Plans ruined, dreams shattered by COVID surge, say iconic coaches Shabbir and Sai Baba

Abhijit Sen Gupta
Abhijit Sen Gupta

Hyderabad: For several decades, summer holidays meant a buzz of activity at the different sports coaching centres in the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad. Playgrounds echoed with the joyful shouts of children practicing sports. Whistles rang out as coaches maintained discipline. From these hundreds of camps emerged talented players who later represented the state and the country in different games.

But now the grounds lie empty and forlorn. Not a soul can be seen anywhere. The deadly and ruthless coronavirus has forced the children to stay indoors. There are many cases where children have lost family members. Some have even lost parents. What a terrible holiday season this is turning out to be. Last year too it was the same. These are nightmarish times that the children will remember till they themselves are middle aged or old.

One of the sports schemes that has been badly hit is the Shabbir Ali Football Academy run by Shabbir Ali himself. The former captain of India needs no introduction to football lovers. He began his football career in Hyderabad but went on to become one of India’s best players during the 1970s and 1980s. He captained India to a joint victory with Iran at the Asian Youth championships in 1974. This feat was lauded by no less a person than the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

Later he coached the Indian team and then finally returned to Hyderabad and set up his academy hoping to unearth talent and restore to Hyderabad its golden days in football. But the dreaded COVID has been a huge setback to his plans. He has had to suspend his coaching till the middle of May and it may be extended if the situation does not improve.

Speaking to siasat.com he said: “The second wave of the coronavirus has completely ruined our plans. After many years of hard work, I finally managed to get this academy underway. It was my dream project. I was lucky to get this superb grassy ground in Bandlaguda where I started my project with the help of well wishers in MB Sports. My plan was to enroll about 20 boys in four age groups and also some young players from my Abbas Union club train them to perfection,” says the striker who has the credit of scoring the fastest ever hat-trick for India.

“I knew that it would not be easy to run such an ambitious project. But I wanted to give something back to the sport that has given me so much fame. However, I had never imagined that this second wave of COVID would crush us and put a halt to all my plans. We have had to keep our expansion on hold. But I am hopeful that the dreadful virus will subside and then we will be able to resume our activities,” says Shabbir Ali.

“It is not just skills that we must teach the boys. We have to inspire them to achieve big results. India’s successes in international football are few.

The last one at the Intercontinental level was when we shared the AFC Youth championship with Iran. It was the passion of patriotism that motivated us. When our rival Iranian players were sitting in their bus we heard them laughing and joking about us. That made us determined to fight against our stronger rival. Our coach S.A. Salaam motivated us,” Shabbir Ali recalls. 

“That is the spirit we must evoke among the youth of today. Iran was a very formidable outfit. They had scored 10 goals in the tournament. We played a 4-2-4 formation and got the better of Laos, Burma, Hong Kong and Thailand. But against Iran we knew we must fight to the end. We were leading 2-1 at one stage. Lateef and I had scored for India. My teammates Yakoob, Latif and Harjinder played with great zeal while goalkeeper Moitra was acrobatic in the goal. But later Iran equalised. I try to tell our boys these facts and stories to inspire them. Mental and emotional preparation is important. One day I hope India will rise to the level that we once had,” says the experienced coach.

In another part of the city, namely Masab Tank, former Ranji trophy player K. Sai Baba runs his Sports Coaching Foundation. It is an institution of 30 years standing, having been founded in 1991. But for the first time the coaching schemes have been affected. It happened last year and this year it is limping along.

“We are not totally closed but we are functioning at less than half strength,” says the genial Sai Baba. “Our cricket coaching scheme has only 30 boys daily this year. For football and basketball we have a combined total of 25. Normally in summer our full strength may exceed 150. But now the number has been dramatically reduced. Nevertheless, we take full precautions to see that every participant is safe be it the players or coaches.”

“There is a bore well inside our ground and we ensure that all the participants have a complete hand and face wash before entering the ground for practice. There is adequate numbers of soaps and sanitisers kept nearby. To make doubly sure, I have split the trainees into two batches so that here is no overcrowding. The cricket trainees come in the morning and the other trainees come in the evening,” says Sai Baba.

“Most of our children, about 60 percent, are from poorer sections of society. So we have to educate them about safety measures during the coronavirus pandemic. So far, I am glad to say, everything has gone well. If we take care and proceed with caution, I am sure that we will be able to carry on without any mishaps,” says Sai.

The annual summer sports coaching camps that used to be run by the Municipal Corporation of Hyderabad (as GHMC was earlier known) was the largest of its kind in India. Many well known sportsmen and women began their sports careers in the MCH camps. One such person was volleyball player Abdul Basith who became one of the best players in India in the 1980s. 

As is well known, a player’s career is brief. When he or she crosses the age of 30, the performance begins going downhill. So the loss of two years due to COVID means losing a fairly big chunk of time. Players and coaches are keeping their fingers crossed and praying that the nightmare will end soon.

Abhijit Sen Gupta is a seasoned journalist who writes on Sports and various other subjects.

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