The Renaissance Men of Indian Football – Henry Menezes, Goalie to Gamechanger Part 3

This is the third chapter of a 3-part series on Henry Menezes. Here’s Chapter 1: The First Man and Chapter 2: The Exile.

Chapter 3: The Kingdom

In the 1870s Charles W. Alcock, a sports Neil Armstrong of some kind (first secretary of the officially formed FA) acknowledged the installation of the role of the goalkeeper. Little did he know he effected a cultural phenomenon – the oddity of the goalkeeper. The arbitrary nature of their roles allows for sincere introspection and self-assessment. You could ask if it was the role that made the man or was it the man that made that role – and we’d buy you a round of Guinness because that’s a bloody good question to ask!

Pioneer: C.W. Alcock was an influential English sportsman and administrator. He was a major instigator in the development of both international football and cricket, as well as being the creator of the FA Cup. Formed the Forest club with his elder brother, John, in Chingford in 1859. He was then a prime mover in the 1863 foundation of Forest’s more famous successor, Wanderers F.C., who were initially a predominantly Old Harrovian side. For their influence on the game of football, the Wanderers were considered as early as 1870 to be the MCC of football. As a player, Alcock was renowned as a hard-working centre-forward with an accurate shot.

Every year, a company in Britain sells around 1000 limited-edition goalkeeping tops. It has Camus’ name stitched across the shoulders. On the front is written: All I know most surely about morality and obligations – I owe to football. In bold. When Albert Camus espoused his views on revolutions, he started with a sort of defining of self that appears individualistic but in fact is the opposite. By recognising the boundaries of our self and the society that raised it, a revolution thus goes beyond solitary stand. It’s because the revolutionary recognises the common good worth fighting for, bettering the situation for, that goes above and beyond his personal ambitions. He recognises that there’s something worth preserving for the sake of his fellow beings, and works with all in his capacity to get closer to building this dream. But none of this is possible without an inherent sense of virtue, a set of morals as a guiding compass on this journey of change and for change.

Like Camus, Henry Menezes has his vision and his fight, and the strong foundation of morals that continue to aid and direct all his thoughts and actions, some even revolutionary. Like Camus, he owes everything to football. Unlike Camus, he’s lived and breathed the sport and is still living it. Born on April 30, 1964, he has donned many caps – track and field athlete, the professional footballer, think tank for football clubs, administrator – and been successful in all of them. If anything, with his experience, his discipline, creativity, vision and passion for football, he was the perfect choice to be made the CEO of Western India Football Association.

In the 5 years, he’s held the executive post, Henry’s personally travelled to 21 districts in the state of Maharashtra, with increasing press and media presence owing to India’s increasing interest in the sport and his pedigree. It was during one such visit to the district of Sangli, which was supposed to be doing fairly well in football, that Henry noticed one of the most basic of problems, yet one that had everything to do with the lack of proper training, especially at the grassroots level, for aspiring footballers in the country. Where were all the qualified coaches? Previously, there had been no emphasis on coaching education, more so at the crucial grassroots and school levels. Even further up, most coaches were over 45 years of age, including many ex-players who didn’t know what else to do. Henry realised that if any major change was to be initiated, it had to start at the lowermost level of the pyramid, and it had to be done sooner rather than later. Even now, when there has been a steady, but considerable success in the area of qualified coaches, he cautions patience and more hard work.

“What we need to understand is that the top-level of Indian football is something we cannot remedy right now, but this (grassroots) is the place where we can make a difference in football. This will take around 10 years to be fully effective. But it will make a difference.”

“First thing is grassroots, because that is the most pliable, and the wide sponsorship scope and demographic. If you bid for a sponsorship for the top-tier, there wouldn’t be many to put in that amount of money it warrants. At the grassroots level – even the parents pitch in. Everyone’s invested.”

Back then, for the pilot project in 2011, Henry personally structured and planned the curriculum for this first of its kind indigenous license, and trained 16-18 instructors with the help of the AIFF coaching director. They were thoroughly prepped, including on how to make proper presentations, and filmed throughout the process so that they could also review themselves at the end. In just over 5 years, there are now 2000+ qualified coaches and more than a 1000 grassroots leaders who are earning in a professional capacity. While it’s now possible to take the 5-day course across the country, WIFA’s Cooperage headquarters in Mumbai remains the “IIM” (in his words) for D-license learning and development, with Maharashtra being the only state that has got more than 50% of the licenses (all of them, not just the D-license) being bestowed onto applicants who come from Bengal to Manipur to all parts of South India.

In December 2015, it was part of a very special first, and it was thanks to Henry’s ability to think out of the box and his trust in talent and hard work, whatever that person’s situation. A decade ago, Mumbai’s Oliver D’Souza, an aspiring footballer, had fallen through a makeshift roof when it collapsed, leaving him a T-7 paraplegic (no sensations from below the chest). He was 22 and it was a stray football that he’d gone to retrieve. An experience like that would’ve put anybody off even their most desired passion. But Oliver was determined to not let his disability stop him from living his life (worked in a PR company, started table tennis and swimming and even won the gold medal in the state freestyle 50 m championship!). It did, however, take him a while to arrive at football coaching. And when he did, he faced the doubts and incredulity of senior coaches. How could he become a coach if he couldn’t show his players himself? Again, Oliver persevered, boosted by the news story about Manchester United hiring Sohail Rehman, a wheelchair-bound coach. There was still the final matter of his application being accepted. AIFF had never received one from someone with a physical disability. It was none other than Henry Menezes who sought special approval to let Oliver join. Oliver, in turn, passed the D-license coaching certificate, becoming the first physically-challenged person to do so. He now wants to take up coaching at the grassroots, and eventually, coach a professional team. These are the kind of stories that bring home the impact of the D-license, its wide availability, and its connection to the growth in grassroots football and coaching.

“Integrity has no need of rules”

– Albert Camus

The next step is to ensure that all school and after school clubs and teams have a licensed coach. WIFA have written to all the districts, giving them until the end of 2017. As per AIFF guidelines to streamline coaching methodology and make it more rational, it is now also compulsory under the new WIFA laws that “a coach should be the holder of at least a ‘D’ license certification to impart training to the children in improvised means”. The specifications of the course emphasise the welcoming of young blood and its intention in encouraging people to take up coaching as a serious profession – “the course will be open to any person aged above 18 years having football playing experience, a passion for football and interest in coaching and the motivation to improve skills and understanding.”

This influx of young coaches complements the start of the U14 league that was started with 111 participating teams. (An U16/U17 league is in the works, which will be the true stepping stone to semi-professional and professional clubs.) At the same time, Henry, as part of the AIFF Technical, Coaching and Development Committee, also has his finger in the national team pie. He and his team are responsible for finding a national team coaching, sacking him, finding another and so on. They also make suggestions about a variety of issues in grassroots and coach education (for example, he recently insisted that the assistant coach be Indian – “earlier we didn’t have licensed coaches. Now we have pro-licensed coaches, why get them from outside and pay them more? Why not encourage the talent here?”), and are invited when FIFA come to India for their workshops.

There are new turf grounds opening up all the time,” says Gracian Moras, founder of the website bookmyturf.com. It was less than 10 in 2013; the number shot up to around 30 a year later, says Moras. (Text and image courtesy Mint)

Apart from championing the cause of the D-license in India, Henry realised that another major area that needed work was the gap between school teams and professional clubs, which is where a lot of the potential talent is lost without a clear career trajectory. He wants to provide these players and their families with clear objectives and a ladder into their kid’s potential future, should they choose to stick to playing football.

“Football is played in almost 70% of the schools, so we don’t need to reinvent the wheel, we just need to reinforce the basics and structure it better.”

“So it’ll be nice, it’ll be good I feel that the potential is in Maharashtra. We’re a population of 120 million, which in itself speaks volumes. At FIFA or AFC meetings, there are “oohs” and ”aahs’, when I mention that figure. And gasps when I say – 21.5 million are kids between ages 6 to 17 – so this is the potential that we will be tapping into. I think that in the next 3-4 years a lot of young, talented players will emerge.”

But with this 120 million comes a big surface area and the related logistical issues. How is WIFA handling that? You should know by now that with Henry at the helm, there will always be a road-map, whatever stage of the process it is in. He admits that 35 districts are too much to monitor. At the moment they are working directly with only 6, with future plans to expand. The final plan, which he surmises will take 3-4 years, is to make clusters – 5 clusters of 7 districts each. Rural administration is weak so they are trying different ways to improve it. AIFF has put up a technical and grassroots office at Cooperage out of their own coin for the same purpose.

“We want to make people accountable for it, we want to train people to do what we do. There are 2-3 districts that are learning from us – start the grassroots, start the grassroots leaders course, start coaching education. When we have coaches, children will come to them. It becomes a business for them also, and to monetise that they will start working harder, and automatically you have centres, and things start to grow from there. Palghar, Nasik, Solapur, for example, are doing quite well with this system. Our aim is to see that every kid in Maharashtra gets an opportunity to play.”

Big words admittedly, but being awarded the Best Grassroots program 2014 by AIFF and FICCI at the Goal 2015 India Football Summit (3rd International Convention on Football Business) should tell you that they are serious and committed to fulfilling that promise. And it isn’t just the lads they’re thinking about. There is also a strategic framework in place to encourage and provide infrastructure, education and awareness for girls. Take the AIFF’s “FIFA Live Your Goal” project for instance. It was recently launched at Cooperage with more than 200 girl participants. Also at Cooperage is the Mirror Girls Soccer League which had its inaugural edition in October 2016, and is currently underway for edition number two (with over 200 competing teams). A 4-day rink football competition exclusively for girls with cash prizes of over a lakh of rupees (this year they are adding a U-12 category to the U-14, U-16 and Open categories of last year), it is backed by WIFA, the Mumbai District Football Association (MDFA), Mumbai Schools Sports Association (MSSA) and Indian Dietetic Association (IDA).

Under-12 girls from Dharavi Diary, an NGO based out of the biggest slum in India, won hearts and a semi-final berth vs Oscar Foundation, in the Mirror Girls Soccer League. (Picture courtesy TOI).

Henry is emphatic about wanting to create equal opportunities for girls in sport, and spreading awareness that they can take up the sport and compete with equal quality as their male counterparts (the Indian women’s national team has been ranked as high as 54 in the world). He believes that now’s the time to strike, with football being on the rise in India, and that a league like the MGSL will help provide that platform and showcase, and also help them assess the levels of skills and coaching needs.

WIFA and OFC’s (Oceanic Football Confederation) Just Play initiative is another important project. (It is the first Corporate Social Responsibility programme attached to a football state; so for the first time a project like this is going through official channels, including creating funding avenues and opportunities.) One of its main aims is to inculcate the values of cleanliness and gender equality through the medium of sport, in this case, football. It’s common knowledge that core principles, values and habits are mostly formed and developed by and before the age of ten. That’s also the age at which budding footballers need to be tapped so that the basics form the solid foundation on which the rest of their development (physical, emotional, mental) can rest.

When asked to elaborate, Henry gave two examples. For the first, kids will be asked to dip their palms in glitter and then asked to wash it all off with just water. They will then be taught about invisible germs, how they can so easily be transmitted everywhere, how soap is needed in such a situation to get rid of them, and why it’s necessary to wash our hands and face with soap regularly. The second is where the kids will be asked a question like “do you like chocolate?” Naturally, most of the answers will be a resounding yes. After that, there will be a follow-up question – “do you remember when you started to like chocolate?” The idea here is to link the issue of physical abuse (whether with respect to their fathers beating their mothers or the lack of respect shown to women, in general, be it mothers, grandmothers, sisters, friends etc) and how it can become extremely normalised if that’s all one has ever known. It’s a positive step in the right direction, especially if a younger population can be tapped at the right time.

“Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present”

– Albert Camus

There is also the proposal of a grassroots level league (a collaboration between AIFF and WIFA) for both men and women in Maharashtra. Funds are of course crucial and it is heartening that in 2012, WIFA signed a 100 crore deal (over a period of 10 years) with Sporting Ace, a private agency, for football development within the state of Maharashtra. But it is also the responsibility of individual states to ensure that enough local and grassroots level activity is undertaken in order to aid these efforts by the football organisations. And accountability needs to be fostered and nurtured in an environment that isn’t very accustomed to it. According to Henry, our honorary set-up is the “biggest worm in the entire system…it’s like a disease” and especially in the smaller states it needs to be brought into practice. The bigger states of Maharashtra, Goa, Kerala and Karnataka have some of these systems in place, but it needs to become widespread, and for that Indian football also needs somebody who has vision broader than simply inter-district as means of players then getting jobs. One of his personal suggestions is to introduce scorecards for the districts to harness pride and competitive spirit.

“The states must start a lot of club activity, give exposure to clubs; today in football all the clubs have to take responsibility, even if it is just by developing the venues – clubs need to address youth development, clubs have to develop grassroots. We conduct football festivals and competitions, invite participations – so it is a combination of state associated, district associated where state and districts give exposure and the pride of representing their clubs and colours.”

In order to ensure this accountability with regards football development in the states, AIFF has a strategic plan in place, along with delegates from FIFA (football’s world governing body). There will be seven participating state associations with a one-year time limit to implement the recommendations of this delegation. The progress of each state will be tracked and reviewed by the team of delegates after three months, in order to decide whether the necessary aims are being met. If there is an inability to deliver those results by the given deadline, AIFF will provide another state with the same opportunity in place of the first. There will also be the appointment of two officials within each state association who will oversee the project – technical officer and director of operation and management.

But when it comes to the higher levels of the sport, Henry believes that to increase competition, attract and develop talent, we need to take advantage of the fact that today the I-League is spread out in 9 states as opposed to the initial 3-4. And this is where he agrees with the proposed restructuring of league football (elaborate) and hopes that it can create an atmosphere of healthy competition between the I-League and ISL clubs and consequently provide the Indian football scene with a larger pool of youth players.

“So let’s see what happens… everyone has their role to play, and if everybody does it right I think we’ll be at a stage where are rubbing shoulders with giants of football. All eyes are going to be on that.”

Winning the bid was a critical part of the Indian grassroots plan. Henry was involved in the documentation for the bid, which India won, and talks about the “standard questionnaire” they had to fill, a mere 350 pages! When questioned about the amount of preparation required to successfully manage an international event of this magnitude, Henry confirms that they have three grounds ready, including a revamped DY Patil (new and additional seating, quality floodlights, good media tribunal, increased VVIP seating of 2000). The other stadiums have government intervention, unlike the private institutions like DY Patil, and so he isn’t aware of their time-scales and planning. However, he is quietly positive and hopeful about the far-reaching impact of hosting a tournament like this

“3 of the U17 boys (from Maharashtra) are part of the upcoming World Cup. All the top players in the world have burst onto the international scene from the U17s, and if we relate to that, kids will be interested, and I think that the stadiums should be packed. Imagine us playing in a stadium in Mumbai. People are going to be interested.”

Henry Menezes

Henry Menezes can trace the clear thread of virtue running through his childhood upbringing; it is one he has nurtured and carried along with him, almost like a shield, and now it’s aiding him better than any set of rules offered by a management directive. Camus famously said that virtue cannot separate itself from reality; it is the same virtue that’s been inseparable from Henry’s calling to uplift Indian football and improve conditions for the sport that gave him so much. It’s evident that it is what has led him here and continues to sustain him. There’s no separating the man from the reality or the reality from the man. Now in an office, uncoincidentally, at the same grounds and facilities at Cooperage. The same venue he had travelled to for 4 days, as an unknown with no connections or influence for national trials. Life has been like one of those feel-good Bollywood films for Henry Menezes. Poetically, produced in the city of Bombay, where no dream is impossible. For us at Football Paradise, this feature has been a thriller, a struggle, a lesson, an education. Henry Menezes leaned over to tell us – picture abhi baaki hai (and the movie’s far from over). Those weren’t his exact words, but was the gist of it. If this does indeed happen, reckon a few Indian football fans may add Henry Menezes name under Camus’ on those limited-edition goalkeeping tops.

“I feel that there are good challenges in front – yes, somebody’s going to notice.”

Paradigm shift: The Arena, located in Andheri (East) is one of the 50-plus football fields in the Greater Mumbai area alone.
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Anushree Nande

Published writer and editor. Hope is her superpower (unsurprisingly she's a Gooner), but sport, art, music and words are good substitutes.