Last month, a team of 11 boys from Bengaluru underwent an all-expenses-paid, 10-day football skill development tour of Holland where they visited the cities of Eindhoven and Amsterdam. What was unique about this U19 team was that each of the boys who had never set foot outside the country before came from underprivileged sections of society in Bengaluru.
The 11 boys came from the Kickstart Foundation, a registered NGO which was established by Shekar Rajan and Laxman. Working in tandem with the Kickstart FC Academy which is a separate business venture, the foundation aims to provide top class football coaching at the grassroots level to underprivileged children in the city.
At the moment, the foundation runs in four separate areas of Bengaluru – Gowthampura, Murphy Town, Lingarajapuram and Pottery Town - where over 180 children hone their football skills on a regular basis under the supervision of highly trained coaches and experts.
Initially, the plan had been to recruit these children from underprivileged sections into the academy.
“We always wanted to bring underprivileged kids to our academy. But we found that social integration was a challenge. Hence, we decided to start the foundation, handle their environment first and then bring them to the academy,” said Shekar Rajan, CEO of Kickstart, in a chat with Goal.
Talking about the four key target areas, Shekar says: “These are really, really backward sections of society which are ostracized for their caste and education. Despite being used to a certain loop, they have produced brilliant footballers.”
“All the kids come from these backgrounds. The problem is that there are indeed some good players to emerge from there but once they play at the state level or some equivalent competition, their heads go haywire. They think they have arrived in life.
“Their attitude is the major part that needs tinkering. So for us, managing their attitude and character, imparting life skills is a big part of what we do.”
While shaping their characters and attitude remains a big part of what the foundation aims to achieve, the kids from these areas created a big buzz during their tour of Holland. There, they defeated AVV Zeeburgia - a top academy which has produced many players who have gone on to represent Holland over the years – by a whopping 6-0 margin.
The Dutch sojourn came about after the foundation entered into a partnership with SBC (Son En Breugel) Holland, an amateur club established in 1939. Through the partnership, the amateur club will facilitate coaches exchange, coach certification, imparting of Dutch football training methodology, talent scouting and arranging trials and training camps with leading clubs from Holland for the kids from the foundation.
It is a partnership which has SBC Holland chairman Willem van Geloof brimming with excitement.
"There are many academies in India but Kickstart’s Foundation initiative is the one which impressed us most because it has a social impact on the children through football. SBC has been involved in promoting social development programs through football since the club was established in 1939," he said when contacted by Goal.
"What we – SBC and Kickstart – want to achieve is upgrading the level of football at Kickstart first, and henceforth of Indian football in general. At first, we want to share our knowledge and expertise, also the knowledge of other Dutch Academies like AVV Zeeburgia. Then we will collaborate with Kickstart to organize exchange weeks for players and coaches. I am sure that this partnership will be fruitful and will go a long way to making India a football giant. The announcement of fielding a team in the BDFA (Bengaluru Division Football Association) is a very good step towards this goal," he added.
The chairman had only good things to say about the level of the Kickstart Foundation team which underwent the 10-day camp in Holland.
Talking about the visit of the team, Willem said: "Our technical director Fred Buijs and I visited Kickstart in February this year. We made an estimation of what kind of opponents we should look for. Based on that we made a program together with AVV Zeeburgia. What we saw was beyond our expectations. The team had improved dramatically and defeated in its first match a youth team of Zeeburgia by 0-6 with beautiful, skilled and zealous football and surprised everybody in a pleasant way."
"In the second match, they equalled the first under 19 team of SBC (2-2) in what was looked upon as one of the best matches of the season. The last match was played against a selection of (former) first team players, which were on an average six years older. They lost 2-1, which is an excellent performance, the more if one takes into consideration the fatigue of the trip by then. If a team can improve like in such a short time, we think the perspective for the future looks very bright."
While that partnership is already bearing fruit, four more boys from the foundation will be undertaking a trial with Danish Superliga outfit Esbjerb fB next month. It is the club where Kickstart Academy’s current technical director and head coach Lars ‘Lungi’ Sorenson spent much of his career with.
If all goes well, the Danish club hopes to establish a more expansive partnership which will see them conduct trials in the U13, U16 and U19 categories for the boys from the foundation.
It might still only be the beginning but Shekar and the foundation are already dreaming big.
Describing the talent at their disposal, Shekar said: “Some of these guys are brilliant. There is one guy called Nikhil who scores some jaw-dropping goals. These are the kind of things that give you a kick in the morning, it’s what we live for.”
“We have big hopes and this is just one city. Imagine the kind of talent we can find in other cities. In a country with the size and population of India, is it not possible to think we can find 40 good footballers who can rock the world? Of course, we can.”
Plans are already afoot to build a residential academy in Bangalore as the next step.
“We are looking to consolidate our presence in Bangalore and are planning to construct a residential academy here. We want to dominate the entire grassroots level football in Bangalore. Most of the academies that run in Bangalore currently are doing it on rented grounds. We are doing it the other way, we are putting up world-class infrastructure and all the grounds are our own,” the CEO explained.
“Without government support, we have ventured forward. We will be one of the best academies in the next three years time. We are aiming to produce good talent from the foundation,” he added.
Currently, the academy has 260 children on its books while 180 boys have been recruited by the foundation.
Though corporate support for the project has been ‘pathetic’ so far according to Shekar, he remains convinced that they will ultimately reach a stage where children who come through the foundation will be part of some big clubs.
“We are going to build a solid team from the foundation and we will send them to big clubs. We are going to hold them, nurture them, build them up properly and continue to provide them support even after they make their breakthrough at bigger clubs. We want to take care of every aspect of the kids’ football development and professional progression. We will have a sports management arm to take care of all this," he stated.
On its second anninversary, Kickstart FC has formed a team which will participate in the upcoming BDFA Super Division. The team primarily comprises of the U19 players from the Kickstart Academy and Foundation. The team has held two trials for the team so far and has received more than 150 applicants for each of them. It is safe to say that the Foundation and academy have already made giant strides in their quest to achieving their mission but it is still only just the 'kickstart.'
With the early momentum they have already generated, one can expect more footballers like Nikhil being given wings to fulfill their professional aspirations in the upcoming future.