The world waits to see the Brazil-Argentina duo Neymar Jr. and Messi to play together in Barca kits. Despite the differences in their background and playing style, there is something which applies to both these greats(and to some others as well). They are both alumni of two of the most well-known academies in the world, Santos and La Masia. These two along with a few others around the globe have produced players which continue to amaze the spectators of the game.
If we look up to the Barca team, we would find half their line-up comes from their youth academy itself. The players like Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Pedro, Puyol, Pique, Fabregas, Thiago Alcantara, Busquets etc. were nurtured in La Masia. Even their former coach, and a Barca great Josep Guardiola was picked up from that academy. And this has really been the differentiating factor between them and their arch-rivals Real Madrid. In 2009, Madrid spent a whooping $132 million to bring Cristiano Ronaldo from Man United and another $94 million to add the midfield-maestro Kaka from Milan. Since then, the trophy cabinets haven’t been much used in Bernabeu. And after wasting numerous newsprints and number of coach’s plan, it’s been accepted that the tuning between the trio of Xavi-Iniesta-Messi, is something which has been developed over the years, since their playing days in the academy.
The year was 2010. India’s then coach Mr. Bob Houghton noticed that U-19 and U-23 players in the squads of many I-League teams, were not getting enough playing time that they would have liked. His proposal of having a team consisting of young, talented players was accepted by Mr. Praful Patel and others in AIFF. Thus a new dream of qualifying for 2018 Russia world cup started with the name AIFF XI. Des Bulpin, a Scottish international, was appointed as the head coach.
The team had luck with them in the beginning. In 2010, Mahindra United team was taken off the pitch, which resulted an automated qualification for AIFF XI to I-League and thus to mainstream football. They started off with a good note — beating JCT 1-0 in their first competitive match in Federation Cup 2010. The name was changed to “Indian Arrows” in the same year. The team showed promise and finished the I-League above seasoned teams like, AI, JCT, and Viva Kerala. Finishing in the 9th spot was surely an achievement for a team, which was considered by experts, only good enough for second division I-League.
The next season (2011-12) started off with a lot of promises. Pailan group of companies tied knot with AIFF to sponsor the team. Subsequently the home ground of the team changed to YBK, Kolkata. Despite the financial boost-up, the club lost some of its key players from last season. The likes of Lalrindika Ralte, Jeje Lalpekhlua, Manandeep Singh and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu departed from the club. Jeje was a sensation in 2010-11 I-League, and secured the distinction of highest scoring Indian that year. But the progress stumbled for the youngsters when Bulpin was sacked. The difference of playing style of him and India’s coach at that time, Mr. Armando Colaco, was the major reason behind it. Reportedly his “long ball style” was in contradiction to Colaco’s “possession technique”. Bulpin had a decent experience with English youth academies. And that was the reason his name was suggested by Bob Houghton, to coach for U-23 side. But no sooner than Bob left the charges with the senior team, Bulpin parted ways with the juniors.
After the departure of Bulpin, it was Mr. Sukhwinder Singh, to work with the boys. But even under his regime the team was far from success, and to be honest, they never managed to win a match under the experienced coach. Though the glimpses of performances was always there. Defender Shouvik Ghosh, Fanai were a few whose performances got noticed. But the league table never looked good from their point of view, and Singh sensing a debacle, resigned from the team.
Sujit Chakraborty, assistant coach of the team, was next to get the opprtunity to manage the side. The team was struggling at the bottom half of the table at that time. Even under Chakraborty’s stay, the scenario didn’t change much. It was due to the team’s late win against HAL and Chirag Kerala that they managed to finish in 13th place in a 14-team league. But as a development team, they were spared the relegation.
Once again the new season began with new hope. Arthur Papas, an Australian and a former Australia U-17 and Newcastle Jets coach, was given the responsibility of both U-23 Indian team and Arrows. The team once again lacked the consistency on the pitch and finished just above Air India and United Sikkim in I-League. Their unbeaten run in the group stages of Fed Cup 2012 and Durand Cup was not enough see them through to knock-out. But nevertheless their performance against the defending I-League champion Dempo in Fed Cup was much appreciated.
The season ended for the players with a great uncertainty. The team had lost its title sponsor, and which meant greater financial problems. AIFF initially made a decision of letting go of the team and there was a lot of confusion over the future of the team. IMG-Reliance, the commercial partner of AIFF, came to the rescue but they had vested interest from the move. IMG-R are the organizer of IPL-style football league in India, and thus are in search of good players. This seemed nice opportunity for them to grab some young talents. But a press release from Pailan Management confirmed their support for the Arrows would continue, resulting a relief for the players and the support staff. Sanjay Sen, ex Mohammedan Sporting and Prayag United coach, is set to train the team for the next season. And this in indeed a positive news for all the Indian Football fans
Arrows, over the last three years, has provided (if not produced) some of the most talented Indian footballers. Players like Ralte, Gurpreet, Holicharan, Jeje and Shouvik among others have shown the early signs of becoming great players in future. But most of them left the team, or, are in the verge of leaving. Jeje, Lalte, and Gurpreet performed well for their respective teams last year. Holicharan and Shouvik are in the radar of some of the big clubs for the upcoming season.
Almost all the successful clubs and teams over the years have given maximum importance to their youth academies and they have been duly rewarded with some of the outstanding players that have graduated from these acadmies. If it was La Masia for Messi, then it was Academia Sporting for Ronaldo or Santos FC for Neymar, which played major role in their career. Even in India, TFA and Mohun Bagan SAIL academy have been the root for almost all the successful Indian footballers in the country but they lacked the unique feature of Arrows of playing in a professional league against the best of the game.
Arrows, that was built to find and nurture talents, now stand against all odds, once again. Will these arrows be hitting bull’s eye this time?