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Kenkre FC’s I-League dreams: 21 years in the making

10:13 AM Dec 09, 2021 | Anil Dias

In school, maybe grade five or six, when kids normally dream of being doctors, engineers or pilots, Joshua Lewis wrote a composition on how his dream was to own a football club one day.

That dream was realised in the year 2000, when, along with eight other players and under the guidance of Adib Kenkre, Lewis started Kenkre Football Club. With his childhood dream achieved, Lewis knew it wouldn’t be enough. So it was on to his next dream — taking his club to play the top leagues of the country.

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On Saturday, when the All-India Football Federation (AIFF) announced that Kenkre FC will compete in the I-League, India’s second-tier league, this season beginning December 26, Lewis couldn’t stop smiling.

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After six attempts at qualifying — the first being in 2008 — the team has finally been successful, and that too with a stroke of luck.

Earlier this year, they managed to reach the final stage but fell just short of qualifying after they drew with Rajasthan FC, when they needed a win. However, Chennai City failed to fulfill the club licensing criteria to play in I-League, giving Kenkre the golden ticket and making them the first team from Mumbai since 2017 to qualify for the I-League.

“When we first started this club, the players themselves contributed Rs. 100 each. With that, we were able to buy our half-time refreshments, and we paid for a train pass for those who couldn’t afford it. While it feels surreal to think that we’re actually going to play in the I-League, it’s something we’ve worked extremely hard for,” Lewis told Free Press Journal.

For a team that doesn’t have corporate backing, Kenkre FC is doing quite well. And they began when it was (it still is) difficult to run a football club without support. Most of the clubs, if not all, that played in the Elite Division of Mumbai football were corporations like Air India, ONGC or private companies like Mahindra United.

“We realised that we can’t run a club by the players contributing. Why would top players continue to play for our club if we couldn’t offer them decent money?

“We saw that Mumbai had so many youngsters whose footballing talents were just wasted away. These were times where AIFF coaching licences weren’t common so there were not academies in the city. That’s why we started an academy to help those youngsters develop their football skills. In turn, we supported our teams from the money we made from charging for coaching at the academy,” Lewis said.

Joshua Lewis

The I-League, which will be played in bio-bubble in Kolkata this season though, throws a new financial challenge to Lewis and his team. As per his estimation, they will need a budget of Rs. 1.5 crore for the tournament.

“Yes, it’s come suddenly but I’m sure we’ll be able to manage. More than the money from the academy, we have several well-wishers who can see that we’re doing good work for Mumbai football. They’ve been quite supportive and I’m sure we’ll be able to manage,” Lewis said.

Adib Kenkre, who was the first coach of the club and who they named the club after, told FPJ that he has tremendous faith in Lewis.

“As a 15-year-old, Joshua was such a talented player that he was playing for RCF in the top division of Mumbai. He was one of the best players I’ve coached and he could’ve easily played for India if not for a knee injury.

“This academy and club are all his doing. He could’ve easily given up and shut shop like the many clubs in Mumbai, but his perseverance is tremendous. This club is going to be in the top divisions of India football for a long time, now that it has finally entered the door,” Kenkre said.

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