Goals poured in as relentlessly as the Mumbai rains in the friendly football match between Reliance Foundation Young Champs (RFYC) U-16s and Thane City FC U-18s. But only one team scored those goals, RFYC winning 10-0.
Sandro Salami, the head of youth (RFYC), was a relieved man, not just because of the team’s convincing win. “This was the first friendly we hosted at our own ground (inside the Reliance Commercial Park, Navi Mumbai) since the Covid-19 pandemic began,” he pointed out.
RFYC is a residential football academy which started in 2015 following the inception of the Indian Super League. Intended as a training centre to groom players for the ISL, the initiative started with the clubs playing an active role in it. With no senior team to cater to, the academy has grown into a self-sustaining entity, with a motto of ‘ Goal India ka.’ Within five years of its inception, the academy acquired Asian Football Confederation’s 2-star rating, the first and highest-ever given to an Indian academy.
At its core, RFYC is a residential football academy which began with 23 students and five staff in 2015. At present, there are 90 students (from the age of 13 to 18) and 32 staff in the academy. Most of its students are admitted to the Reliance Foundation school less than a kilometre from its residential facility in Beverly Park, Navi Mumbai. The training facilities in RCP include two flood-lit grounds — one artificial, one grass. As per Sandro, the latter is as good as any ISL ground.
“The continued guidance, leadership and support of Founder and Chairperson Nita Ambani have enabled RFYC to focus on long-term commitment, which is integral for talent and holistic development of the individual,” Salami said.
Just as it is for any other football academy in the world, scouting young talents and convincing them to join its facility is the toughest task for the RFYC.
In its first three years (2015, 2016 and 2017), RFYC relied exclusively on ISL clubs to find such talents from their area at the base level. But since 2017, it has taken over the scouting process completely.
Four-level filtration process
Today, RFYC has 19 scouts across the country who work almost throughout the year. Instead of conducting one high-pressure trial that is counterproductive for both the players and the academy, the scouting system works on a four-level filtration process. The regional scouts first assess players under the age of 13 through various tournaments and practice sessions from which they invite a certain number of players to a regional camp. This process is also attended by the head of scouting, Stephen Charles.
“I travelled around 1800km last year to attend regional camps across the country,” said Stephen, a former professional player who has represented FC Pune City. Stephen, along with the regional scouts and the coaching team back in Mumbai, filters the players in the regional camp to 64. These players are then invited for an all-expenses-paid, week-long national camp in its training facility in RCP. From this group of 64, roughly 16 players, every year, are selected into the academy with the help of advanced performance analysis and other metrics. Their education, training and all other expenses are covered by the academy.
In the last two years, RFYC also incorporated an Artificial Intelligence-driven application called AiScout — an app also used by Premier League sides like Chelsea and Burnley — to sharpen its recruitment amidst the constraints imparted by Covid-19. Players can record themselves performing a set of footballing and non-footballing actions through this app, and their actions are assessed by predetermined parameters to provide the RFYC scouting team with players worth looking at.
In order to maximise player potential, RFYC also has foreign exposure trips. A frequent collaborator is the Premier League.
Neil Saunders, Director of Football at the Premier League, said, “It is very positive to see the enhanced investment and focus on youth development both ISL and FSDL clubs are making. The graduate success stories of the Reliance Foundation Young Champ Academy, including players securing long-term ISL Club contracts, are also encouraging.”
One such player who used RFYC as a launch pad to break into Indian football is Muhammed Nemil of FC Goa. Nemil was a member of the first batch to join the academy in 2015. “My experience of being a young champ was one of the best in my life. They taught me not only how to play football but also how to become a better person,” said the 20-year-old midfielder.
It is a common consensus among the RFYC coaches and trainers that Nemil is one of the best players to grace the academy. It came to the point that they understood Nemil could progress further as a player only at a better facility, and soon enough, he was sent to Spain for further training and development by RFYC.
Despite the high-intense approach to football, RFYC is very particular about the holistic growth of the children. A key staff member tasked with ensuring this is Padma Rewari, the head of the child welfare and education department.
Padma, who acts almost as a de facto mother for the kids away from home, is also the link between the academy and the parents of the students. “Sometimes, to understand the mental state of a student, we need to know where they are from and what their family situation is. Hence, we have often done house visits of certain kids, which has helped us a lot in adapting our ways,” said Padma. Initially, all the academy recruits were admitted to the Reliance Foundation CBSE school. But in the last three years, a few kids have been home-schooled under the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) curriculum to reduce the stress of mainstream education. “In addition to schooling, we also teach them basic life skills such as spoken English, cooking, sexual education and others. One thing that helps me connect better with the students is that I try to speak in their language as much as possible,” she said.
For all the emphasis on the other elements, however, football training and education is the nucleus of the academy.
The same day that the U-16 team pulled off its huge win, RFYC had three more friendly games across different age categories and won all of them. The games differed in intensity and physicality, but the Champs scored plenty and conceded no goals.
What was common in these four games was RYFC’s pattern of play and the philosophy engrained in it. There was clear emphasis on possession-based attacking football that involved even the goalkeepers in the build-up play. Almost all of the goals were finishes from close ranges that were products of much more complex passages of passing.
This commonality is an end product of year-long training sessions that instil a homogenous understanding and execution of the game across categories. The sessions are intricate and might not make sense if not understood from the larger picture — that being the six-week cycle.
There are at least five individualised objective-driven training sessions, along with two gym sessions every week, for a player. Each week, a player trains to deal with a particular action in a specific pitch part. “Our training sessions create complex game situations which encourage problem -solving among players. It is vital that they are quick and adaptable. So, our training language is simple and direct and we avoid over-coaching,” said Sandro.
Personal Development Plan
A highlight of the training plan is the Personal Development Plan (PDP). In this, a player is given the autonomy to look into his own game and design a training session for himself that targets a particular aspect of the game. Supratim Das, a 2016 recruit, spoke about how he adapted PDP to his benefit. “When I joined RFYC, I was a winger and wasn’t much concerned about defending. Now I play as a defensive midfielder and I have designed my PDP to enhance my defensive skills and ball control in tight spaces.”
Another interesting aspect of the RFYC programme is the active involvement of sports psychologists in different stages of player progression. Every training session and game is attended by a member of the sports psychology team, who is constantly observing and helping the players.
“We understand the mental aspect of a player as a vital football skill that can act as a key differentiator,” said Sarthak Pawar, a member of the psychology team.
In addition to the hands-on work on the pitch, the psychology team also conducts tests that assess the mentality of players and provide means for them to improve upon shortcomings.
RFYC must be understood more as a finishing school than as a factory that churns out top-tier players. This is despite the fact that it has produced 15 ISL-contracted players from its first two graduating batches (Its 14 ISL players + 1 I League player). It is with this realisation that RFYC recently announced a collaboration with the Mizoram football association to create junior football leagues (U-7, U-9, U-11 and U-13) in the North Eastern State.
“Mizoram Football Association is very fortunate to work with Reliance Foundation. The RFYC Mizoram League is something we are all very excited about. This project could be a game changer for Mizoram and Indian football. I am very confident that in 5-10 years, we will start seeing the results and then this can be used as a blueprint in other parts of the country for grassroots development,” said Tetea Hmar, Honorary Secretary, Mizoram Football Association & Executive Committee Member, AIFF.
“We realise the limitations of our [residential] model here. With the Mizoram project, we are hoping to impact a larger group of players from a very young age,” said Sandro.
With a brand-new season of ISL up and running, Nemil and a bunch of RFYC graduates will be looking to make their mark in Indian football.