When Tarak Mehta walks into a room passion and pride are hardly the first words that come to mind. Understated, definitely. Determined? As a successful business man it’s hard not to imagine so. But to describe him as having any kind of fire in his belly would be to rather a stretch. A Kitwe man through and through Tarak is very much the embodiment of the zimandola. Laidback and easy going.
That is until he starts talking about futsal…
Futsal is best described as football’s cousin. A close cousin, with an undeniable family resemblance, but admittedly distinct features. Popular in the latin countries of South America and Europe, futsal is the fastest growing indoor sport in the world. Many of the world’s leading club sides have various futsal teams. It is not uncommon for clubs to restrict younger players solely to futsal until they reach a certain age.
However, in much of Africa futsal has not quite caught on as many would have hoped. Whether it’s the requirements for specific infrastructure and equipment, the insufficient marketing of the discipline, or just the stubborn refusal to countenance any change to the much loved beautiful game, numbers and support are not what they should be.
Tarak first started playing in a futsal social league back in 2007 with a few friends and employees. “It was pretty simple training. Fast paced, five a side. You get some exercise. You get your workout done. That was basically what we did. And that’s how it all started.
“We started a team comprised of about 12 to 14 players. We started off just playing the social league and became more serious about it. Then the league had cups for which they were looking for sponsors. So we started sponsoring the Automotive Cup. We did that for a couple of years with the league that was going on.”
The decision to establish a futsal team for kids was born soon after. “As we progressed we saw there were a lot of kids we could work with. Kids who wanted to play professionally. So we started recruiting players and worked with a few kids we saw had the skills. We engaged a local coach. But the fact is, no one really knew what futsal is.”
The differences between futsal and soccer are few but significant. Traditional soccer is an eleven vs eleven match played over two 45 minute intervals. Futsal however is played over two 20 minute halves. The 45 minutes in soccer are from kick off to the end of the half barring injuries, substitutions or other stoppages. In futsal the clock on runs when the ball is actually in play. Tarak explained further, “Futsal is not as simple as just pass and run. There are four players each side, plus a goalkeeper. There have to be systems in place because there are no specific attackers, and no specific defenders. Everyone is an attacker and everyone is a defender, including the goalkeeper.”
As evidence of their commitment Automotive Equipment invested in a top quality coach to ensure the players were given the best possible chance to develop and reach their full potential.
“As we went by I felt it was a sport that was entertaining and quick. Its short compared to 90 minutes. So I inquired for a coach outside and came upon Andrea.”
Andrea Cristoforetti is an ex-Italian national team player. At the time based in South Africa, Cristoforetti was a renowned futsal coach known for his holistic approach to the game. In his first meeting with Tarak his first question was about the long term vision of AE in the game.
He and Tarak hit it off instantly. “This is my country. Football is a huge sport here. But there is so much red tape around things. It’s not as easy for kids to progress to the national team as it should be,” recalls Tarak. “So I told him that I want to give back. I want to give opportunities and a chance of hope to many of these kids that we see around.
“So we decided to start an academy. But then he said, ‘If you want to do futsal right, it has to be done indoors. It has to be done properly. It’s not artificial turf.’ In addition to building an academy we wanted to play internationally as Automotive. We wanted to build the team up. I wanted us to play international cups and tournaments in Africa and in Europe. And he said, ‘That’s fine, but the first thing is foundation. And the foundation is the ground.’”
The investments made by Tarak and Automotive Equipment have not been insubstantial. Rather than plastering old and decrepit infrastructure with new shiny branding material, as is so often the case, they have poured much into the building of facilities set not only to last but to compare with anything else on offer in the region.
A dedicated futsal arena, built to international specifications, was established to ensure all the players have everything they need. “We built a state of the art facility in the industrial area. We can hold international games there.”
No one can accuse Automotive Equipment of having cut corners with regards their arena. Situated in the midst of Lusaka’s light industrial area the centre stands an oasis in a barren futsal land. Complete with all the necessary facilities, fully equipped home and away changing rooms, functional PA system, digital scoreboards and all, it is apparent that heart and soul was poured into this.
One of Cristoforetti’s first moves as coach was to reach out to friend and colleague Jesus Velasco, coach of the reigning Spanish and European futsal champions Inter Movistar. Velasco travelled to Zambia for the official opening of the Automotive Indoor Futsal Arena. So impressed was he by the facilities and dedication to excellence that he issued an invitation to Spain to explore ways in which Inter Movistar could help the Automotive academy. The Automotive academy has since signed an affiliation agreement with Movistar.
“They will now give us their expertise in running the academy. They will help us organise what age groups to start off with and also provide technical support in terms of coaches. They will come down here and help us get things done.”
Automotive has also signed a technical sponsorship deal with Spanish sportswear manufacturer Joma who are providing all their kit. For Tarak this is a very important part of the overall vision to be recognised as a genuine force in futsal. “We’re looking smart and professional. We’ve shown people that we are who we are and we’re serious about what we’re doing.”
With the groundwork in place the borders of the Automotive futsal dream are steadily expanding. “First of all we’ve started in Lusaka. And being in the industrial area we’re looking at Kanyama, George and the other compounds around. And there are many academies around so we’re trying to establish a point of reference. So we told them we would help them run their academies and provide technical help. We want to work together. Have a chance to assess all the kids. See what we’re working with.”
Automotive currently have a number of age groups that they are working with ranging from the senior and under 18 teams, through to the under 12s and under 10s who are seen as the core of the academy. Training takes place on a daily basis at the academy training ground. However, with players of this age special care is needed to ensure they are properly handled. All kids are required to obtain consent from their parents as is standard practice. However, in addition to this the academy ensures all children are going to school and that their school fees are fully paid up. Tarak cites literacy as a necessity. His belief in his kids’ talent means he wants to ready them to be able to have a basic understanding of any future contracts they sign.
The children are also provided with support in other areas, with the focus being on producing well rounded individuals. This includes diet and nutrition. “We make sure they eat right. This is very key. Nowadays if you don’t have the right nutrition you won’t make it. If you’ve noticed quite often our kids simply aren’t as big as their compatriots abroad.”
The arena is also open to the public. As well as the training and matches of the various age groups the arena also hosts corporate events and team building activities.
As the academy motto goes, Automotive are building the foundations of success. And while it may take a few more years, fruit will bear.
The academy can be found on Instagram and Facebook as Automotive Futsal Academy. Contact details are: [email protected] and +260961409203 and +260979778178