The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Passion India
- Spanish coach chases desi World Cup soccer dream for two decades

When he closes his eyes, Spanish coach Antonio C. Padilla can see the India team of his dreams taking on future Zinedine Zidanes and Ronaldinhos in a football World Cup.

When he opens them, the foreigner striving for the past 18 years to turn India into a global soccer power sees why he may not be making it happen anytime soon.

For one thing, Uttarakhand police will not let him.

To those puzzled by the connection, the 51-year-old is ready to narrate the story of the extraordinary mission that had brought him to India from his hometown Fuengirola in Spain one day in 1989.

Why would a Spaniard spend decades roaming the country scouting for talent, and teaching the game to youngsters in Calcutta, Pushkar and now Hardwar' Why, in a country where those in charge of football do little for the game, would he teach it for free, even giving his wards money out of his own pocket to buy boots and stockings'

“I am a follower of Mahatma Gandhi,” is all he says in explanation of his single-handed battle against Himalayan odds.

Padilla in hospital after his arrest

So, when Hardwar police last month stopped him from building a canteen for his trainees on the playground he claims to have bought, Padilla replied the way a Gandhian is expected to.

He began a fast. First the police laughed. After a week they were anxious. When the protest rolled into the 15th day early this month, an alarmed force arrested the frail, ailing man and took him to hospital.

The coach is undaunted. With his 58-year-old Spanish assistant Juan Manuel Rojas, who was an air traffic controller at Malaga airport before joining Padilla in his mission, he has plastered Hardwar with posters that scream “Futbol Futuro India,” asking for donations to help the national cause.

Some money does pour in, but mostly from donors in Spain and other European nations that the unmarried Padilla visits from time to time, carrying with him photographs of his boys. Some patrons from Madrid have travelled to India to see his work. They are apparently satisfied he would be successful.

But the trainees aren’t so sure.

For one thing, Padilla isn’t a qualified football coach at all but was a physical education teacher in Spain. For another, as trainee Hemant Negi explained, he has never tried to build a team all these 18 years.

“He had 200 trainees at one time. But he was whimsical and would abruptly throw out the old trainees and start all over again. One day, I was asked not to come,” said Deepak Raturi, 19.

“He sold us the dream of playing in the World Cup but he isn’t sure of what he actually wants. He moves around taking photographs of people and posing with the poor,” added Negi.

Padilla sees himself differently. His posters claim, “a missionary from Spain is trying to evolutionate soccer through the world”.

One of the posters shows 23 boys in white, each balancing a football on his head, on the Calcutta Maidan. Another shows a smiling Padilla with his trainees in Lucknow’s old city.

Calcutta had been his first port of call in India. For five years, he lived in cheap hotels and trained street children. He then built a network in North 24-Parganas and formed a group in Digha before suddenly deciding to shift base.

After three years travelling in northern India, he settled down in Hardwar in 1997. Having decided he needed a proper playground first, he bought a 15-bigha field in Jagjeetpur, about 9 km from Hardwar’s centre.

But the Gandhian had been taken for a ride by land sharks. The fraud in the deal was detected and the administration seized the land. Padilla left Hardwar to travel around a bit more before returning in 2002 with a small-time coach he knew from Calcutta, Dilip Das, who has trained teams in North 24-Parganas.

The coaching sessions resumed on the plot. Padilla and Rojas launched the “Vegetarian Sports Society” in Jagjeetpur. They made a few trips to Pushkar in Rajasthan and began training boys there, too.

Hardwar authorities looked on indulgently at first, but when on January 16 this year Padilla went about building a concrete structure on the land, they put their foot down.

“It’s my own land; I bought it. What I am doing is for the children,” Padilla told them.

During his fast, a team of doctors would visit the ground every day to check his falling blood pressure. “We had to arrest him because his fast amounted to a bid to end his life,” says Abhinav Kumar, Hardwar police chief.

Former trainees don’t know whether to be angry at him or laugh.

“We respect him for his involvement in his mission,” said Sashank Kumar, 19. “But he has only brought me despair. Fired by the World Cup dream, I neglected my studies. Now I can’t even get into a local club.”

Padilla’s defence is evasive: “I was trying to have a team from all these players who could be trained professionally through nine-hour drills. But this did not come off as I landed in trouble. But my fight goes on.”

The dream may remain a mirage and perhaps he misled the boys. But looking at those burning eyes, you can’t help wishing that some of the eccentric foreigner’s passion would rub off on those who run Indian football.

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