How Reliance Foundation is Catching Them Young
The CSR arm of Reliance Industries is enabling India’s athletes from the grassroots transform their sporting ambitions into reality.
- Reliance Foundation is keen to transform India into a nation of great sportspeople.
- The foundation has set up a High Performance Centre for athletes in Odisha in partnership with the state government.
- The foundation scouts talent from India’s hinterland and offers them world-class sports infrastructure and coaching facilities.
- The Reliance Foundation’s Sports for Development programme has touched the lives of 21.5 million people between 2010 and 2022.
Ten years ago I was in Kolkata for what was my first live experience of a football match — Indian Railways was going up against a local club. The pitch was more like a mud bath; the players slipped and struggled to pass the ball, and the referee could hardly keep up. I returned to my hotel room, like others in the audience, gloomy and dejected. Fans, even as we ached to cheer for players at home, always had to settle for following foreign leagues. Will the game ever manage to look beautiful here, I wondered. Will we ever get close to producing world-class champions?
The answer, in 2023, is a yes. Recently I was at a Bengaluru bar with three young colleagues, watching Bengaluru FC take on Kerala Blasters. My colleagues knew players by name, others even followed the rise of a few young talents right from when they played to empty stadiums, to now as their matches were being streamed by millions. This was more than just 22 players on a pitch. The connection between fans and football was real. The fervour and fever the sports deserve was palpable in the bar that night. I wondered, what changed? Who scored that goal?
This led me down a rabbit hole that ended with me discovering the work of the Reliance Foundation. And it’s not just football. Athletics, another of cricket’s poor cousins, was striking gold at multiple international events too. One of the largest conglomerates in India has been quietly building the largest grassroots sports movement in the country. And very few people are talking about it.
This is something different
Let’s set some context. Reliance Foundation, the CSR arm of Reliance Industries, has been catching them young and watching them grow. It wants to build not one or two or a few champions, but a nation of sportspersons. These are details from its website.
But this wasn’t enough. I started to call people. What does Reliance Foundation really do, I asked. And people across the ecosystem started to talk about it at length. Through its Sports for Development programme, the foundation goes in search of up-and-coming Sunil Chhetris and Anju Bobby Georges-in-waiting from across the country and trains them. It makes their journey from humble grassroots to the dazzling professional stage swift and rewarding.
The way I understand it, football, the ballet of the masses, as Dmitri Shostakovich once called it, has been the foundation’s shining light. It uses AI to identify players, one senior executive told me. This data-led scouting and training of talent means that the foundation has found a pathway so the children, usually between the ages of 14 and 18, don’t stay beneficiaries of just one CSR programme but actually make it to the big leagues.
Imagine what a life-changing opportunity it is for Nathan Rodrigues, who played locally in Goa, to become a professional defender for Mumbai City FC. Fortunes are also shifting for Mohammed Sanan from Kerala, another RFYC trainee, who will be a forward at Jamshedpur FC after signing a three-year deal. They were both trained at RFYC (Reliance Foundation Young Champs), a football academy with a scholarship-backed residency programme.
But not everyone makes it in sport and that’s the truth. Several education specialists told me that the foundation not only trains these teenagers in football but sends them to school, too. One of the best in Mumbai, I’ve been reliably told. So, if they can’t make the cut, they’re not left in the lurch with no life skills.
How do these kids get so good? Training. The foundation has recruited a battery of coaches, nutrition experts, and physios from across the world to train these kids. The foundation even flies them to countries in mainland Europe and the UK so they can play with children who have legacy training. Some of them have managed to beat the age-group teams of renowned football clubs.
One brick at a time
Not long ago, Indian parents were hesitant about sports. The training was expensive, hard to get, and rarely led to success. They put academics first. Sports were extracurricular. Generations of sporting talent were forced to hang up their boots before ever getting a serious shot. But we can save the coming generations from giving up prematurely.
The foundation’s ambitions aren’t restricted to just football. Young basketballers can shoot hoops at the Reliance Foundation Jr NBA, and kids at schools and colleges can have a go at various sports thanks to the Reliance Foundation Youth Sports.
The final ambition is to touch all sports, especially one of the largest stages in the world, the Olympics.
The Reliance Foundation Odisha Athletics High Performance Center (HPC) in Bhubaneswar is trying to build on that ambition. We’ve read those accounts of our elite women athletes struggling to find changing rooms, we’ve watched films where the food they had was substandard, or their shoes were held together by duct tape and hope. Not anymore.
I want to tell you a different story — that of Jyothi Yarraji. She is from middle India, Visakhapatnam, where her father works as a security guard and her mother as a domestic worker. Excelling in athletics, and the prospect of scholarships and government jobs that it brings, is a way Jyothi dreamed up to lift her family out of poverty. They were getting by on less than Rs 18,000 per month, barely enough to afford the kit and training equipment Jyothi needed for elite athletics.
But her medals in the junior and senior level national competitions caught the eye of the Reliance Foundation HPC in Bhubaneswar. She was suddenly learning from the British coach James Hillier, Athletics Director at the foundation, who helped her talent take full flight. Jyothi has broken multiple national and international records since. She is the fastest Indian woman in a category that fits the challenges she has overcome — the 100m hurdles.
That is the thing about change. It doesn’t happen overnight. It happens gradually, then suddenly. And institutions such as the Reliance Foundation are gradually, and suddenly, shaking up Indian sports. Our sportspersons desperately need it, India desperately needs it.