INDIA, New Delhi. Shaji Prabhakaran is aiming for one goal: He wants football-playing standards of India to rise so high that one day India will play in Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) World Cup, to raise football skills among grassroots level players to an international level. Years of dedication and hard work are now bringing the desired result. India is slowly but surely rising in the football world.
Shaji’s big dream
Shaji was born in Kerala but brought up in Binnaguri, West Bengal. West Bengal is considered the home of Indian football. Shaji was probably 8 or 9 years old when he found a football field that was hardly 500 metres away from his home. At that age, he realized that he had the passion and necessary temperament to play football. He began to play and learn football from March through September. He learnt the basic skills by watching his seniors and other players. For almost a decade he was in the same tea garden club he first joined. He was 15 when he broke into the senior team through his talent and perseverance. Everybody was praising the young boy and Shaji was dreaming big.
He focused on football as a profession and joined Laxmibai National Institute of Physical Education Gwalior, both for sports and studies. After joining college, he soon found the gap in skills between himself and his senior players. These players were in the national junior team or Santosh Trophy (national tournament). With sheer determination and zeal, Shaji came to par with these players. He was rewarded by getting selected to the university team.
Injury and early setback
At 22, a serious knee injury occurred which virtually halted his career. No matter how many precautions he took, every time he tried to play on the field, the injury resurfaced. Shaji was distraught and dejected. His ambition took a nosedive. Talking to Transcontinental Times he said, “At that time, I couldn’t afford the costly knee surgery. Recovery and rehabilitation were not working.” His hope of playing professional football was shattered.
Focusing on academics and football coaching
Shaji regrouped himself and began to focus on his academics. He pursued his doctoral thesis in football. He got both junior and senior fellowships from the University Grant Commission (UGC). His constant endeavour landed him in a coaching the university team. His team, both men and women, placed third in the All India Inter-university competition in 1997. This success gave him confidence as a coach and administer. He pondered over his career as a football coach and administrator. Shaji said, “In the 1990s, nobody wanted to hire a football management person, but I was confident about my knowledge and experience in football.”
The first professional breakthrough
After searching for months, he read a news story about the planning of a football academy by Chandigarh Administration, Punjab. Shaji realized the opportunity and offered them his expertise. After much deliberations, he got a chance to coach and administer the young players in the academy. His hard works soon paid dividends, and six of his players were selected in the U-14 Indian team in 2004. It was one of the most satisfying moments for him, but the remuneration was not sufficient, so he was also a teacher and fitness trainer at the university.
In 2005, he joined All India Football Federation (AIFF) as a director of the National Football Association. He put all his past experiences and expertise into Indian football. He managed youth development, a national team, coach education, and women’s football. His ideas and expertise soon began to take shape even at the grassroots level.
International exposure in FIFA
He joined FIFA in October 2011 as the head of south-central Asian football development. His job was to manage and supervise football development in a dozen countries across Asia. He worked for five years and gathered massive experience. He said, ”I meet FIFA president, general secretary, international coaches and players. It was a great learning curve for me. All my years of sacrifices and pain were bringing fruits.”
Based on his global experience he wrote a book “Back To The Roots” in 2016. This book is now a reference book across the world, especially in Asia. A few European universities are also using his book as a guide. Once he got enough exposure in international football, he decided to turn his attention to Indian football. He contested the election for president of the Delhi Football Association and won in 2017. He is now developing Delhi football from a grassroots level to club level.
“India has developed a football structure in the last decade, and Indian football is growing as more sponsors like Reliance and Hero are joining. Even Bollywood personalities are buying teams in the Indian Super League,” he said. “There are now many people coming for Indian football.”