The making of young football champs

Reliance Foundation’s finishing school also stresses on education and helping cadets develop cognitive and non-cognitive skills outside football
A training session at the Reliance Foundation Young Champs programme in Navi Mumbai.(RFYC) PREMIUM
A training session at the Reliance Foundation Young Champs programme in Navi Mumbai.(RFYC)
Updated on Apr 06, 2022 06:25 PM IST
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Stephen Charles calls it his Bharat Darshan. The fierce wave of Covid-19 had just receded when, in July 2021, the Punekar set out, travelling from Kashmir to Kanyakumari taking detours to upper Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. There were places off the beaten track such as the Tamil Nadu village called Thoothoor where he stopped. And there were halts in Srinagar and Aizawl.

For Charles, getting to know more about India was a bonus from this stop-start four-month tour. The reason for his travels was more mundane: he was looking at pre-teen boys whose above-average football skills had already got noticed. Boys who could be offered a scholarship at the Reliance Foundation Young Champs (RFYC) programme. Among the ones successful were Saud Samdani from Srinagar and we will come to him in a bit.

“Visiting all those regions, spending time with the boys, their families, gives more context about where the player is coming from,” said Charles in a Zoom call. He described the “challenges” faced in his quest for context as “amazing” but that was possibly because he had put some distance between them and our conversation.

The National Center for Seismology recorded an earthquake near Aizawl one September day before Charles was to see boys spotted by RFYC scouts. “No one was absent,” he said. One month prior, mourners defying government orders against congregation before Muharram had hit the streets in Srinagar leading to police barricades. But 38 boys from Jammu and Kashmir fetched up at Srinagar’s TRC ground, having travelled from Kupwara, Kathua, Mirpuram, Budgam, Ganderbal, Jammu and Anantnag. Through lockdowns, through curfews, gun shots and despite spotty phone connections, they all came for the trial. “Those from far-off places came a day early and were put up by us,” said Charles.

Then there was Thoothoor, 47km from Thiruvananthapuram, where football is played on light brown sand fields and on the beach. Fishing and football are a way of life there; the men sail for a catch and the boys play, said Charles. It is from where Michael Soosairaj rose to represent India.

All this to choose 18 boys between 12 and 14 who will be part of a fully-funded residential programme at RFYC. It is India’s only five-star rated football finishing school among the 83, including Tata Football Academy, in the All India Football Federation’s Academy Registration Programme (2019-20). RFYC also has a two-star rating from the Asian Football Confederation where the highest is three stars. “RFYC Academy has emerged as not only the most well-equipped residential academy but also a cradle for budding talents (sic) scouted from across the country,” says a July 2020 post on the AFC website.

In a pre-pandemic world, the selection process was: rely on the academy’s network of scouts, including but not restricted to former players (Paresh Shivalkar, Vanlal Rova, Edwin Raj Thomas), to prepare the first list, get the coaches to look at them through sessions at their place, get those shortlisted to Mumbai for a final test that involved technical and tactical drills, participating in different-sized games and offer the best scholarships. In January, 62 boys from all over India were taken to Navi Mumbai where they spent a week before the final batch was chosen.

Changing scouting process

At a scouting session organised by the academy(RFYC)
At a scouting session organised by the academy(RFYC)

Now, RFYC has 65 boys from under-13 to under-19. The latest batch was shortlisted in 2020 before Covid-19 disrupted everything. “So we had to record every session and send them to the coaches. That would be supplemented by my feedback. It took a lot of time,” said Charles, who is a licensed coach and heads the scouting programme.

These scouts are on contract with RFYC and get a travel allowance to watch players. Crucially, they have to pay a fine if the player they have spotted is found overage. School report cards, birth certificate, even talking to neighbours is part of the screening process, said Charles.

For the first few seasons, RFYC relied on the Indian Super League (ISL) franchises to send the boys after scouting in their areas. That didn’t work, said Jose Barreto. The former Mohun Bagan legend is the under-16 coach and has been with the academy since inception in 2015. “I think we are in a different place from where we started. We are really working in details now. The net is cast much wider. Earlier, franchises waited for players to come to them. Today, scouts go. We are going to places that hadn’t been accessed before, where academies and franchises don’t go,” said the Brazilian.

Including Mumbai, Pune, Goa and Kolkata, RFYC has 15 scouts in 15 regions across India who scan local tournaments. RFYC also looks at aspiring trainees through AiSCOUT, an app based platform which analyses a player’s skills based on certain drills. Ayush Nellogi came through to the final camp in Mumbai that way, said Barreto.

Samdani came through the traditional way last August. Along with Budgam’s Din Mohammad and Suhail Mahmood from Ganderbal, he came to Mumbai for the final trials. And got selected. “His fearless attitude and willingness to learn caught the eyes of all the coaches at RFYC,” said Charles.

Once they are in, the boys stay at lodgings in Navi Mumbai for 10-11 months every year. They go to school across the road. That has been a learning process, said an RFYC coach. Putting boys from a volatile age-group into a school whose medium of instruction was English was a challenge for many, said the coach.

Koustav Dutta knows all about it. “I was in a Bangla medium school till Class 8 and it was hard,” said the central midfielder who graduated in 2020 and is with Hyderabad FC on a three-year deal. So tutors had to be arranged, said Dutta on a separate call. Those who still found it difficult to cope are put through the open schooling system. At each step, the consent of parents, who are got over to see the facilities and help the boy bed-in, is needed. Like many of his peers at the academy, Dutta is comfortable in English now. “I think he has forgotten Bangla now,” said father Kishore Dutta.

Given the small percentage of those who will make it in professional football—according to a report by 97% of those who graduated from academies of Premier League clubs didn’t play a minute in the league; another by Sky Sports said only 0.5% of all cadets at top English clubs make a living from football—the focus on academics is in vogue across the football world. It is part of the recalibration at Barcelona’s La Masia and is stressed on at Manchester City and Ajax. RFYC claims that its stress on education and helping cadets develop cognitive and non-cognitive skills outside football are differentiators as a football academy in India.

Uprooted from home, often being unfamiliar with the language can cause myriad problems in pre-teens. “I missed him terribly but also knew this was too big a chance to let go,” said Sonali Dutta, Koustav’s mother. “It was difficult at the start,” said Koustav. “You had to adjust to a different way of life. And food: I had never had idli before. But everyone helped us settle in.”

The football programme

The lights at the Navi Mumbai pitch are waiting to be switched on(RFYC)
The lights at the Navi Mumbai pitch are waiting to be switched on(RFYC)

And now to the football which is overseen by Sandro Salami, the Dutch head of youth development and his team which includes coaches, data analyst, four physios, two sports psychologists, nutritionist, sport psychologists and strength and conditioning coaches. For Salami, the ideal cadet is the one who “should be an ambassador for sport and the academy,” as a youth coach, scout or someone who can bring something back to the eco system.

The coach to players ratio is 1:8, said Salami. There are five 90-minute sessions each week, he said. “The U-16 and U-18 group trains a little longer, an hour and 45, have two strength sessions a week and a game at the weekend. With tournaments suspended due to Covid-19, games have been a struggle.”

Each cadet also has to make a personal development plan which he works on with coaches. “So there will be a session each week where the player works on what he wants to. There are also separate coach-driven sessions where up to five players are under a coach,” he said.

Dutta went to RFYC as a striker who would score a lot of goals in Kolkata’s nursery league and other age-specific competitions. His role was changed because, according to former head of youth Marcus Vaessen, the coaches found that he “is a strong player who plays better with players in front of him” and also has “the perfect quality for a defending midfielder.” Dutta played for HFC reserves in the Durand Cup, IFA Shield and Assam Gold Cup.

The training cycle is for six weeks and “what is being taught on the pitch is also talked about in the sports psychology department, the video analysis team will focus on the same thing,” said Salami.

The idea is to produce players who are creative and can fill roles at clubs now taken up by foreign players. “You see a lot of foreigners who are the creative ones, the No 10. Those players exist in India, that talent exists in India and that is what we are trying to tap into,” said Salami.

Nine from the first batch joined ISL clubs in 2020. Among them was Kerala’s Muhammed Nemil who has signed for FC Goa. The 20-year-old attacking midfielder with a promising left foot caught the eye with four goals in the Durand Cup and played 362 minutes over 14 ISL games last season.

Nemil was sent to Spain on a scholarship and is now comfortable speaking the language. “He had hit a ceiling with us. We now have a couple of players like Nemil and they too will have to go abroad,” said an RFYC coach. With under-13, under-15 and under-18 youth leagues yet to restart—RFYC are the reigning India under-13 champions—after they were stopped to combat Covid-19 and age-specific competitions few and far between, getting game time is a big challenge. So RFYC looks to place players in regional leagues and loan them to clubs in the I-League.

Is the option of sending the boys abroad one way of getting around that? An RFYC official who did not want to be named did not rule it out but said cost is an issue. No numbers were shared about how much it costs every year to run RFYC.

We are still babies, said Charles. “But what has happened in seven years is that parents of RFYC cadets have become our biggest brand ambassadors. We don’t have to convince anyone anymore. And we have the most diverse set of boys you can imagine. There are massive social, cultural and economic disparities but it has only led to the improvement in the adaptation skills of these boys.”

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    Dhiman Sarkar is based in Kolkata with over two decades as a sports journalist. He writes mainly on football.

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Tuesday, June 28, 2022