I only have a few family members who still live in India. All the rest have long migrated to and settled in the United States, Canada and Australia like millions of other Indians who have done the same over the past 50 years. The remaining few which includes my Dad’s older sister, her two children and their children all live in a city called Baroda (or now Vadodara) which is located in Gujarat, a state on the Western coast of India just above Maharashtra.
I’ve been travelling to Baroda to spend time with family ever since my first trip to India back in 2007 and my experiences have been probably the exact same as so many other NRIs of my generation who have traveled back to India to visit family. It’s a potpourri of long hours sitting around gossiping, uncomfortable heat and facilities, big meals followed by more sitting around, trips to the local park or mall and discussions about whose getting married next. Although I’m making it sound unenjoyable, my trips to Baroda are extraordinary as it’s in those time when I get to feel the warmth and comfort of family and experience some of the places where my Mother and Father spent the majority of their childhood. So for me, Baroda has always had a certain familiarity, yet wonder about it as it is as close to my roots as any place in the world and I experience something new each time I travel there.
Something I never thought about during my trips to Baroda was helping to promote football in the city. Although my heart always desires to be able to support the growth of football in every city I feel connected to, I’m clear that unless I’m personally living in that city or know someone in the city who can take ideas forward, it is almost impossible for me to make any sort of deep and sustainable impact. Even throwing money at something doesn’t really make a difference unless someone is around to properly utilize the funding in a strategic manner. Even after probably 15 trips to Baroda in the past 6 years I’ve never taken steps to explore how I can impact the Baroda football scene….until Sandeepbhai entered my life.
Sandeepbhai is an old teammate of my good friend and Libero Managing Director, Sukhvinder Singh(Sukkhi). For any non-Indians reading this, “bhai” means Brother and it’s a term of affection which is added after the first name of close or respected individuals throughout India, especially in Gujarat. Sukkhi first mentioned Sandeepbhai’s name a few years back as someone who could help us build our football activities in Gujarat. Although I trusted Sukkhi’s suggestion, I never took it so seriously given the fact that I had not met him nor did I feel that there was much football happening in Baroda.
Thanks to Sukkhi’s sister-in-law’s wedding, I had a good reason to travel back to Baroda. I had assumed it would be another family visit mixed in with the wedding festivities but it turned out to be much more. At the wedding reception I was introduced to the infamous, Sandeepbhai, and he invited me to attend his training session scheduled for 7:30am the next morning. I agreed, excited about the fact that I was going to be able to incorporate a bit of football into my Baroda trip for the first time ever.
The next morning my 10 year old cousin Brother and I went out to the school where the training was taking place and I couldn’t believe my eyes. Hundreds of Baroda youth walking towards the pitch wearing jerseys of all the top European clubs and even one special boy wearing an LA Galaxy top. Not only that, Sandeepbhai and his coaches were running an organized session, as good as anything you would see in the more football passionate Indian states like Goa or West Bengal.
What I was most amazed about though, were the stories which some of the other coaches started sharing with me about Sandeepbhai. After a decent playing career, he took the road less traveled and chose to commit his personal and professional life to his passion, football development in Baroda, versus taking a secure job which most other Indians, especially Gujaratis, would opt for. This road has led to him partnering with 13 schools in Baroda where he and his team of licensed coaches are training hundreds of kids each week. He takes groups of players to the UK every year for training with Manchester United Soccer Schools and has even opened up a sporting goods store to help generate some revenue to fund his football development programming.
In Sandeepbhai, I saw a man who is living his truth and it shows on the smile on his face, the energy running through his body and the hundreds of Baroda youth who have benefited from his passion and hard work. I also saw an extraordinary opportunity for me to support the development of football in the town which shaped the values of the two people who gave me life in this world.
Something tells me that my Baroda football story has only just begun…
|With my cousins as the wedding|
|Here with one of the longest serving coaches in Baroda and a mentor to Libero Managing Director as well as many other former Baroda players|
|With Sandeepbhai and some of his coaches|