I belong to an ordinary middle class family and the environment in such families doesn’t usually allow for an unconventional career option like sports and that too football. But for me, it was a choice between my love for football and a so-called better career, and I chose the former. For Manoj Chaudhary, 31, these words sum up his life over the past decade. An engineer by qualification, he gave up a lucrative career to be on the field.
Frequently glancing at young footballers going through their drills at the Vinay Marg Sports complex in Delhi’s Chanakyapuri, Chaudhary shares his journey with the club that runs in his blood, Simla Youngs. The I-League second-division club runs a training academy in the heart of south Delhi, where more than 150 children come and practice regularly. Chaudhary, apart from representing the club at the senior level, manages the academy too. He, along with the CEO of the club, Tushar Dev, has seen the academy grow and prosper over the years.
“The academy started in 2003 and in the first two or three years, only 40 children came to practice. We then started a bus service and the number increased quite a bit. Today, more than 150 children are part of the club,” says Chaudhary. The training academy has 12 coaches and runs an annual training programme that has two modules, namely regular and elite training modules, consisting of 144 training sessions.
Simla Youngs, which dates back to 1936, was started by a group of Englishmen and Indians in Shimla to compete in the Durand Cup. The club shifted to the capital in 1947 and survived and carried on through decades of ups and downs. In the 1970s and ‘80s, the club was ranked amongst the top clubs in India and even defeated stalwarts of Indian football such as Mohemmedan Sporting and JCT. The club even claims to be the only Delhi-based club to have ever reached the semi-finals of the Durand Cup, which it did in 1973, only to lose to Kolkata powerhouse East Bengal. Then in 1999, the club was taken over by Tushar Dev, Delhi-based HR consultant who heads an IT placement firm, and started rebuilding itself and concentrating on grassroots soccer development in Delhi.
“After a couple of years of the (school) league, Tushar ‘sir’ thought we have a school league, but where would these talented children go after that to develop their skill? That’s when the idea of this academy took shape,” says Chaudhary. And, since then, except for initial hiccups and a fair bit of struggle, the training academy has swelled in numbers, as well as enthusiasm.
But like any other sports club in the country, except those for cricket, Simla Youngs has to be on its toes to raise funds, as running a club is becoming costlier by the day with huge cost of equipment, signing players, renting training facilities and employing coaches and other support staff.
According to Dev, Simla Youngs’ annual budget is around Rs 2 crore, of which Rs 50 lakh is spent on the senior team, while the rest goes into the youth activities of the club. “Our revenue is Rs 1.5 crore, while we are spending close to Rs 2 crore annually. Our revenues come from our training academy subscriptions, the international trips and a few sponsors.” And how does the club meet the shortfall? “Since Simla Youngs is a private limited company, we invite investors and give them shares of the company. Still, some debt is there on the club,” says Dev. Dev is now looking for a shirt sponsor for the senior team, and if he gets one, Simla Youngs would become a profit-earning enterprise.
While Dev maintains that the club, as well as the academy, is functioning smoothly with the funding that’s coming through sponsors and registration fee of the trainees, even he knows that there is a need for more sponsors for the club’s future plans to take shape. “I need a sponsor for the senior team. Simla Youngs is consistently ranked amongst the top 25 clubs in India, but we realise that sponsors don’t bother about sports other cricket in this country,” he says.
Chaudhary shares the frustration. “It feels suffocating when we realise that we are just playing a poor second fiddle to cricket. Another thorn in the flesh is the fact that even though we compete in the national league and Durand Cup, no one knows us. Except one or two players from the Indian (football) team, there is no recognition for the players who represent the country,” he says. He takes a dig at the media for keeping football impoverished in India. “When the Indian football team wins a competition, there is a small report with a picture, but if some cricketers get involved in a brawl at a bar, it will be breaking news for three days.” However, he is glad the way things have turned out for him personally. “I consider myself fortunate, as the condition of sports in India at the ground level, especially football, is known to everyone. I know so many players who have played better football than me, but are struggling to make ends meet,” he says.
For Munmun Timothy Lugun, a tribal boy from Jharkhand, Simla Youngs has been his home since the past three years. A talented football player, Munmun is still in school. However, he represents the club at the senior level. His eyes treasure the dream to represent India, and that dream is helped by those who have supported him till now.
“My family had very limited resources but they always supported me. Maybe because my father also loves sports,” he says. Munmun’s father is in the CRPF and played hockey for the force back in his day. But beyond his family, Munmun thanks his school coach and, of course, his club.
“My school team coach also supported me a lot in various ways. And at Simla Youngs, I am provided with a free kit and equipment and even a monthly stipend of Rs 4,000,” he says.
Munmun has travelled with the club’s junior teams for their annual foreign tours, for which the club has not charged him anything.
Munmun knows that football can be his key to a better life and it’s not just a sport for him. On the other end of the spectrum, Prithvi Raj Dev, Tushar Dev’s son and another member of the Simla Youngs’ senior team, consider himself fortunate that he could pursue the game because of his parents and his background. Coming from a well-to-do family, Prithvi could pursue his passion for sport without any financial obstacles.
“That way I feel I’m very lucky. I mean my parents supported me and my ambition in football all this while. Many others aren’t that lucky and their dreams die young,” he says. However, Prithvi has his own problems to deal with. “There is an upside and a downside to everything. My family background requires me to do well in academics and naturally my parents want me to work hard on my studies as well. Juggling college and football becomes really difficult for me, especially when long-drawn tournaments clash with classes and tests,” says Prithvi, who will shortly start his second year at the Sri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC).
The club right now is harbouring the ambition to break into the top division of the I-League within the next two seasons and be amongst the big boys of Indian football. Amen!