Since its inception in 2015, the Reliance Foundation Young Champs (RFYC) has developed leaps and bounds to become India’s first-ever five-star rated academy by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) in 2019.
The gradual improvement of the academy can be calculated through its performance in the Next Generation Cup, a tournament organised by the Premier League in collaboration with Reliance Foundation, which was formed in 2019 as part of the Premier League Youth Games initiative.
RFYC made heads turn in the inaugural edition in 2020, beating the youth sides of Southampton FC 3-0 and Manchester United 1-0 in the final group stage match to ensure a third-place finish.
In this year’s edition, three English teams—Wolverhampton Wanderers, Everton, and West Ham United— and South African side Stellenbosch FC, volunteered to participate.
The four Indian teams drafted in had to go through a hard grind in a qualifying league called Reliance Foundation Developmental League. Over 300 matches later; RFYC, ATKMB, Bengaluru FC, and Sudeva Delhi emerged in the competition from a pool of over 50 teams across the country.
RFYC finished fifth with a thumping 4-0 win against ATK Mohun Bagan (now Mohun Bagan Super Giant) and was a standout performer among fellow Indian teams.
Passing the baton
RYFC’s football is not flashy with accurate long balls or long-range finishes but is about ticking the right boxes. Its pressing involves short but fierce movements and, within moments, the players shift from one end to another.
“The style of play that you saw here was not something that was acquired overnight. We went through rigorous training for more than a year as a build-up to this tournament”Arata Izumi, RFYC u-19 head coach
Behind all this, is Arata Izumi, the team’s coach. Izumi is a Japanese-born former India midfielder who began his professional career in Singapore before relocating to India in 2006.
Having started his career in India with East Bengal in the National Football League (now I-League), he went on to play for Atletico de Kolkata, and Mumbai FC – both of which are defunct now.
Izumi retired from professional football in 2018 following a short stint with Indian Super League (ISL) side Kerala Blasters. He then took up coaching at RYFC under-19, moulding a team that fellow Indian developmental teams were unaccustomed to.
“The style of play that you saw here was not something that was acquired overnight. We went through rigorous training for more than a year as a build-up to this tournament,” says Izumi on the sidelines of the Next Gen Cup final.
Albeit not reaching the summit, Izumi says they have no regrets. “The most important takeaway for these youngsters is the character that they have after losses,” he added.
Izumi believes in tapping the potential of a player at an early stage and to unearth these talents, rigorous scouting has to take place. Despite India having an enormous talent pool, he feels the scouting process has been below-par.
“I think that is one sector where we need to improve as a whole. When I came to India in 2007, there were already talks going around like ‘India the sleeping giant in world football’. But we’ve failed to spot those bright talents due to lack of facilities, I’m not saying this as an excuse,” he remarks.
Through pan-India scouting, RFYC has formed a database of bright young Indian minds, producing players for the country’s premier division in football. As of 2020, nine players from the RFYC team made it to the first teams of various ISL sides.
One such prodigy is Thoi Singh, who was signed by Bengaluru FC in 2021, after an explosive career with RFYC, where he netted 50 goals in 45 appearances for the academy. Izumi stresses if a similar extensive scouting system is made nationwide, India could be a force to reckon with.
“We have scouts in nooks and corners of this country and throughout the year, we watch various tournaments and the most promising players are selected for the regional camp,” Izumi says.
“A second set of filtration happens when the selected players are evaluated by coaches like me. We also introduced an AI scout during the COVID days, where players can upload a video showcasing their technical skills for us to review.”
A long journey ahead
The former India international feels the country has all the necessary ingredients to be successful and the popularity and awareness of football have steadily increased with the introduction of ISL.
“The focus going forward should be on the holistic development of these talents and they need to be spotted early. To make that happen, leagues like these need to increase, with a bigger pool of teams coming into the fray,” he adds.
Asian countries in the last decade-and-a-half have seen astounding success in world football. Japan, where Izumi hails from, had a terrific run in the World Cup, where it reached the round-of-16.
“What you saw in the world cup was a 30-year journey of struggles and sacrifices. In Japan, they start nurturing right from their schooling days. Several talents are identified through this schooling system. And That’s one of the reasons we take these players to Japan once a year, even last year we went there,” Izumi says.
“There’s potential here in India as well but we need to provide them the proper environment for them. We now have close to 80 AIFF-certified academies in India and RFYC is one of the best. I believe in the near future; we will be able to match those standards.”
Drawing a parallel
The Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP), a long-term strategy outlined by the Premier League, is a prime example of the advantages of effective scouting of homegrown players.
“I’m already seeing progression (of Indian football) following the inception of the Indian Super League.”Niel Saunders, Director of football, Premier League
The number of English players participating in the Premier League and other leagues has steadily increased since the plan’s establishment in 2012, as well. Currently, academy graduates hold 77 per cent of the professional contracts in the Premier League or English Football League (EFL).
Numerous players have graduated through this system and have thrived – Phil Foden (Manchester City), Declan Rice (West Ham), and Reece James (Chelsea) being prime examples.
“We started the EPPP way back in 2012 and the only aim of that was to develop more home-grown talents,” says Niel Saunders, Director of football, Premier League.
“One of the advantages that we have is the pyramid that we have. We have over 90 academies across the Premier league and the EFL.”
Saunders believes that the popularity, as well as the standard of football, has grown in the country following the introduction of the Indian Super League. He insists that if Indian football can take inspiration from a concept like EPPP, that would help in identifying talents from a pool that a country as vast as India has to offer.
“If that principle is applied to a vast country like India, they might fetch results. I’m already seeing progression following the inception of ISL,” he adds.
A step in the right direction
Wolverhampton Wanderers was crowned the champion of Next Gen Cup 2023 and its coach James Collins takes a unique stand on India’s development in football.
“I’ll be interested to see Indian football in the next 20 years, I think they’re making steady development. But it’ll be very difficult to catch up with us. It’s not because we’re doing it better, it’s because we’ve been doing it longer” he says.
The AIFF announced a new project called Vision 2047 earlier this year to create a strategic road plan for Indian football over the next two decades, focussing on revolutionising the men’s national team to rank it among the top four nations in Asia by 2047.
It is a 25-year plan, with proposals including 55 games across tournaments for a player in a season, a five-level league ladder for senior men, a four-level ladder for women, a substantially expanded coaching pool, and building FIFA-certified venues.
“Only this (Next Gen and RFDL) won’t make that happen. Many more tournaments and development projects need to be conducted,” Izumi says.
“The new project, Vision 2047 from AIFF, I believe will facilitate the growth of the sport in our country. I guess the future of Indian football is bright but a lot more needs to be done.”
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