Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Spanish sojourn

Kochi lad Evans Thomas goes to Barcelona and gets a glimpse of what international football is like

By Shevlin Sebastian

It was five minutes to eight on a sunny August morning at the Nou Camp stadium at Barcelona Football Club. One by one, the players arrived in cars to attend the 8 a.m. training session. Suddenly, a red car whizzed to a stop in front of the entrance.

"Ronaldinho was sitting in the middle at the back, his face half-covered by a handkerchief," says Evans Thomas, who is a student of Choice School. "The car was driven by friends. Ronaldinho was unable to drive himself because he is so popular in Barcelona and will be mobbed."

Even at this early hour, there were fans waiting to take photographs and shout greetings at one of the world's greatest footballers. "Despite being a hero," says Thomas, "everyone says he is a down-to-earth person."

Thomas, 16, was in Barcelona to attend a week's training with the coaches of the club's junior team. It happened like a dream. In July, Nike India announced a 'Where's the next' contest to unearth the best football talent in India. You had to be between 15 and 17 years of age and you needed to post a one-minute video displaying your football skills on the Nike web site.

Based on these videos, ten boys, including Thomas, were selected from all over India and were brought to Delhi in August. They were divided into two teams, and the match was watched by former Indian football captain Baichung Bhutia. In the end, Thomas was selected to represent India (See The New Indian Express, August 10). A 16 member team from Asia, including players from Korea, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and India, reached Barcelona in end August.

His first impressions of Barcelona? "It is a very clean city," says Thomas. "The infrastructure is perfect. The roads are clean, there are no potholes like in Kochi. The traffic moves smoothly, nobody blows the horn, and there are separate lanes for cars, taxis, buses and for people to walk. On both sides, there are old-fashioned buildings, but it looks unique."

But the most stunning experience for Thomas was when he watched a friendly match between Barcelona and Inter Milan at the Nou Camp stadium. The kick-off was at 10.30 p.m., so that people could have dinner and then come for the match.

Earlier, while taking a stroll, he was astonished to find the city swathed in the club colours of red and blue. There were club flags hoisted everywhere, on top of buildings, on store fronts and on cars.

"Men, women and children wore T-shirts with the club's colours," he says. "Dogs had coats in Barcelona colours and the carriages of babies had the club logo. Football plays a major role in the lives of the people. There are no other activities when a match is going on."

And when it came to describing the Nou Camp stadium, where the match was held, Thomas's eyes became round, like saucers. "It is huge and can seat 99,000 people," he says. "The Nehru stadium in Kaloor is like an ant compared to Nou Camp." The stadium has an area of 55,000 square metres, with press rooms, changing rooms and hospitality boxes. There are 100 entrances all around the stadium.

The match was a knockout, as Barcelona blanked Inter Milan, 5-0. "They say that when Barcelona scores a goal, you can feel the earth vibrating 10 kilometres away,” says Thomas. “When I was there, the spectators did several Mexican waves. I could actually feel the whole place shaking."

Says Srinivasan Gopalkrishnan, Brand Communications Manager, Nike, who accompanied Thomas to Barcelona: "We were awestruck. Entering the stadium and experiencing a sea of people cheering for Barca [the nickname for the club], was an unforgettable experience."

The serious business for Thomas took place in the mornings when the two coaches, a Japanese and a Spaniard, gave tips on technique and attitude. "They placed a lot of emphasis on enjoying yourself," he says. "They said that if you are tense, you won't be able to play a normal game."

The Asian team played friendly matches with teams of youngsters of the same age. They won some, lost a few, and learned a few strategies along the way. Says Gopalkrishnan: "The coaches said Thomas has a lot of potential and can strike well with both feet – which is a bonus. However, he was found wanting where physical build was concerned, which is crucial for football. The coaches felt that if he worked on his physique, he would do very well."

That is good news, indeed. Surely, Thomas, after this great experience, must be still dreaming of becoming a professional player? "I don't see myself working in an office," he says. "I rather go out and play football. This trip has showed me how lives can revolve around the game. My father said that in India, it is difficult to make a living by playing football. But he said he would support me if I can get a breakthrough abroad."

And what about Nike? Will the firm make this search for talent an annual event? "We have not taken a decision on it, but the option is open," says Sanjay Gangopadhyay, Marketing Director, Nike India. Perhaps the firm could follow its own world-famous slogan: Just Do It!

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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