When Masthan Maharaj looks back on his journey, he still feels it might all be a dream. For from where he started, he has sure come a long way.
Masthan grew up in Chennai, watching Ronaldinho and Cristiano Ronaldo and being in awe of their footballing skills. He aspired to be a player himself and was part of his high school’s football team. He took part in every match he could, from professional club matches in Chennai to State level open category matches held in Delhi, wanting to make a name for himself in the game. But fate had other plans for him. While in college, he injured his knee so severely that he could no longer continue playing the game he loved.
But he wasn’t ready to give up. He turned to football free-styling, where one gets to self-express with a football and perform tricks with any part of the body. He started self-training, by watching videos of Ronaldinho. In 2013, six months from when he took to the performance sport, he decided to participate in the Red Bull Street Style, a global football freestyle tournament. “I didn’t win, but I didn’t feel bad about losing to better freestylers either. I just realised that this is what I wanted to do,” says Masthan, who is now 28-years-old.
Choosing a new path
After having to give up a sport he was passionate about, Masthan felt familial pressure to pursue a mainstream profession. “Feeling a sense of responsibility, I took a job in an IT firm. For six months I went into work, but only thought about football the whole time.”
Finally he decided to quit that job to plunge into his passion. At that time, he found support and solace in his friends from church, who encouraged him to follow his dreams.
It was a challenge to move to free styling, even though Masthan grew up playing football. “Football is an on field game and freestyle is an art; it is an entertaining sport. Control, style and creativity are the main three aspects for freestyle football. One gets a grip of free-styling only with 6-7 hours of practice a day,” says Masthan.
The hours he has put into his sport are evident when one sees how effortlessly he works with the ball. It was in 2014 that he got the first opportunity to train students in free styling at Church Park School, Chennai. It was a one-month project, and it paid more than a regular 9-5 job. “After that, I started doing events and found recognition as a freestyle performer.”
Planning for the future
Football freestyle is not a widely recognised performance sport in India. “Forget about it being a stand-alone sport; some years ago, it wasn’t even known as part of football. Only juggling and heading had some prominence. It is only now that collaboration opportunities are opening up. While you can get fame and make some money through freelance work, there is no fixed income here because sponsorship for talent in our country is limited,”
To plan for his future, and to train future players, Masthan decided to turn to football coaching and open his own academy in 2017. His academy, The Madras Football Academy, trains over 40 students under 16 years of age. He also works as the assistant coach for an upcoming football club called Tamizhan FC, which is preparing to compete in the I-League.
From a young boy who had to give up a game he loved to a young man who is training aspiring kids in the same sport, Masthan sure has come a long way. “I wanted to play football for the Indian team but I couldn’t. Now I wish to fulfill that dream through free-styling. As a coach, I also want my students to play for clubs representing India,” says Masthan.
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