From grassroots sports to a professional career - what is the journey like?

The foundations of a big tree lie at its grassroots.

Grassroots sports are the sacred dig of the heroes, the villains and the in-betweeners. It is the very place where any sport begins – brewing stars, writing stories, unravelling history. That the youth level is the single most important stage in the development and sustainability of a particular sport is hugely understated; only they who are part of this peculiar food chain care to worry, and the incomprehensibility among the rest is surprising.

Grassroots sports differs widely from organized youth level sports in the sense that at this level, the youngsters are plucked right from their day care centres in order to help them fuel their desire of turning an intrinsic quality or talent into a full-time, real-world profession. There is little competitive drive, and greater focus on educational values here,

Young players, primarily aged between 6–12 years, get easy access to a particular sport at the grassroots level, wherein they are guided along a well-trodden road to higher levels of the sport. That in turn strengthens the foundations of the sport as well as inspires future generations to follow in the footsteps of the success stories.

Grassroots sports has a clear analogy with elementary formal education; both act as a launch-pad to more complex aspects of the particular field, and give a clear understanding of what lies ahead and where exactly the aim should be set. Having said that, the challenges are daunting too, and require professional guides all along the way.

Grassroots football is a niche in itself, partly because football is easily the most popular sport around. FIFA, world football’s governing body, positively associates itself with a number of elementary programmes. These events are aimed at providing opportunities for youngsters to enjoy the beautiful game as they educate themselves, and the focus is on an individual’s development rather than a more aggressive winning mentality. The objective is always to improve the technical and educational aspects of a youngster’s game, and not to concentrate only on the physical and emotional side.

The path to a professional career invariably starts at the grassroots level. But the bigger, more important part is the part in between – the transitional phase.

The transition from the initial phase at the youth level to an advanced phase at the professional level requires the perfect blend of attitude and character that meets the demands at the top echelons. The healthy attitude towards the sport and life in general has to be ingrained into the youngsters right at the base.

The values and education imparted at the grassroots level play a significant role in changing the way youngsters perceive the world. They are taught to be strong and resilient, tenacious and persistent – of both body and mind – so that they can either make the right choice at the developmental stage or try again with more conviction.

Grassroots football is particularly important for a historically struggling footballing nation like India. The functional failures at every level of the sport in a big country like India owe much to its low-traction youth programmes. Organized youth level infrastructure and facilities graced India fairly late, and this could be one of the big reasons for the nation’s lowly FIFA rank. But the scenario of late has been better.

AIFF, Indian football’s governing body, has been undertaking measures to bring radical changes to the footballing scene in the country. In association with Coca-Cola, the AIFF has overseen unprecedented activities in the untapped Indian grassroots scene.

One such feature of India’s grassroots football scheme is the Coca-Cola Cup (National Under-15 Sub Junior Football Tournament), which aims at sustained development and improvement of football in the country at the entry level. The successor to Coca-Cola’s independent youth football tournament that was launched in 2008, the Coca-Cola Cup now helps draw up the national Under-16 Indian football team from the pool of participating players.

The Coca-Cola Cup is also the catalyst in the look-out for India’s top young footballers who will represent the country in the 2017 U-17 FIFA World Cup which, incidentally, will be hosted by India. The U-17 World Cup provides us a big chance at making a well-heard statement about the rise of football in India, which could be the moment the nation really kicks off as a true footballing nation.

The journey of a youngster from the grassroots level up to his/her first professional contract has a small, albeit exciting, time-scale and involves plenty of emotional landmarks. These landmarks include the moment when a young player acquires the right motivation to succeed, and also the moment when he or she imbibes the ability to overcome transitional difficulties.

The sporting base, be it technical or intangible, acquired at the grassroots level makes it a whole lot easier for the youngsters to deal with the professional demands. It makes them well-rounded, tolerant and respectful individuals. The Coca-Cola Cup aims at a similar goal, but with a far tougher starting point.