October 30, 2014

In yet another sign of our ever shrinking world, last month a legendary footballer from Portugal came over 9000 kilometres to Bangalore to launch a football academy for a French football club owned by a Sheikh in Qatar. Pauleta, also known to friends and family as Pedro Miguel Carreira Resendes, was here as Brand Ambassador for Paris St. Germain, having earned the right by scoring over 100 goals for the club in the 212 league appearances he made for them.

True to our Indian nature, we pulled out all the stops to ensure he was as comfortable as possible because god forbid what would happen if he complained about something. Every effort was also gamely put in by our team to plan his 20 hours in Bangalore best we could creating a strong schedule across multiple venues that would adequately showcase the work we had put in so far into the 'Dream Bigger' PSG camps. True to India's nature, we had a massive thunderstorm the morning of the event, resulting in the city being gridlocked courtesy of group of massive trees bowing down in mercy to the storm strategically over the very arterial roads we needed to take him on. In the car ahead, my phone was constantly ringing with the same query from my football coaches to school children to school management to the VIP in the car behind - 'How long till we reach?' Unable to confirm an answer as my re-route through the city had me and Pauleta being equal partners in examining the strange streets around us, I responded with the tried and tested response of - 'Shortly, we are on our way'. There were plenty of thoughts running through my mind at this time, most of which would certainly have me suspended from the school we were about to visit (any school for that matter), but my biggest worry as we were trapped in a box of metal sharing deep forlorn looks with other people in their boxes around us was how this Portuguese man who spoke no English would cope, after spending 150 minutes in a car through the worst by-roads Bangalore had to offer, with an event full of manic children halfway across the world.

I needn't have worried. You don't earn the title of footballing club legend by being afraid of a little traffic. We reached the school and Pauleta strode confidently to the football pitch with a broad smile as he looked at the enthusiastic kids who gathered around to catch a glimpse of him. He picked up a microphone as he looked across the field and announced 'I am humbled to be here. I grew up playing football on a field like this so lets play.' I guess he has a bit of India in him as he decided impromptu that running a training session was not good enough for him so he changed the schedule and created football match instead. Off went the boys to turn the four training zones into a field sized rectangle while Pauleta borrowed football boots to show off his skills in. On the side were formerly enthusiastic media members, dulled by the hours of waiting, into taking refuge under some meagre foliage by the pitch. The sight of Pauleta perked them up but their spirits were immediately dampened as he ran onto the football field further delaying their interaction with him. We channeled our inner diplomacy and managed to keep them engaged which was not hard considering they were all surprisingly friendly and fit.*

I must confess, while Pauleta showed us his Indian side I had a bit of French snootiness in me the previous few days. The concept of a brand ambassador did not strike me as a particularly appealing thing to do for a football legend. I wondered what his motivation for doing this role was and how impactful he really could be given that his career was now in the past. As he ran on to the pitch in his borrowed boots, I saw him stand a little straighter, his chest become a little broader and his smile grow a little wider as he shook hands with every child in the opposing team. I looked around at the hundreds of children staring at him and watched their faces slowly light up as well and thats when I knew. The one thing about children is that they will always tell you exactly how they feel. If you are talking to them and they do not like what you are saying, they will turn away without any regard for your feelings. Children can read people and can immediately tell if someone is faking it or not. Pedro does not, can not, fake his love for children. He feeds off their energy and it makes him stronger. He travels across the world to engage with children not because it gives him a livelihood but because it gives him life. And come to life he did. Pauleta played in Bangalore with the boys team, girls team, coaches, teachers and media members to give them an experience they would not forget. For someone who does not speak English he communicated effortlessly with every child or adult he came across with his smile, his eyes and his personality.

When he left that same evening I had a new appreciation for both the man and his role in serving a club and a sport that had done so much for him. This was his way of giving back because this is what he was best at. He has left a great impression upon us all as we build an Academy that makes us proud to be in the profession we are in. We have learnt that it does not matter what we do - how we do it is what counts. Today an 8 year old in Bangalore can learn football the same way a child in Paris learns it, thanks to a man in Qatar. The world may grow smaller each day, not because we can communicate easily but because we all share a common spirit.

Coverage from Economic Times, Deccan Herald and Times of India in order below

* I guess Arnab Goswami is not the poster boy for journalism after all.