Unsung heroes: The role of scouts in nurturing Indian football

On the sidelines of Reliance Foundation Young Champs’ Naupang League, their head of scouting Steve Charles sheds light on the infrastructure in Indian football and the importance of scouts.

Published : Jun 20, 2023 17:18 IST , Aizawl - 8 MINS READ

Charles is the Head of Scouting for the Reliance Foundation’s grassroots projects.
Charles is the Head of Scouting for the Reliance Foundation’s grassroots projects. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Charles is the Head of Scouting for the Reliance Foundation’s grassroots projects. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

A nascent football career is nurtured and prepared for take-off by three wise heads.  

First, the coach who nurtures talent. Second, the agent who secures lucrative deals and endorsements. The third – in a true sense the first – the scout.  

While the first two, on most occasions, get their share of the limelight, the third forever toils far from the public eye.  

“How many know who scouted Ronaldo or who scouted Messi?” asks Steve Charles, when  Sportstar approaches him during the Reliance Foundation Young Champs’ (RFYC) Naupang League.  

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Charles, at present the Head of Scouting for the Reliance Foundation’s grassroots projects, serves as the perfect example of the important role a scouting network holds in a footballing ecosystem.  

“We’re the unsung heroes,” Charles says. 

After playing for Pune FC from 2008 to 2011, Charles moved to coaching in 2014 with Indian Super League club FC Pune City. 

In 2019, he took a scouting role with the RFYC.  

“I joined Reliance at Young Champs in 2018 as an under-14 coach. Then in 2019, the opportunity for scouting came. Honestly, I had no clue about what was happening,” he says.  

“But it was always a passion to give opportunity to kids. That was the thought behind it. And I just took up the role without knowing what was in front of me.”  

With no official training programmes, RFYC’s existing network of scouts and their database were his first teachers.  

“I studied a lot on my own. I relied purely on the need of the academy. I think coaching helped a lot because I knew what type of players RFYC is looking for. That was a starting point for me to get into understanding what is needed,” he says. 

Early into his new role, Charles was convinced that a map of India was going to hold him in good stead. India’s football ecosystem, however weak or strong one might perceive it to be, is a cumulation of 29 states. Each offers a different terrain, and different conditions and has a bearing on what kind of players turn up from the region.  

As he started frequenting the length and breadth of the country, Charles understood the intrinsic traits offered in a region, and how that can be used to finetune his search. 

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“It (diversity) changes quite a lot. Players up north are bigger in frame. In the Northeast, they are not among the tallest but are tough. Down south, you see a lot of creative players. Sivasakthi is the most recent example. They are not physically big but are runners. They are box to box. Lot of endurance in them. The question is, ‘Can we improve (other parameters)?’ Yes, we can,” Charles says.  

Genetics too often come to Charles’ aid in decision-making. He takes the example of a kid who plays in the defence but likes to move higher up the pitch with the ball.   

“If he is playing as a centre-back, and he is not moving out of position, I know that he understands the role. If he also comes into the midfield and tries to open play, then there is a possibility. This is a naked-eye observation. 

“I look at his parents. They are tall, he will grow at least as much as his father. Perfect! A potential centre-back in the future. (On the contrary) Parents are slightly shorter. We know he is not going to grow much, likes to come into midfield and we think ‘Can he play as a number six? Can he play as a number eight?’ So, it is not only the player we have to watch. We must look around and try to figure out things.” 

This idea of scouting players, identifying their strengths, and then working on them laid the seeds for Mizoram’s Naupang League. A competition for age groups ranging from under seven to under-13, to scout players early and offer them a head start. 

Spotting them early: Under-13 kids in action at the Naupang League in Aizawl.
Spotting them early: Under-13 kids in action at the Naupang League in Aizawl. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Spotting them early: Under-13 kids in action at the Naupang League in Aizawl. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Charles, along with other scouts from the organisation, visited four districts of Mizoram – Aizawl, Champhai, Lenglui and Kolasib – to look for talent. The last trip in June was his seventh of the year. 

“You need a lot of ground staff and administrators. In a day there is very little you can seek. You cannot do justice to all players in a day. So, it was a process where we kept watching these players. We wanted to ensure that every player gets enough time,” Charles says. 

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Charles’s inclination towards repeated trips of the state is borne from his playing details. In 2012, he won a scholarship to Blackburn Rovers Football Club.  

In Blackburn, Charles had his first experience of modern football training.  

“I trained with the reserve teams. I had the luxury of sharing the dressing room and training with David Raya (currently playing for Brentford), Gamst Pederson and Danny Murphy.  

“There, you come to the training centre at 9 AM. You have breakfast. You have a chat with the different departments –sports science, video. You see your previous day’s footage. Then you get into gym sessions, followed by recovery. Then you have a team session together. So, it is a proper routine.” 

His philosophy as a scout was shaped by Phil Cannon. A former scouting head for Everton Football Club, Cannon brought Wayne Rooney into the club. Before that, Cannon nurtured Theo Walcott in Swindon Town’s youth academy.

“He was the head of the academy (at Blackburn Rovers). What I saw was they discussed players and their development every three months. They had a big board where they made different segments – Premier League, first team, Championship, second division, non-league football.  

“They had the entire Academy players written there and they grade them. Who they think is Blackburn Rovers first team, who they think is Premier League level, who they think should be transferred. That is the level of discussion and thought they put in. It is important to invest that much time in a player and discuss the pathway for them,” Charles says. 

It is the system that Charles feels is needed if India wants to have a bigger talent pool. While ISL teams have worked towards creating a similar environment, Charles feels there’s ample scope for improvement.  

And at the heart of this will have to be a well-established network of scouts. “If more ISL teams establish this type of system, I think a lot of homegrown talent will be pushed.”  

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