Play, Fall, Get Up.
These words may seem to be taken straight out of a book of philosophy, but the phrase is the motto of a Football Academy run by an 18-year-old school student, Manoj. It signifies the journey of a teenager, who despite all odds is spreading a message of entrepreneurship, harmony, and love.
Son of a tempo driver, Manoj was born in Allahabad and moved to Pune when he was six years old. He lost a year of schooling because of this transition and later joined a government school in Bibvewadi. As a child, Manoj had anger issues and usually found it difficult to control and express his feelings due to challenging domestic conditions. He hardly spoke to other kids and was continually frustrated by his average marks. In 5th grade, he was introduced to ‘Just For Kicks’ (JFK), a football programme that works to develop life skills and provide children with the opportunity to play a sport. He was coached, got his first pair of boots, and then represented his school in various tournaments. Over the next two years, football was his life, and Manoj became one of the best U14 players in the local football circuit. His involvement in the beautiful game saw him steadily grow into a passionate, responsible boy.
In class 8, when most kids would be bothered and excited by teenage elements, Manoj was on a different track. As a football player, there was constant complaining at home and his community that football would not serve any purpose and it was a waste of time. He wanted to change this mindset and decided to get into football coaching. He had witnessed first-hand how sports can help build personality and help manage emotions. Manoj had nobody to share these thoughts with. His friends played and loved football, but they didn’t understand what he wanted to do. If he started a conversation about coaching at home, his parents would immediately shoot it down and ask him to get better marks – and do all of this later. It was frustrating, but his idea only kept growing. He was being coached by Just For Kicks in school and would speak to his coach regularly – asking questions about coaching, timetables, drills & mentoring kids. Eventually, Manoj felt that he had to take a step.
He took up a job in a local football club where he worked as an assistant coach. The experience wasn’t great as the other coaches didn’t take him seriously. Regardless, he gained experience and earned his seed money. Once the season ended and the new academic year began, Manoj wanted to do more. He wanted a space where he could learn – but he also wanted to do things his way. He wanted to mentor kids directly and be able to support particular kids in and around his home in the community. Out of those intentions, Manoj started ‘Ready For Challenge’ (RFC), an academy that aims to popularise football among school kids in India and also change the mindset that sports is not good for kids.
It was not easy for Manoj in the beginning. He did not inform his parents of his venture and had to manage school on his own. He knew very little about branding, revenue, and communication. However, none of the challenges faced deterred him, and he arranged for ground, put up banners at major junctions, housing societies, and schools. Getting kids to enrol at RFC wasn’t difficult. Manoj was a mini-celebrity amongst the 3rd and 4th-grade children in his community, and so the second he told them that he was going to teach them football – they were sold. He was sensitised by his teachers about challenges of specially abled children. The first few ads of RFC had a separate section on how sports can help specially abled children. To accelerate his learning, Manoj went back to Just For Kicks as a coach, giving back to the same school and the same program that had provided him with his first exposure to the beautiful game.
This journey continued, and due to high student admissions, RFC shifted to a bigger ground. Today, at the age of 18, Manoj not only coaches about 60 kids every day but what is unique about his work with RFC is the financial sustainability. Right from raising the initial capital of INR 5000 till date, Manoj has never borrowed any money or sought any fiduciary help.
Like all things in life, it has not been without failures and changes. After three months of starting the academy, he realised that he had to advertise on a larger platform and he placed ads on the local paper Sakal Times. He learned about operations, branding, negotiation, and all the jargon typically heard in a boardroom or an MBA classroom, the hard way.
From 2014 to 2016, there has been a wave of change in the community around him as well as the success he has had. Where kids in the community once were either sitting at home watching TV or studying, you can now see a ball being kicked around every evening. Parents are more than willing to send their children to RFC because Manoj has built strong personal relationships with them. They know that he is responsible, and will guide their kids in an appropriate manner. His parents can see the respect he earns, and they are amazed at his ability to balance school and football. They do remind him of his responsibilities at home too, but they understand his passion and encourage him to talk about his work.
RFC has registered and participated in various local tournaments, and although there hasn’t been much success – in terms of trophies or medals – Manoj isn’t worried. He believes that he has to keep getting better as a coach and a mentor. That’s the only way that his 60 RFC students will grow and support the work he is trying to do. The trophies and medals will come, but right now it’s all about learning.
Manoj continues to be a Just For Kicks coach, besides his personal endeavours and trains a U12, U14, and U16 from his first school, Sitaram Abbaji. After five long years, his family sees that football does add value to Manoj’s life in a way that nothing else can.
Manoj is not thinking about slowing down anytime soon. “I never thought that I would find as much success as I have got till now. People have always helped me to achieve my goals because they understand what I am trying to do. My next target is to be a representative of grassroots football, so that whenever people think about developing the sport in India, they think about developing and coaching the kids who don’t get any opportunity at all. Maybe one day I will start a branch of Just For Kicks in Allahabad. Maybe RFC will spread to many cities in India. I just want to continue doing what I’m doing right now.”
Vikas, Co-Founder of Just For Kicks, on Manoj’s journey, said “When Just For Kicks started, we always dreamt about closing the loop. The kids we work with eventually passing on the love and passion for football. Manoj is our first true example of what that means. It’s a privilege to have been part of his journey, and we’re sure that if we have more people like Manoj, sport is going to get the importance and credit it deserves eventually.”
Manoj is going to give his 10th board exams in March and is currently on course to obtain a D license from ‘All India Football Federation’ (AIFF) that would make him an officially recognised football coach. In the future, he wants to build a residential academy from scratch and has a dream where every kid in India play at least one sport with an undying passion. He dreams of an India where kids need not choose between academic performance and sport.
About Just For Kicks
Working with 2500 children spread over 101 schools, Just For Kicks is a school intervention program working towards teaching children invaluable lessons of commitment, confidence, self- awareness and grit, through a life skills-based football curriculum. The organisation works with schools catering to students from the bottom of the economic pyramid – government schools, low-cost private schools, and public-private partnership schools, in the four Indian cities of Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Mumbai, and Pune. Started in 2011 with a simple idea, “Everyone Plays”, Just For Kicks uses the field to provide a third place to children, one beyond home and school, and in the process, unearth some of the brightest talents in the country.