Uttam Rai was an important member of the India U-16 side that beat Tajikistan 4-1 in Tashkent to qualify for the AFC finals next year. When nerves were still frayed with the teams locked 1-1, Rai's goal helped India pull ahead. He was first spotted at a talent hunt conducted by a programme called 'Tata Tea Arsenal Jaago Re Soccer Stars' almost two years back.
Rai's rise goes against the talk of this being only business for big European clubs. This India-wide talent-scouting programme was conducted over two-three months and then pruned through matches. The final batch is sent to England for the annual Arsenal Football Festival, all expenses paid. This year, the Indian team won the U-15 title beating Essex's Forest Royals 1-0 in the final. They beat Marks Parks (South Africa), New Windsor Herons (Berkshire, UK) and Flying Eagles before the final.Similar initiatives are being conducted by Manchester United and Bayern Munich from this year.
"Our aim was to send the boys to get some exposure and try to win. This year our target has been achieved and we are shifting to Inter Milan from next year," said Jamshed Nassiri, former East Bengal star and head talent spotter of the Tata Tea programme.
"The best thing about programmes like this is that it gives schoolkids a chance to pursue their dreams. Our state associations don't have the infrastructure to provide that," said Nassiri.
"And since this involves schools, the products are not older than 15 or 16 and they have the time to get into some academy after this. It's like a prep course."
New Delhi's Kisloy Singh Sajwan and Kochi's Sameel Puzhithara are products of this programme, who were selected for national under-16 camps and have gone on to represent India.
"Once you are under the national federation, there's very little chance of going astray," said Nassiri. For those who don't make it to the national camps, there are I-League clubs like Mumbai FC and Pune FC and even the Tata Football Academy who follow these programmes.
"Foreign clubs are welcome to market themselves in India but they also have to contribute through programmes like this," said Nassiri. "But short programmes won't do. We need a long extended stint abroad and we have to make it possible."