the match due to exams and stuff, it’s just spending money unnecessarily. We will get back for sure but it will take us some time,” he adds.
“Apart from this, you also need ambulances, doctors and a proper ground which we don’t have right now. Last year we used the outside pitch at the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium since it was in great shape at the time after the FIFA U17 World Cup. There are not many fields you can use in Delhi for AIFF Youth League matches. Some of the fields we played in the AIFF Youth Leagues last year should not have been approved at all. There were some matches in the DDA complex at Jasola where the pitch was in a very poor state.”
Amongst the cropping up new, fancier residential academies with greater financial backing, the Josh Academy is facing a battle for survival. However, it is one Arup is completely confident of overcoming due to its core philosophy of being a community-based club.
“We will get there. Football is growing in this country which is a good sign. We have been slow but we have been hanging around. Lots of organizations have set up much bigger projects but we are confident that our time will come,” he says with utmost confidence.
“We would like to have a programme where we can develop players who can generally reach the levels of Indian Super League (ISL) and I-League clubs,” he adds.
That is not to say that the academy has not yet produced players of that calibre. 19-year-old Deependra Negi, who made his ISL debut for Kerala Blasters in the last edition, was a part of the Josh Academy for a two-year period from 2011-12. He would later join the AIFF regional academy before going to represent the title-winning India U16 team in the SAFF Cup in Nepal. The Uttarakhand-born teenager scored with his very first touch against the Delhi Dynamos on his ISL debut before winning his side a penalty.
This year, four players to have come out of the Josh Academy represented Hindustan FC in the I-League second division. Narender Ghalot, who spent four years at the academy, was part of initial India U17 squad for the World Cup last year but unfortunately tore his ACL a month before the tournament. Another graduate, Mohit Ghalot, too had been a part of the initial World Cup preparatory squad but was let go after Luis Norton de Matos took over as the head coach months before the tournament.
Though he is proud of the achievements of these graduates, success for Arup and his organization is not based on the number of kids who have gone to make it big professionally. It is the fact that these successful starlets still return to their community academy from time to time that is a major achievement in Arup’s books.
“Success for us is that kids who come from poor background have enjoyed playing with us. Even when our boys move on to bigger academies, they still come back to pay a visit from time to time to train with us. There’s a family feeling which has been built at the academy. The likes of Deependra and Narender still keep coming,” he says with pride.
“Success for us is that the name Josh academy is now known by a lot of people in the football circuit. The other bit of success is that we have received calls from kids from all across the country asking us for a trial. We are unfortunately a local club so we have to refer them somewhere else, but it feels good to know that people have heard of our good work,” he adds.
In this period of re-evaluation of the academy, Arup wants IYSA to take the jump to a residential academy in the near future although he remains adamant that the community aspect of it will never be compromised and remain central to the ethos.
That will require a lot more of funding the IYSA currently receives from private donations and some sports CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) from companies but once again, Arup is confident the organization will eventually get there.
When asked if he is ever tempted to make the transition to a full-fledged club, the IYSA founder is prompt in his denial.
He replies, saying, “No, not for now. We could have set up a club in Delhi itself. The thing is I do not want to set up a club unless there’s a revenue model and a fan base. For that, you need your own training centre and need access to a good stadium along with a fan base. “
“Unfortunately, Delhi does not have that. When a team like Delhi Dynamos in the ISL struggles to get people despite having so many international players, what is the use of setting up a club in Delhi? In fact, NorthEast United FC gets more fans to watch them when they play in Delhi.”
Since 2010, over a 1000 kids have enrolled in the Josh Football Academy over the years. Of this, some do not stick for long but most stay.
While most of their better players keep moving on to the more lucrative academies inevitably after a certain point, the community that is Josh Football Academy continues to bring a chance to play the beautiful sport to more than hundreds of underprivileged children every single year.
They might be not participating in the AIFF Youth Leagues in the coming season but they are the kind of grassroots football programme that India could do with more of.