A Bottle, A Ball and a Million Kicks | In Conversation with Mumbai and Thane Soccer Prodigies Director Ashutosh Rathod

A Bottle, A Ball and a Million Kicks: In Conversation with Soccer Prodigies Director Ashutosh Rathod.

Grassroots of any sport serves as it’s bedrock, nurturing talent, fostering community spirit, and promoting physical and mental well-being. Its importance cannot be overstated, as it lays the foundation for the entire sporting ecosystem, from local academies to the international stage.

While Indian Football’s search to find players who can maybe bring them back on par with the best of the continent, the role of grassroots football continues to get neglected, when this is exactly the route traversed by millions of aspiring footballers. While it cannot be said that there is a perfect environment to support this thirst, some individuals and organisations with honest intent have took in on themselves to atleast do their small part towards the greater good.

In this Interview article, we get to know the story of one such Team, the Soccer Prodigies. Functioning as the brain and executor behind the two sister clubs, the Mumbai Soccer Prodigies and Thane Soccer Prodigies, Founder and Director Ashutosh Rathod shares how he transformed an unknown neighbourhood club into a promising Academy with programs for kids as young as five and providing a platform for young adults in the top divisions of State and potentially National level club football.

The conversation spans a wide range of topics, from the origin story of Mumbai and Thane Soccer Prodigies, a deep look into their programs, teams, the leagues they play in, their financial organisation and future aspirations, the areas which local and National Associations need to improve on and football’s role in creating a community and developing an individual beyond the pitch.

 . . .

I. An Introduction to Mumbai Soccer Prodigies

A Fresh Start: "My Vision is lot bigger than what you can think right now."

Starting lineup of Mumbai Soccer Prodigies against FSI in Super Division (Courtesy: Soccer Prodigies Media)

“It was an old club, named Chheda Nagar Soccer Prodigies, located in the Chheda Nagar locality in Mumbai. I was not there from the beginning; it was started by few youngsters. Kiran Kumar, Atish Samant, Vikram Gaikwad of that locality, they started CSP in May, 2006.”

“I played for the club for a couple of years. In the beginning the original founders decided to play in the 3rd division and got promoted till 1st division quickly. After we got promoted to Super Division, I had to decide to move on with life parting ways from the club, but the club continued of course.”

“In 2017 the team was fighting a relegation battle in the Super Division (2nd tier of Mumbai Club Footballing Structure) and somehow survived after lot of struggles, so Mr Rakesh Menon then in charge of the club decided to take this seriously. Mr Menon reached out to me that they want someone to take over and they think that it could be me.”

“Then I proposed that if I’m getting in the picture, since I was working in the sports industry for quite some time, there will be a lot of changes I’ll be making. I want to make the team much bigger. And they were okay with it as long as I could take care of everything.”

“And from then onwards, things started changing. In my first year, we continued to play as Chheda Nagar Soccer Prodigies (during the transition period). In the second year, I changed it to Mumbai Soccer Prodigies. Why Mumbai Soccer Prodigies? Because Chheda Nagar is a very small area, so to be contesting in Mumbai, we need to be somebody, you know, at least creating a fanbase within the entire city of Mumbai. They said that I was thinking too big, and I told them my vision is even bigger than what you can think right now.”

“In the first season of mine, we finished 3rd in league out of 32 teams in the Super Division; 4th technically but one team pulled out; but only top 2 qualify, so we didn’t qualify that season. We have not qualified in Elite Division (top tier of Mumbai Football) yet, but out of my five seasons, we have been into playoffs in three times. So, we’re doing a good job there.”

Launching the Academy: "Development, Development and Development Only."

Mumbai Soccer Prodigies Academies (Courtesy: Soccer Prodigies Media)

“Last to last year, we started off with Mumbai Soccer Prodigies Academies. While doing all this, I was working full time at Somaiya Vidyavihar University as a Technical Manager, heading their technical team. Apart from that, Mumbai Soccer Prodigies was my extra time."

"During the AFC B License Course, I proposed to few close friends about starting the MSP academy. One of them picked it up, four of them were not so keen on business, because it is a risky proposal, you know.”  

“Deep Moorjani was the one who picked it up and took over the academy. And the academy did a brilliant job over the last two years. The last match we played, in the U15s, we had beaten Mumbai City FC. They were unbeaten until then. People might have a different opinion, but as per me, in Mumbai, the top academies would be Reliance (RFYC), Mumbai City FC and then it will be us.”

“Because everyone else is running for only the results or the money. For us, results are only a byproduct. Development is the thing we are thriving on completely, so we want to do development, development, and development only. Currently we target ages 6 to 16; all the programs are there, U6, U8, U10 and so on. That is with the most academies that after (age) 16, most kids not aware of what to do. But we are creating a pathway for the players even after graduating from the academy.”

Building the Mentality: "Teams are spoiling the players by paying them money."

MSP players in action against Mumbai City FC U19s in Super Division. Jersey No. 7 in focus is  Gaurav Adhikari, Captain and current longest serving player of MSP (Courtesy: Soccer Prodigies Media)

“After 16, players have no idea where to go. Till then they are in a structured program, and suddenly they are out of coaching. Suddenly they are looking for teams. In Mumbai, the format is teams want to pay five hundred or a thousand rupees to you for playing a game.”

“So now, for example, if you’re playing Super Division, if I’m paying you five hundred rupees per game, then I really don’t care how you play, then I only care about the results because I am paying you the money for the results, that’s it. These teams are spoiling the players by paying them money, players think getting paid five hundred a game is a development, but it’s very short-sighted thinking!”

“And that is something I don’t want to be. That’s something I am pushing people not to be, that you know we are not a team who is running only behind results. You are 15-16 year old! You are getting in this team, you are somebody we can work on, so that you can get the platform of the Super or Elite Division, so that you can become a better player, that’s the whole idea.”

“In the senior team there are certain players, who have played I-League, I-League 2nd Div, one of them being Nitesh Aswani (former Kenkre, Pune City FC and Minerva Punjab player); these guys are playing with us, at no charge, because they understand what I’m trying to do here. They have chosen new working paths, they don’t want to play I-League/ISL anymore, as they are excelling in their chosen fields; these guys want other young guys to develop.”

“I always tell parents who might be concerned that the team lost some U13 game, it’s not about the results. I taught that kid how to overlap last week, and he overlapped five times in the match, and that’s where the success is. If he hadn’t done that, then I would have failed as a coach, but he has done what I have taught him.”

“I was running these programs at no cost to players earlier, now as I have quit my job to do this full time, obviously we can’t do these for free as there are multiple expenses, we need to take care of them.”

“I never try to hold back my players. I always let them go, if a Mumbai City FC or Reliance or some I-League team or any better place than my team has an offer for them. From the academy, we have Jacob Sabu, who is a 15 year old goalkeeper. In a game against Mumbai City FC this season, we lost 1-0 as they scored a late winner, Jacob was younger than most player, yet he played brilliantly in that match.”

“So Mumbai City FC’s Goalkeeping coach walks to him and offers him to play for MCFC. He previously had gone for MCFC’s trials but he supposedly hadn’t made the cut. And that’s where I think we succeeded in coaching him, kudos to Chinmay Shirke our former goalkeeper and goalkeeping coach. Every year, we have a few players who go to Elite Division. Our Center Back Vinay Kondamuri played Santosh Trophy this season. That I think can be called a success for us.”

Finding Thane Soccer Prodigies and Involving the Local Community: "We have a proper fanbase, of around 60-70 people."

“About Thane Soccer Prodigies, we started it last year. So, I live in this housing complex called Lodha Amara in Thane. And the reason I shifted here is because there is a 11 a side football field in here, with free use for the residents. And when I shifted here, I had this idea that someday I will start a football team here. Last year when I met Ashwin (Doke), we were playing a private tournament together. Ashwin had brought me in his team.”

“When I discussed my idea of starting a team with him, he said he had the same idea lingering in his head for some time too. I told him about Mumbai Soccer Prodigies, this is what I have been doing for 6 years now, so we can do something similar. So, Ashwin is not from football background, but he is very excited to do something in this field because he is a massive football fan and very passionate about doing something for footballers.”

“So we started Thane Soccer Prodigies last year, we participated in the 2nd Division. We took players within the complex, because we couldn’t bring outside players in the housing complex, and we didn’t want to spend on an external training ground, so we started in this smaller scale.”

“Still, we happened to finish third in the league (Thane Football Association’s 2nd division (in a structure similar to Mumbai, i.e. Elite, Super, 1st and 2nd), on level points with the Runners Up team, but missing out due to a poorer Head to Head record even after having a higher Goal Difference than them.”

“We scored 50 goals in 10 games. For most of the players, it was their first season playing 11 a side football in an official tournament. We were awarded the best newcomer team of the season by Thane Football Association.”

“We have a proper fanbase, of around 60-70 paid members or fans as you may call them; people who wear our jersey inside the complex, and a few of them would come to watch the games too. Now we are playing a private tournament, and you know, we have a proper ambience there, 30-35 people coming out to watch and cheering us.”

“This is something I wanted to create always; a community which is supporting their team, and they should have the feeling that they own a part of this team, because I truly believe that they are the stakeholders and without these fans there is no fun. So, I think this can be replicated in other modules too, like in Mumbai Soccer Prodigies.”

“As this is a just the beginning, I may not be fetching any money similar to my jobs. However, if you ask my wife, she says when you were not so happy earlier and not so active, but now it has been over a month and I see you very happy; you get up early every day at the time you want to get up and go to the ground to see the players. For me it’s not about the money every time, it’s seeing my players grow every day and chase their dreams.”

. . .

II. What is the Role of Mumbai Football Association and AIFF?

 A Need for Commercialisation and Full Length Games: "The Intent is Missing."

Former I-League player NItesh Aswani has been crucial in nurturing the youth players of MSP (Courtesy: Soccer Prodigies Media)

“Not really, there’s not much support we get for the Academy or the team as such. Rather I feel Associations need to make a lot of changes. There is so much that an Association can do. I personally think that if Mumbai Football Association makes changes and starts commercialising the league, there are a lot of avenues where we can commercialise the league”

“Here in Mumbai, there are Private Leagues such as the Roots Premier League and the Double Pass Development League (DPDL). They have good number of sponsors and I guess it will be safe to assume they are making good money out of football. So if Mumbai Football Association reaches out to the right people, because you do have the reach and ability for it, there are so many avenues, but the intent is missing.”

“In Mumbai Football Association, there is a proposed program. They are proposing that 3rd Division (5th tier) will be U17, 2nd Division (4th tier) will be U19, 1st Division (3rd tier) U21, and then Super (2nd tier) and Elite (1st Tier) Division open for all. I think that is not a great approach towards football because, outside of India, if you see in all the elite European leagues, we see 16 yr olds debuting. That is how you develop your players.”

“At the association level, if I emphasise 16 yr olds can play 3rd division (5th tier), I’m not giving them an opportunity at the higher level, it’s going to be a problem; we want to promote younger player at a higher level. It should be other way round actually; they should have atleast four or five 16 yr olds in the Elite division for each team, let amateur players play the lower divisions and give better platforms to the prodigies.”

“In MFA, the 2nd Division (4th tier) games are only played for 25 minutes a half. So if you are playing an Under 19 player there, only 25 minutes a half, then suddenly that player is going for State or National League, they have to play 90 minutes. The players are simply not ready. The League is not supporting in any way, neither technically nor financially.”  

 Politics, Keeping Track of Players, and an Obsession with Foreign Coaches: "You can’t just randomly go into the World Cup!"

Animated MSP Players in a Super Division match against FSI (Courtesy: Soccer Prodigies Media)

“I think there should be more tournaments organised by district FA’s. The Associations need to do a better job organising them and setting up proper scouting channels for making their competitive teams. Right now, I don’t like to say the word, but we are stuck in Politics. These days you get to see that Coaches only want their players to be a part of the team, not the rightful best players to be part of the team. And that’s a very bad thought process.”

“AIFF introduced Competition Management System (CMS) few years back. So what this system basically does is mark your performances, Goals, Assists, Positions you played, even yellow or red cards among other aspects. AIFF needs to make CMS compulsory for any tournament any Association is hosting. That way we can get to know which player is doing what.”

“So an 8 year old who plays well for twelve years is now until he’s 20. And lets say a state team coach has a player who has only played for four years, who is an average player; if the coach now picks a player who is only playing for four years and not the one performing for twelve years whom he is not aware of, a talent would be left out just because we didn’t have the track record for the players.”

“As a Federation, we need to keep track of the players who are performing good. We are always talking of going to the World Cup, but if you really want to go to the World Cup, there needs to be a lot of preparation for it. You can’t just randomly go into the World Cup and these can be the first steps to it”

“Another thing I personally think we are lacking due to the obsession with foreign coaches. We look way too much into foreign coaches. When we consider Indian coaches, they know the financial background of the players. They know what the ground conditions are. They know the environments the players have grown up and are playing in. They will understand and empathize with the player better.”

“If somebody comes from outside Europe or a good footballing nation, they expect things to be the way it happens in their country; they expect the player has gone through structured training from four till eighteen; they assume that an eighteen year old has been training for twelve to fourteen years.”

“But that’s not the reality here, it is a very different ball game here in India. The player might have no exposure to football till 11-12 years of age in his life; how he has reached the top can be a very different story. These are aspects we are lacking in this country and it will take many years to rectify.”

Helpful Sponsors: "An AC Bus for the Team."

MSP Players celebrate a goal against Charkop FC in the Super Division (Courtesy: Soccer Prodigies Media)

“We have multiple sponsors and they lifted up the team in many ways. Mr Satish Obhan from City Commute provided us with a team bus, free of cost. I like to boast about this, thanks to our sponsors. Including even the I League 2 teams from Mumbai, we are the only team with a dedicated team bus, that too air conditioned."

"When I was a player, I couldn’t get that experience like a pro player while playing soccer, but through the City Commute buses I can help my players feel how it feels to be in the Professional setup. My players are very excited due to this."

“Mr Utsav Madan is another entrepreneur with his chain of restaurants and he sponsors multiple meals to our teams at one of his restaurants and this really helps team bond over a dinner/lunch outing.”

"We have recently joined hands with Mr. Vishnu Raj Menon who is former Mr. India and also India’s representative for Mr. World. He has stepped in as a Brand Ambassador for Soccer Prodigies and is also helping the soccer prodigies with the PR for the upcoming season. UB Glamorous and Naqsh Tourism are two more brand which has signed up with us for the season 24/25."

“Mr. Ashwin Rubin, Director of Transcon Freight Systems Pvt. Ltd. who been our biggest support for all our requirements he has been a constant sponsor for 3 years now. Whenever there is a lack of money, when I am maybe considering stopping the training, Ashwin would step in and ask what the fees is; and he would simply pay it off so the trainings don’t stop. I can’t describe how I feel about his support and I cant be more thankful.”

. . .

III. The Road Ahead for Soccer Prodigies: A Plan to get into I League-3.

 MSP Academy’s Head Coach and Player Deep Moorjani in action (Courtesy: Soccer Prodigies Media)

When Mr. Ashutosh was asked about his vision for the future, where he sees Soccer Prodigies in the next five to ten years, he immediately replied that it is too far into the future, and he wishes to elaborate on the decisions taken for the immediate year. It is refreshing to note such a practical approach where small, yet actionable steps are being taken and there are no rosy pictures being painted on becoming something grand that sometimes sound a bit unrealistic.

“This year Thane Football Association, they are opening the Elite Division for everybody. They will be allowing teams from outside to participate, if they meet the given criteria such as certain number of players should have played for the State or National tournaments, that you need to have a training ground and other thing which will ensure the quality of Elite division is maintained.”

“I’m trying to take my 22 players who played for Mumbai Soccer Prodigies in the Super Division last season to the Elite Division here (in Thane). If we happen to win the Elite Division here in Thane and State Championship, which I really believe we can, there opens up a possibility to go into the I League 3rd Division (4th tier of Indian Football).”

“So the fifteen to twenty year olds in MSP who are training throughout the year, getting exposure in the Super Division in Mumbai, they are getting ready to play the Elite Division in Thane. If we make it into I-League 3rd Division, then the young players can look towards a professional platform to play in. So, there is a structure that we have an academy from ages 6 to 16, and 16 onwards they can go into the Super or Elite and possibly I League 3rd Divison too.”

. . .

IV. The Man Behind it All: The Unique Journey of Ashutosh Rathod.

 "When someone told me there exists a sport called Football, I thought this again was some form of bullying."

Ashutosh Rathod (right) along with Ashwin Doke (left), Co-Founder of Thane Soccer Prodigies with the Best Newcomer's Award of the Thane Football Association 2nd Division 23/24 Season

“I was average in School. I was bullied a bit there. I wasn’t into football then. After 10th I took admission into a Polytechnic Institution. There when someone told me there exists a sport called Football, I thought this again was some form of bullying.”

“They told that you need to play this with your feet, but I was like no, there is no sport like this. This was around 2006 when I had no idea of the sport. I still decided to check it out, I went for the College Selection. I somehow was a good runner; I don’t know how. I played or rather tried playing football for the first time and could do nothing at all, I don’t recollect if I even touched the ball that day. So, for one and a half years of Polytechnic I was bullied for not even being able to touch the ball.”

“So, that bullying led to me deciding to quit the college. And that I want to play Football. So, I had a coach in my colony, whose team is considered as a rival now, but that’s where I Started football. I nagged him back then to teach me the game. He would ignore me in the beginning, but I continued nagging him again and again and again for about a year, and then he finally let me train with his players.”

“I was on their bench for almost one and a half year. The last game of the season, somebody got injured, and I got to play as a Right Back. Then I continued to play and play, and eventually became the captain of (Ramnarain) Ruia College team. When I played Inter-Collegiate, colleges like (Guru Nanak) Khalsa College, Wilson College were considered the best, and somehow, we managed to beat these colleges.”

“At that point I played as a Center Back and trust me we were bad players. It was not a good team at all, but very hardworking one. However by fluke we beat a few big teams. We somehow managed to score a goal and then defend the rest of the match. And that created some more spark in me that I could do a lot more.”

“Then I had a couple of friends who had played at a higher level, and they took me to their training. I was playing in 2nd Division MFA then, and these players were in the Super to Elite Division and were playing for my college team. My college coach had decided to make me Captain despite the lack of quality. I guess he decided that because I was always there for trainings, no matter what happens, I would be there while others were busy in their own training or lectures etc.”

A Bottle, A Ball and a Million Kicks: "I knew that the only thing I have got is effort."

(Courtesy: Soccer Prodigies Media)

“Although my quality as player wasn’t good, my friends would take me to their club trainings just because I was their Captain in college. And there I improved a lot. I played on and off six to eight hours daily. In my building, there was a compound wall. I would keep a bottle on that, and the goal was to hit the bottle with the ball.”

“Obviously the ball did not hit the bottle at the beginning. I would have to jump the fence to get the ball back. In the beginning I would set a goal that I won’t get back to my house before I can hit the bottle tleast once. It would take four, five even six hours, but I was kicking the ball and jumping the fence continuously.”

“Eventually as I got better at hitting, by the end of the year, the goal changed, I would return home when I hit ten shots consecutively. So, everybody asks me how you have big calves and strong legs even when you didn’t go to the gym. It was because the ball was going to the other side of the fence and I was jumping it so many times, that’s how the muscles grew.”

“I had practised with the bottle so much that I became quite good at free kicks and became more confident. However, by then the reputation in my complex had become that this guy wouldn’t be able to do anything in life. He doesn’t study, doesn’t have a job; only thing that he does is play Football.”

“I knew that the only thing I have got is effort. I shifted teams and eventually joined as a player in Chheda Nagar Soccer Prodigies when they were in 1st Division. In my first game there I had bagged 8-9 assists. If I recollect properly, we had scored some fourteen goals, and eight or nine of those were my assists. After that I gave all my life for Football.”

“My parents left Mumbai in 2014 for a good four years when my father retired. Those four years I was struggling. I started to take jobs other than Football because I needed money to survive. In that period of four years, Football was on and off thing for me. But whenever there was a scope of football returning to life, I quit jobs.”

“I was earning good money approximately 50k at Tech Mahindra at a point; I got an offer to coach football for 15k a month, and I chose football quitting Tech Mahindra. Then slowly things started working out, and I took over Soccer Prodigies in 2018. From then Soccer Prodigies has been everything I know.”

Football is A Way of Life: "How do you expect Football to become better if the better players are not getting a chance?"

Nihal Colaco, former I League 2 player now plays with as well as guides the youth players of MSP (Courtesy: Soccer Prodigies Media)

“In my last job I was working as the Director of Operations – American Football with Elite Sports India. If I must earn similar kind of money as my previous job, I can make all of this much more easier for me. Out of the 632 registrations I get, I can easily find 30 players who will be ready to pay me enough money. But then I am not choosing players based on their potential, but their finances. Then what is the point in hinking of football development and preaching it.”

“Currently I have 8 players in my squad of 22 who are on scholarships. Their parents can’t afford the fees considering their current financial state. If I don’t pick up this player who has the potential, no one else will train the player without the money or give them a right platform at a young age. So how do you expect Football to grow, if the better players are not getting a chance?”

“In African countries, they come from a similar situation. They don’t have a lot of money. But when a talent is seen, people are picking up the talent. They are not just ignoring them for the money. Which is happening in India. It’s a shame that most academies in our country are running only and only for money and unless this changes we cannot do much.”

“Hence, we strive to reach out to sponsors and investors who are to invest for the football development and luckily, we keep meeting someone or the other each year. We will keep doing our part of scouting prodigies and giving them a pathway.”

“It’s important that we understand that not every footballer who is playing football will play at the top level. Many coaches around me say football is life. No it is not life, it is a part of life. This is a way which can help you be a better person, at the end of the day it’s important that you have to become a better person outside football as well.”

“Very few players make it to the top level and I want to explain to the parents, that this way of life is keeping your child in check and in control. This is why your child is not in bad habits such as drugs, smoking, and not melting away. He/she might not become a great footballer, but they should continue with football because it is making them a better human for sure.”

. . .

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