With hopes in their hearts and dreams in their heads, young aspiring footballers with their parents and guardians in tow flooded the DDSC football stadium when the North East United FC grassroots programme came calling on the 25th of March. On the backdrop of successful campaigns in Aizawl (Mizoram), Imphal (Manipur), Kokrajhar, Duliajan, Dibrugarh, Nazira (Sibsagar district), Namchi and Gangtok (Sikkim) the Grassroots Development Programme initiated by the Reliance Foundation Young Champs and The Indian Soccer League along with its franchises, it was showtime for the young hopefuls between the age of eleven and twelve from Dimapur to display their talent and prompt the coaches to pick them for a place at the Reliance Foundation Young Champs Final Selection Camp in April.
Reliance Foundation Young Champs
“Reliance Foundation Young Champs is an initiative launched by Reliance Foundation. The aim of the programme is to spot top footballing talent in the country between the age group of 11 to 14 years through the ISL’s grassroots initiatives and give them the necessary impetus to enhance and hone their skills. The Young Champs programme is primarily geared towards elite player development to firmly secure India’s footballing future through structured technical guidance.
Every year, Reliance Foundation will be funding the Young Champs programme by providing the most talented boys and girls coming through the Clubs’ grassroots activities as well as select NGOs (Magic Bus, Yuwa and Slum Soccer), full-time residential scholarships. The scholarships are aimed at not only developing their footballing abilities but also enhancing their academic acumen, thus providing children a well-rounded sporting as well as educational environment to thrive in.”
The blue skies was shrouded by hazy clouds, with a waft of the occasional gentle breeze. A crisp Saturday morning for budding footballers to come out, lace up and have a go at the ball. It was 8:45, the kids clad in their favorite club apparels and technicolored cleats were either knocking the ball around and flaunting their skills or having their names registered for the tryout, fervent to join the early birds. In the midst of the entire bustle, Randeep Baruah GM and Head of Grassroots North East United along with two of his assistant coaches turns up bang on time and sets the event in motion allotting numbers to the young footballing prodigies. The coaches gathered the young aspirants for a brief pep talk and the group was split in two batches of eleven and twelve agers.
The eleven year olds were the first to take the field. The routine started off with rudimentary football drill like receive, control, dribble, turn, pass and repeat, the essential elements of molding a budding footballer. After going through the nitty-gritty, the focus progressed to application and positional play as the boys were pitted against one another in a game of four v four for a period of twenty minutes each under the watchful eyes of the coaches. The lads entertained both onlookers and nervous guardians alike with their skills, movements and enthusiasm. Completion of the session with the first batch was followed by a brief interval, where food and fluids were provided to the boys. After replenishments, came the moment for the twelvers who by now were raring to have a go on the pitch and prove their worth to the visiting highlander scouts. They were put through the paces with the same routine, followed by four-a-side matches for the coaches to access their game and temperament.
On the back of a concise deliberation, the coaches shortlisted ten prospects who were invited for a final game of five-a-side match the following day at the A1 Powerplay. Words from General manager Randeep Baruah to the boys not fortunate enough to get their names on the roster were resounding and empathic. He asked the youngsters never to give up on football and pursue their dreams with conviction. While this minor glitch does not define them as bad footballers, he encouraged the boys to keep working hard if they want to make a career in football.
Another rosy Sunday afternoon for the selected boys to go toe to toe on the newly laid astro turf at the Powerplay facility to impress the coaches for one last time before the Scouts head back to their headquarters at Guwahati and make the final deliberation. The second phase of trail began with similar yet a tad elaborate style of proceedings as the previous day, followed by a game of five v five match. After a clinical display of skill, style and intensity on the turf, the coaches huddled the boys along with their guardians and instructed that the chosen candidates will be afforded a call from the North East United headquarters for the preliminary trials to be held in Mumbai.
Eleven probables have been chosen from the North Eastern region for the final trails to be held in Mumbai between 2nd and 8th May:
Lalthrietpuia, Lalrem Ruata and Jojo Zaihmingthanga from Mizoram.
Siemingo Hangsing from Nagaland.
Rajkumar Sanyasi from Sikkim.
Krishnenu Mech, Rituraj Mohan and Manoj Rabha from Assam.
Thangminlun Touthang, Oinam Premchand Singh and Thoudam Krishna Singh from Manipur.
Following another successful drive, Head of Grassroots NEUFC Randeep Baruah was in a buoyant mood, seemingly impressed and optimistic about the future of football in India. Before packing up the Dimapur edition and moving on to the next trails destination, he remarked, “To have these homegrown talents play for the club one day will be a significant achievement, and this is the start of our effort. We have here come for a reason, of taking it further, and it’s been a great experience to have these boys come out today and showcase their skills. For North East United FC, the grassroots programme is a very important element of the club, our owner John Abraham is extremely keen to get the best talent out of the North Eastern region. We have been making the selections across a lot of cities in Assam, Sikkim, Imphal and Aizawl. As far as the challenge is concern, that’s for the reliance foundation young champs programme to groom the selected candidates in a conducive environment and bring out the best in them”.
He went on to assert “Each of the eight ISL clubs are also a part of this initiative, they are all currently in the selection process within their own divisions. When a boy is selected, supposing there are five or ten selected in Guwahati, those boys are flown out to Mumbai for the final round of selection. Once a child passes that trail, he is given a scholarship by the Reliance Foundation for four to five years. Education will remain a priority, they have a Reliance Foundation school in Navi Mumbai. They also have fantastic infrastructures in place where the boys practice with proper coaching system under the watchful eyes of Mr. Piet Hubers, the technical director of grassroots development”.
For the boys selected after the Reliance Foundation Young Champs Final Selection Camp it will not be without its melodrama though. Children as young as eleven years old prized away from the bosom of their family, the induction can be traumatic yet bonding. As for the club that brings the boy in, they get the first right to sign him for their club, either to play with the developmental team or the first team. We must all accept that for a country of a billion people, we are not producing the depth of players at the top level with the technical skills now required by international standards. If we want to increase the number of players competing at the highest level against the best, radical change is needed. This is where it all starts, the grassroots.