Neymar Jr's Five 2018 - India leg, Hyderabad city qualifiers

How Hyderabad is becoming a hub for five-a-side football in India

© Focus Sports

The capital of Telangana is emerging as a new hotbed of footballing talent, reliving its past glory in a new format of the game.

Hyderabad was once an erstwhile factory of football talent for the Indian national team.

It was under the tutelage of Syed Abdul Rahim that India enjoyed its golden era of football from 1951 to the mid-1960s. Rahim was a Hyderabadi teacher by profession, who started coaching in football with the Hyderabad City Police team. He coached the national team from 1951 until his death in 1963, with many Hyderabadis forming the core of his team.

India’s best-ever spell in football saw them win the Asian Games in 1951 and 1962, as well as a fourth-placed finish at the 1956 Olympic Games; considered the best performance by an Asian nation till date. In his three Olympic Games as coach, Rahim took three Hyderabadi’s to the 1952 Games, eight to the 1956 Games, and six to the 1960 Games; forming a highly-successful Hyderabadi core to the team each time.

At the 1960 Games in Rome, an 18-year-old Habibul Hasan Hamid played as a forward for the Indian team. The teenager from Hyderabad Sporting Football Club was invited to meet then-Prime Minister of India, Mr Jawaharlal Nehru, before setting off for the Games — a moment captured on photographic film and displayed proudly in the office of Hyderabad Sporting.

Hamid is now aged 76. He has seen the decline of Indian football coincide with that of Hyderabad over what many suggest to have been administrative issues, both centrally and locally. But his love for football hasn’t waned, and he still visits the Hyderabad Sporting training ground regularly as he watches the city revive itself in a new-found love for football.

“There’s a player named HH Hamid who is 76 years old now, but he still comes to our training ground every alternate day to look at our training. He was part of India’s golden era of football which featured many Hyderabadi players,” says Zubair Sultan, who has played for Hyderabad Sporting for 14 years and captained the team for the last four years.

“Hyderabad Sporting was established in the 1940s. It is a very well-known club because it has produced 11 Olympians for the country,” he continues.

Action from the Hyderabad city qualifier of Neymar Jr's Five 2018
Action from the Hyderabad city qualifier of Neymar Jr's Five 2018

Bringing back the passion

Most Hyderabadi players to have featured in the national team during the 1950s understand that the city dropped off the map as a footballing hub during the '70s. They feel it was because other priorities superseded love of football for Hyderabadi players. But the last five years have begun to prove otherwise.

The city of Hyderabad has led the popularity of astroturf grounds and five-a-side football in India. The city currently boasts over 15 turf grounds that cater to five-a-side or six-a-side football, with many more being introduced every year with the increasing demand.

“There are around 16 astroturf grounds in Hyderabad currently,” says Hyderabad Sporting player Zaidh Mohiuddin. “Astro Park near Apollo Hospital was one of the first ones to open. Then there’s Turfside, Cyclone and HotFut which are good grounds; Hyderabad has lots of good five-a-side turf grounds now. Because more people have started playing, more grounds have been opening too.”

HotFut has been one of the leading turf football arenas in the country since its launch in Pune in 2012. They currently have seven arenas in four cities, with the most recent launch to have happened at Gachibowli in Hyderabad in March 2018 — the second HotFut arena in the city. The amazing response to their arena at Begumpet led to the opening of one at Gachibowli, with plans to open more Hyderabad arenas in the works.

The increased number of turf grounds over the last few years has helped usher a renewed love for football in Hyderabad. Most grounds run on a reservation basis with bookings for hourly slots; almost all slots of the day are usually booked.

The high number of turf grounds also leads to opportunities for organisers to host five-a-side tournaments. Hyderabad has more than 25 tournaments a year for five-a-side or six-a-side football, which has also helped increase the popularity of the small format of the game.

“Since there are so many grounds, organisers can host tournaments and players have opportunities to play. Five-a-side tournaments are hosted every other week in Hyderabad,” says Zaidh.

Hyderabad Sporting FC going over their gameplan
Hyderabad Sporting FC going over their gameplan

Increasing talent pool

Formerly residing in Saudi Arabia, Zaidh moved to India to complete his schooling and immediately joined the Hyderabad Sporting team, where he has played for ten years now. He says that full ground 11-a-side tournaments aren’t organised regularly in Hyderabad — they are held for just about two months of the year — so the frequency of five-a-side tournaments is encouraging.

“With the coming up of five-a-side grounds in the last five-six years, there are a lot of five-a-side tournaments which we get to play. It has also got a lot of other people in Hyderabad playing, so we get some good competition,” Zaidh says.

“At the recently-concluded Hyderabad Football League, we won the tournament, and I was player of the tournament, so I won a motorbike. It’s good to have these tournaments because we get an opportunity to play and win something with our talent,” he continues.

Aside from playing in the tournaments, Zaidh has also worked to host a series of five-a-side tournaments called Ultimate Football Champions. Along with a friend, he has organised four of these tournaments over the last year with each garnering over 20 teams in participation. Zaidh says that sponsored tournaments with big prizes bring in up to 100 participating teams.

“Our plan is to make sure the tournament is organised properly and is a good experience for the players. We haven’t had sponsors yet; the money we collect as entry fees for participation is what funds the tournament, and sometimes we have losses when teams back out,” Zaidh adds.

Aside from playing host to these tournaments, the ground owners have also organised tournaments of their own. HotFut hosted a tournament at the Gachibowli arena to announce the launch of the venue. It was praised for having a low entry fee and large winning purse, something that draws in bigger participating crowds. HotFut organises one big tournament every two months, playing host to local tournaments the rest of the time.

Adding to what his teammate said, Zubair reported: “Football has once again become very, very popular in Hyderabad because of the five-a-side format. For example, look at the Neymar Jr’s Five tournament organised by Red Bull which does not have any entry fee and very good prizes, there is amazing participation. This year, there were more than 260 teams registering for the tournament.”

Zubair takes the increasing participation over the years as a welcome sign for Hyderabadi football. “With 11-a-side, you don’t see that much participation because, for a full 90-minute match, you need stamina and fitness. With a five-a-side tournament, people take a chance to play and learn the game,” says Zubair, adding that with more participants, the level of competition in Hyderabad has also increased.

Hyderabad Sporting FC players pose after winning the Hyderabad qualifier
Hyderabad Sporting FC players pose after winning the Hyderabad qualifier

Grooming young talent

In a full ground football match, the Hyderabad Sporting captain plays as an attacking midfielder. But on a five-a-side ground, tactics have to be adjusted. Hyderabad Sporting’s strategy is to have fixed positions for a goalkeeper and one defender, with the rest of the team tasked with running endlessly across the pitch with no fixed position; this confuses the opposition and makes sure they can’t get to the ball.

While Hyderabad Sporting works on these tactics in their training sessions, and has sessions for lower division teams and youth players as part of their club ethos, amateur five-a-side players have also been finding learning opportunities in the city.

“These grounds which have come up in Hyderabad over the years have now started academies for these players. They coach new players so they can participate in more tournaments. I would say, for every 15 of these players that start training, at least two-three have the talent to go on and play professionally,” says Zubair.

Aside from recreation for amateur players, five-a-side tournaments also give clubs a chance to try out their young talent and get them ready for competition. The top tier of Hyderabad Sporting’s players only feature in five-a-side tournaments where they are certain they will face tough opposition. For lesser-known tournaments, youth-level players are given a chance to show their talent.

“We have a player named Jawaad, who is just 20 years old but is outstanding. In a five-a-side match against a talented Air India team, he was able to control the entire game while playing in defence,” reports Zubair. He says many of his team’s young players watch videos of footballers on the internet and try skill moves in matches. He feels amateur players have similar aspirations and can fulfil them because of the accessibility that five-a-side grounds provide.

Hyderabad Sporting has been one of the top teams in the city, winning the Hyderabad Football League twice, as well as emerging as Hyderabad city champions in Neymar Jr’s Five thrice. Last year, they went on to win the India final of Neymar Jr’s Five, representing India in the world final in Brazil.

Evidently, Hyderabad football is back on the rise with players from the city prominently pulling on India colours in international tournaments once again.

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Hyderabad Sporting FC at the Neymar Jr's Five 2017 World Final in Brazil
Hyderabad Sporting FC at the Neymar Jr's Five 2017 World Final in Brazil