Four years since being established in 2016, Ahmedabad Racquets Academy FC have gone on to become a household name in Gujarat football. For a football team, the club name might come across as peculiar but the Ahmedabad-based side have managed to reach uncharted territory.
In 2018, ARA FC created history by becoming the first club from Gujarat to feature in the second division of the I-League. At the youth level, they boast of being one of the fastest-growing academies and are already making a mark in the state league besides competing in the national Sub-Junior League and the Elite League.
Although the second division I-League may be on hold at the moment owing to the coronavirus pandemic, ARA FC is edging closer towards their dream of reaching the I-League. The Ahmedabad-based club are toppers in their group and remain on the cusp of reaching the final qualifiers round. A victory there would seal their promotion to the I-League just a year after they entered the second division.
“People from Gujarat now call it their team and the support is growing,” Technical Director-cum-coach Vivek Nagul told Scroll.in.
“But they definitely want us to change the name someday,” he quipped.
Going by the name, ARA is professional multi-sports academy in Ahmedabad which mainly consists of racquet sports. It has been running since 2011. The football club was among the newest projects established by the academy in recent times, but owner Patel never intended on starting any sports enterprise in the first place.
The birth of ARA FC
The idea came about when Patel returned to India after completing his post-graduation from the United Kingdom but couldn’t continue playing tennis at his convenience back home in Ahmedabad as he did abroad due to the shortage of facilities.
Among three brothers managing the family’s real estate business, Patel decided to convert a piece of his land into a tennis court which later transformed into a training centre for children interested in playing the sport. After receiving a good response, they decided to expand into other racquet sports such as badminton, table tennis, squash and now also hold training for shooting and chess.
The intention to create a football club came about when Patel struggled to enroll his son in a professional academy due to the scarcity of options in Ahmedabad. He then decided to take things in his own hands. ARA FC started small after its launch, conducting football training only at the youth level for the first two years before adding a senior team.
While they managed to stay afloat in their debut season in the I-League second division, scouting and preparation happened in a rush as the club had to wait for a while before receiving the license from the All India Football Federation.
“The first year we were not aware if we would qualify or not, so we did not do enough preparation in terms of players,” ARA FC owner Patel told Scroll.in.
“As we weren’t sure that we will get the license to play division two, we chose not to hire players. Before the second season, we were sure we will get through, so we started preparing in advance. The first season was a bit of a challenge since we did not know how the finances would work. There was no roadmap. The whole ambition was to get the license first.”
Till now, no Gujarat player has received a national cap for the senior team. Former ONGC defender Dharmesh Patel is the only one who has come closest by representing India at the U-19 level and the first player from the state to feature in the I-League. The long-term aim for Patel remains to groom players who can represent the team. Last season, the club had seven players in the first team. The count has reached nine in the ongoing season.
“There was no opportunity for children above 18 from Gujarat to play at a higher level so we created a senior team,” revealed Patel.
“In the coming years, we want to promote more players and give them a platform. We expect homegrown talent and Gujarat football to grown in the next five years.”
While the trend of clubs from the second division pulling out from the league is not a surprise due to financial problems, ARA FC has a unique sustainability model. The funds that are pumped into the first team come from the academy and so far, the club has not been badly hurt in terms of finances. At present, ARA FC has a total of 120 coaches right from the Under-6 to the Under-18 level and is the only second division team to have three A-License accredited coaches.
“For parents, money is never a problem when it comes to sending their children to an academy. They only want good coaching, “ said Nagul.
“Not only Ahmedabad but we scouted plenty of young players from Junagadh, Jamnagar, Baroda and even Rajkot. We also invite outstation players who get shortlisted in the academy besides providing scholarships programs. So the roadmap is there now. More kids dream of becoming footballers and even parents are ready to now accept that as a career. So that’s been a welcome change in the last one-and-a-half, two years. At the end of this decade, you might find players who might represent the state and even the national team.”
Creating awareness and opportunities
For Patel, the job is not done yet. As their ambitions of making the I-League are clear, he aims at spreading awareness about football in Ahmedabad by creating more facilities and training centres for children. Besides ARA FC, Kahaani FC is the only club from the city which boasts of a professional set-up.
“Many people still don’t know about football and the I-League,” claimed Patel. “We plan on establishing more artificial grounds in the city and investing in artificial turfs. There is still not much professional training in Ahmedabad because of this. If the infrastructure and facilities are not there, children will opt for other sports. A lot of parents [from Ahmedabad] still raise questions about the lack of opportunities for their children in football, so we are trying to change the mindset.”