Mumbai academy offers hope for India

Players of the Mumbai Academy during a friendly game

The Navi Mumbai regional academy, which opened its doors in May, is the first of eight such centres planned for India in 2012 and 2013, all financed to the tune of $500,000 USD by FIFA’s Goal programme. A pioneering initiative, the complex based in Maharashtra in west central India, the second most populous state in the country with 112 million inhabitants, is now set to provide the  I-League and the Indian national team with their stars of the future.

Located on large school premises in the township of Vashi in Mumbai, the regional academy, run by the All India Football Federation (AIFF), constitutes a small haven of tranquillity for the 16 fortunate footballers selected back in May. The 15-year-old participants, chosen from thousands of candidates during the national championship in the relevant age category at the start of the year, are very conscious of the unique opportunity they have been offered.

While the remaining academies set up by the AIFF and FIFA will concentrate on developing the boys born in 1999/2000, with the aim of building a competitive team for the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup, the focus at the Navi Mumbai centre is different.

As there were no programmes in the pipeline for players born in 1997 over the next three years, this academy is reserved for them. “We concentrated our research on the U-15 league. We picked a group of 45 boys who came here for one week, and we then set about trimming that number,” explained Scott O’Donell, FIFA’s Technical Director of regional academies in India.

In the intervening period, the academy has lost 11 players due to their stated birth dates not matching their birth certificates. Four new prospects are expected to arrive soon.

Although they are older than the youngsters in other academies, the chosen footballers are still a long way from adulthood. “It’s hard being far away from our families, but we just have to deal with it. The last time we saw them was in June,” said Goa native Stany Braganca rather timidly. “But our parents are proud of us and happy for us. They know that our future and the future of our families are on the line,” he added.

With accommodation and meals provided on the premises, the boys’ needs are well catered for. They receive a comprehensive education from a qualified teacher. The first step in this process consists of ensuring that everyone understands each other, because in India, according to studies, there are as many as 122 different languages in use. English is subsequently taught to those that do not speak it, but not to the detriment of other subjects.

“It would seem that they’ve already progressed academically since May – they’re very hard-working. Education is important in India, and it’s something that the parents take a great interest in,” said Shailesch Karkera, manager of the academy.

In the teenage trainees’ day-to-day routine, the house rules are strict, as Rohit Tarat, assistant manager of the facility, explains: “In the evening, they have to hand over their mobiles and games consoles before going to bed; that’s the rule. At 10.30 pm they’re in their bed. They’re very disciplined and they listen to us.”

Their dormitories happen to be situated above an orphanage. The future footballers and orphans often cross paths as they go about their daily business, providing the former group with a tangible reminder of how fortunate they are to be here.

They’ve made real improvements to their physical game, to their level of performance and to their technical skills.

As far as the actual football is concerned, it was evident to the academy staff that the boys had considerable work to do when they arrived, despite certain predispositions.

“Their qualities vary depending on their region. The Goa boys are more skilful and creative, which may stem from the Portuguese influence. Those from Punjab are strong and have great stamina, which likely comes from the weather and the land. The lads from Bangalore have real footballing brains,” said Karkera.

In a matter of months, their progress has been significant, according to head coach Sajide Dar. “They’ve made real improvements to their physical game, to their level of performance and to their technical skills,” he said. “When they arrived, they had next to no passing game, so we had to teach them that, as well as how to hold on to the ball,” recalled assistant coach Aquil Ansari, a former I-League star.

During a recent friendly match against a local U-19 school side, the academy team’s honed skills and slick passing game helped them to run out comfortable 3-1 winners, despite the obvious physical differences between the sides.

The overall aim for all concerned is to turn professional, and take one step closer to their heroes, invariably Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi. Like children all over the word, the protégés play video games or watch Liga and Premier League matches on television in their spare time, and they have been quick to comprehend the key to success in the modern game.

“Possessing the ball, the Spanish style, building the play from the back: that’s what our coach teaches us, and we like it; that’s how we play the best,” said trainee Jayson Lucas, also from Goa.

“There’s no doubt that they absorb most of what we tell them,” said Ansari. “Our role is to turn them into top-level footballers, and to make this academy the best of its kind. I treat it as my personal mission to mould them into potential Aquil Ansaris!” he joked.

Young goalkeeper Sayak Barai, a Delhi native with a constant smile and laid-back personality, dreams of “playing at the World Cup with India, which would be very exciting.” The eyes of team-mate Hayden Fernandes sparkle as he lets his mind wander to Spanish shores: Lionel Messi is my idol. I love the Spanish League. If one day I had a chance to play in it, I wouldn’t hesitate for a second.”

When asked about the general atmosphere within the academy, the question is met with a collective burst of laughter. In the dormitories, the mood is extremely friendly, with gentle teasing and lounging around the order of the day.

Regional Technical Director Arshad Husain asks the players what they plan on doing on Sunday, their day off. Visibly overawed, they descend into a giggling fit before providing ‘shopping’ and ‘the cinema’ as a response. Clearly, troublemaking down at said shops and cinema is the last thing on their minds.

“The lads are very attentive in team meetings; they really listen. They’ve chosen a particular career path for themselves. Some of them probably started out in May thinking that it was all a bit of a game, but little by little they’ve shown an increasing level of interest and focus. They’re proud to be here,” said Dar.

And if the young apprentices are filled with pride, the head coach is also absolutely delighted to be involved. Dar’s declaration of faith sums up the prevailing climate in Mumbai: “You can’t imagine what it represents for me; it’s incredible to be here in Mumbai running this team, to help these kids and Indian football as a whole to progress. Everywhere I’ve been, I try to contribute to football development and always give 100 per cent – that’s my objective.”

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