A chance encounter

Yellow fever Yellow fever: Sachin with players of last year's Kerala Blasters team that finished second in the inaugural season of the Indian Super League | AFP

He went steady with cricket for more than three decades, but once he decided to hang up his boots, he chased neither tennis nor racing, his other two flings. The man who famously declared the fiery tennis iconoclast John McEnroe as his hero, embraced football in a big way, surprising many. Actually, to those who have been watching his every move on and off the field, there were ample hints.

On May 28, 2013, a good six months before Sachin retired from all forms of cricket following his final Test against the West Indies in Mumbai, I was at the Fr Agnel High School Stadium at Vashi in Navi Mumbai to cover the national Under-15 Football Championship final between Odisha and Meghalaya. There were only a handful of spectators watching the colts in action, but once news spread that Sachin would make an appearance to give away the trophy, the atmosphere became charged.

Hoping to get an interview, I moved towards the place where his caravan was parked. But the schoolchildren had surrounded the vehicle, so I returned to the media box. However, I was in for a surprise later.

Though Sachin was not planning any interactions with Mumbai reporters that day, he asked whether anyone had come from Kolkata or Kerala. Here was my chance and I grabbed it with both hands.

He ruled out questions on cricket, and welcomed those on football. “Football is a beautiful game, and India's ranking should go up considerably,” he said. “In football, your reflexes are the key, and for that to develop it is imperative that we start training at a young age. The money to develop football in India can be found from the game itself. You don't have to look at cricket for funds. The marketing of the game should be effective. We can start training centres with the help of FIFA.”

Sachin was of the opinion that we had failed to train our football coaches. “We should get foreign experts to train the coaches who look after our age group players,” he said. “They should be sent abroad so that they are exposed to all facets of coaching. And the progress of each young player should be monitored continuously.”

On being asked whether he would be willing to be the brand ambassador for Indian football, he said: “I am still in cricket.” That was an open-ended answer, and less than a year into retirement he became the face of the Kerala Blasters, runners-up in the inaugural season of the Indian Super League.

He wound up the interview committing himself to the cause of football, and he was quick off the blocks—like his many innings on the 22 yards—to live up to his promise.

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