In 2002, the sub-junior boys (U-14) from Bhaichung Bhutia's home state reached the final of the Subroto Cup, and might have gone on to win had a young midfielder not missed out on a golden scoring opportunity.
Cut to the present, and that young midfielder, Nirmal Chhetri, has become a regular in the Indian senior team's backline. And even though the current crop of under-14 boys from Namchi Boys Hostel, Sikkim, bowed out of the 53rd edition of the tournament at the Ambedkar Stadium here on Sunday, the diminutive 11- and 12-year-olds who make up more than half the side won a lot of admirers.
"This tournament is all about unearthing talent at the grassroots, which is why, year after year, we choose to bring over boys who are much under the age limit," says coach Suren Kumar Chhetri, whose players - despite being at a significant disadvantage given their stature - showed a lot of character and skill.
On Saturday, against an Afghanistan team that was way taller and stronger, they conceded thrice in the first 20 minutes but did commendably well in the final half-hour to keep the score-line down to 4-1. And on Sunday, against an equally powerful team from Odisha, the Sikkim boys lost by a solitary goal.
Behind the skilful dribbles, precision passes and brave blocks is a concerted effort to discover players who can do the country - and, of course, the state - proud, just like the tiny Himalayan kingdom's iconic football export has. "Our programme is called 'Search for more Bhaichungs'", says the coach. "It is supported by the state government, which spends Rs. 6,000 a month on each player's diet alone."
The programme has become a steady supplyline for the national team - midfielder Sanju Pradhan made his senior team debut in the recent Nehru Cup while Uttam Rai and Nimdorjee Tamang are in India's under-16 team. "Ashish Pradhan, who played for us last year, is with Pailan Arrows now," says Suren. "Three others are here representing The Air Force School - Ashish Rai among the sub-juniors, and Noel Dorjee and Vivek Chhetri among the juniors."