The world doesn’t need more football players but it could really use more climate activists.
How Ananth and I became friends still makes me smile till this day. It was back in late 2018, when everything about football fandoms and leagues excited me. When I was at a club meeting, Ananth was sitting across from me at a table and pulled a Man United pencil case out of his backpack. I couldn’t contain my excitement as I had so many questions for him...
Wandering eyes, this is Ananth’s story…
When I first met you, it was during a time when I was excited about everything pertaining to football. Then I went on to learn about you and your football experience. Could you tell me a bit more?
I just finished my sophomore year of high school and there was this scouting opportunity. The former manager of the Indian national football team was scouting people. From India, he selected eight individuals to sign with this academy in Germany called Deutsches Fußball Internat (DFI). I was one of those eight people.
In the summer of 2015, I moved to Germany to train to become a professional soccer player. So the first year there, I had to learn the language. I definitely wanted to continue my education because you know with one injury, your whole career "can go off the rails". My plan was to go there, train, become a professional player and keep up my education. Actually, one of my main goals was to use the academy as an opportunity to get a scholarship at a university in the US so that way I can keep both of my dreams alive. So the first year, I just learned the language. I was enrolled in a language course, I trained and played for their team. Second year, I started my junior year of high school. All the subjects were taught in German.
The first year itself was crazy because it’s a new climate, weather, people and food. I had to earn my place in this new social circle - again. I didn’t speak the same language. I was a minority. It was crazy but it was worth it. I grew a lot in that short period of time.
And then, a year and a half into my time there, I was getting used to school and soccer. I had to train twice a day, sometimes cook my own food, go to school, study extra...
That’s a lot for a teenager!
Yeah, I was 17 at this point and I tore my ACL in a friendly game. That really changed a lot of things. When you are 17 and tear your ACL, you are out until you are almost 19. In soccer, because it’s so competitive, especially in Germany, it’s very difficult to reach a professional level which is like third division or above. At the time, I was playing for a under-19 third division team. Third division is pretty intense. Granted it’s only the under-19 level, but I was having a lot of fun. It was competitive and I was improving a lot. Then I tore my ACL.
There was a moment when I had to choose between soccer or academics. So I decided to give up my dream of playing soccer and devoted all of my attention to academics.
I remember during October, November and December, and out of two of those months, I had to study German for my school, write my college essays in English and also study for the SATs in English.
All in one day, I would train in the morning; go to school during the day; come back and train; cook my food; do some (college) application work; study for my SATS; study and do homework. I was asleep by 1am.
Oh my gosh...
This happened for like a month or two. It was just a very intense period. This was during my junior year and I didn’t fully recover by senior year. But at this point, I was getting so good at the language and academics, I started tutoring my classmates. Then, I had all of my time devoted to academics. I was doing PT [physical therapy] on the side for my leg but it wasn’t up to the level where I could go back and play. Especially not at the level to sign with a club outside the academy.
The way the academy was structured, you trained there in the morning individually and in the evening you trained with your club. You got to have the match experience. You have to be with the club to really improve. So this academy mainly provided me with the technical training. They did have their own teams until the under-17 level. When I hit 18, I had to find my own club outside of the academy. That became difficult with the injury and academics. Then I applied to UMASS and now I’m here. I just do intramural soccer now. I’m doing a lot of things academically. Outside the classroom, I play just for fun. There’s not enough time for club or varsity soccer.
Wait, there was individual training then club training?
What time would individual training start and when would it end?
I can take you through my whole schedule [laughs].
Because of the school I went to in India, it was founded by a spiritual guru. I learned yoga when I was 7 and I’ve been doing it ever since. So I would wake up at like 6:30 or 7am, do my yoga for at least a half an hour, then I’d have breakfast. My first training session would start at 8am. It would go from 8 to 9:30am. 10am was when classes started. 10-12:30pm, was my first session of class. 12:30pm to 1:30pm was lunch. 1:30 to 4pm was my second session of class. Usually I would have time to come back (to the dorms) to do some of my work or PT. My club training was from 6 until 7:30pm, but if it was outside, I would get back until maybe around 8pm. I’d cook and eat at around 9 - at least. Eat, do work, then sleep.
In the morning, individual training would be where you basically work on technique, work in small groups, like passing and dribbling. Team training in the evening would be with a group of 20 or 25 people and you are doing match situations.
(Photo courtesy of Ananth Shankar)
Damn! I thought that I had it bad in high school!
I feel like I grew a lot in those three years. My parents weren’t there when I tore my ACL. I went through the whole process and surgery all on my own. I was driven to the doctors by someone from the academy, but the explanation of the procedure and everything, I did on my own - in German. I had to reach a level (of German) where I not only understood it but also could explain what did and didn’t hurt. Then I had to understand the technical and biological terms. It was good. I feel like I definitely benefited from it.
After your injury, you were doing physical therapy and you weren’t allowed to play football as much to your extent. Did you realize that you had to give up your dream of playing professional football? When you are watching a soccer match, or if you have friends playing on a team, how does that make you feel?
Initially, I remember just after the injury, I don’t want to say I was jealous but it was definitely frustrating because I was improving a lot. Before the injury, all of the coaches at the academy, I was catching their eyes. After training, they would come up to me saying I was improving a lot and telling me how they had offers lined up with clubs. Once the injury happened, honestly there was a point where it was very frustrating. I can’t go as far as saying I was envious. I was too caught up in my own stuff to worry about what others were doing.
One of my friends who was at DFI, I went to school with him 7 years before I went to the academy. I knew how good he was. I knew the level of which he was performing. And so, it was more like, if he can do it, I know I can do it but I couldn’t do it because my leg wasn’t able to keep up with me. It was very frustrating. I felt like I could do it. I knew I had the level. I knew I had the capability.
Do you only follow the Premier League?
I don’t support a team in Bundesliga but because I lived there, I watched Bayern Munich train. I feel like I always have a connection with Bayern Munich because I was "right there". I played games against them.
[laughs] Then in La Liga, I used to be a huge Cristiano Ronaldo fan - so Real Madrid. Now I sometimes watch Juventus games.
When I was at a boarding school in India, the school didn’t have wifi and we couldn’t have phones. So when I got back home, I remember turning on the TV and I think I was 12 or 13 and Ronaldo was playing for United. Ronaldo was an amazing player. [United] was winning everything at that point. They were very dominant so it was natural.
Finding a sport where people look like me and they’re dominating the field and the sport itself, is impressive. Is that something that comes to mind when you play?
Coming from India, I think I can speak for my friends too, because we watched soccer and we’re amazed by how good the players are, I never really looked at it how much I could relate to them. It was more like, “oh he’s so good”. When I went to Germany, it really hit me. I was like, “when can I look at a fellow countryman playing at this level?". Definitely at a later age, maybe when I was 17, that definitely did hit me.
When I look at the pitch, I don’t think there’s a problem with racial diversity. However, there is a problem with racism. Do you agree?
Oh most definitely.
Did you experience any of that while in Germany?
I mean I have to preface it by saying that I was in an academy with teenage boys, who had energy to burn, so I did. There were quite a few instances. At the time, it was definitely hurtful. Looking back, there was so much going on and I couldn’t dwell on it - one. Two - when I used to talk to my friends about it, they were like, “their opinions don’t matter" for me to feel too hurt about it.
When the coaches were involved, when it came to team selection or when they thought I didn't understand the language, they didn't know how good I was at German. "I know what you are saying. I speak better German than him". It was like sly comments, you know? Sometimes, you just let it go. There’s too much to do.
Your relationship with football, now and going forward, what do you see happening? What do you want to happen?
At this point, it’s not realistic to invest any energy to be a professional player. I don’t have the training. I haven’t trained for a while. The avenue, opportunity or platform. I don’t feel any regret towards it. With the injury, I was just dealt a tough card. You have to take what comes. I’m really happy with what I’m studying. The world doesn’t need more football players but it could really use more climate activists.
You sound like Bellerin!
[laughs] Especially combining the environment and economics, it’s much more of a need. I felt like being a soccer player was a slightly selfish goal but what I’m pursuing now, is more of a need - the need of this hour.
If football made you happy, I don’t think it’s being selfish.
For sure. If I wanted to think about why I wanted to be a soccer player, it definitely made me happy but there were other aspects. Like money. You live a good life. The standard of living is really high. Now it’s more about making the change we need to see. I feel like that’s going to be very fulfilling for me.
Lastly, when you think of football, what words come to mind?
I think for me, it’s about coming together as a team. It’s a sport that unites the world. When I think of football, I think of creativity, joy, but also unity. Because you have to be united as a team. You have to be united to get anything done. You need to take initiative. It takes courage. There are so many words goddamn!
Courage. Creativity and compassion.