How to find the next Bhaichung Bhutia of Indian football

The country lacks a proper youth development setup and scouting network but teams have adopted a range of methods to find their future stars.

Bhatchung Bhutia controls the ball before scoring for East Bengal against Mohammedan Sporting in the Durand Cup in November 1994. Bhaichung went on to captain India and was named East Bengal’s player of the century, but the story of his success is not a reflection of India’s scouting process.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

The scouting networks of football clubs in Europe — not just of behemoths like Manchester United, Real Madrid and Juventus — are spread far and wide. The fairytale story of Santiago Munez in the film Goal!, in which a fictional former Newcastle player convinces the Magpies boss to bet big on an illegal Mexican immigrant in the US, is played out in real life almost every day.

Closer home, Indian clubs are yet to cast their nets wide, and players often emerge here by happenstance. Bhaskar Ganguly, the Asian all-star goalkeeper from the 1980s, chanced upon Bhaichung Bhutia while running a month-long football clinic for 16-year-olds in Gangtok in 1993.

“I was approached by State Bank of India to run a football development programme in Gangtok along with former India footballer Surajit Sengupta,” Ganguly recalls from his Kolkata residence. “Bhaichung caught my attention because he was tenacious and very dedicated. More than that, he was a very sweet child and his discipline was truly commendable, and I immediately made a note of him. I would say, ‘Bhaichung, score a goal for me,’ and he would say, ‘Sir, I will score five goals for you.’ He would make me stand in goal and would try to score against me.”

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Ganguly arranged trials with East Bengal for three youngsters from the camp, but only Bhaichung showed up. “The others were worried about moving to a new city, but Bhaichung was then signed by the club, and East Bengal agreed to take care of his education and stay as well,” he says.

Bhaichung went on to captain India and recently was named East Bengal’s player of the century, but the story of his success is not a reflection of the country’s football scouting process.

Bhaskar Ganguly, the Asian all-star goalkeeper from the 1980s, chanced upon Bhaichung Bhutia while running a month-long football clinic for 16-year-olds in Gangtok in 1993.   -  Special Arrangement

 

Near-zero youth development

The lack of a proper youth development setup and scouting network worries Shyam Thapa, the former head of the Tata Football Academy, India’s premier football school.

“It is pathetic that we are still not looking at youth development in football professionally,” he says. “We don’t have good junior-level tournaments either. We have started now, but we are still not serious about it.”

Thapa, chairman of the All India Football Federation’s (AIFF) technical committee, cited the youth development programmes in Japan and South Korea as well as West Asian countries as examples. “Today, they are the top Asian teams and are playing in the World Cup. However, we did nothing in this regard despite the kind of talented footballers we have,” he says.

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Thapa, who coached India’s under-16 and -19 teams in the 1980s, had a big vision for Indian football when he joined the AIFF in 2017, the year the country hosted the FIFA Under-17 World Cup. He suggested roping in football icons such as Bhaichung, I. M. Vijayan and Sunil Chhetri, and requesting the union sports minister — Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore at the time — to provide a letter saying each state must have a junior residential academy attached to their football stadiums.

The plan was praised but didn’t make it out of the corridors of the AIFF’s New Delhi offices. “Had we implemented this at that time, imagine how much talent we would have at our disposal now! Now we are desperately mining for talent, and the talent we are finding is mostly raw. Had we done this then, we would have polished them by now,” says Thapa.

Starting local

Pradhyum Reddy, who coached Shillong Lajong from 2010 to 2012 before having stints at Bengaluru FC and FC Pune City, believes for a club to be successful, it needs to do its best to unearth talent in and around the city it is located in.

“There was a conscious effort to look at our youth players (at Shillong Lajong), and the moment you start doing that, it gives belief to your players. Plus, the effort was made to look for players locally, nothing too fancy or far-reaching,” he says.

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It was while at Lajong that Reddy first laid eyes on Eugeneson Lyngdoh. “We were playing in a local league and it was Lajong versus his club, Ar-Hima (now known as Rangdajied United). We played them a couple of times in the season and then we qualified (from the second division) and that sort of helped us push the agenda (of signing him),” Reddy says.

Shyam Thapa, the former head of the Tata Football Academy, India’s premier football school, is worried about India’s lack of a proper youth development setup and scouting network.   -  PTI

 

Eugeneson moved to Shillong in 2011 and later followed Reddy to Bengaluru FC, where he established himself as one of the best players in a league-winning team.

But would the India midfielder have found success if not for Reddy? “Of course, but only if someone was looking at the games in Shillong on the ground level. You have to be there, watching the local games – in any state — and you will not miss your Eugenesons.

But that level of scouting at the state, district, zonal games...it should be done better,” says Reddy, adding: “Local games, local leagues, local academies and local teams. If you go down to that level, you will find a lot of untapped talent.”

Reddy joined Bengaluru FC right when the club was formed, and he took his philosophy of concentrating on local talent with him. As the club started winning trophies and gaining popularity, it realised the need to increase its attention on youth development and to look beyond the state’s borders.

“We were growing, which meant we had to do more with regards to grassroots and youth development, which also means looking for talent where they are rather than preferring those in our state. The only parameter has to be talent,” says Bengaluru FC chief executive officer (CEO) Mandar Tamhane.

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The club established a residential academy in Bellary and made a conscious effort to scout in states that are usually considered afterthoughts in football. “Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and more. We look into these states because what they do not have are big clubs — not talent,” says Tamhane. “We actually found enough interest in these places that we even started our soccer school programme full-time in Ahmedabad.”

Unlike Bengaluru, FC Goa does not have a residential academy. While a plan is underway to establish one, it already has teams across various age groups – the difference being that all the kids are day-scholars. What works in the club’s favour is the strong football culture in the state.

Its rise in the Indian Super League (ISL), coupled with its philosophy of sticking to an easy-on-the-eye style, is enough to convince parents to let their kids invest in the sport.

The progression rate at FC Goa is high. About 85 percent of the kids make the move from the under-15 team to the under-18 one, and around 80 percent of them make it to the development team. The final jump, to the first team, is the hardest. Eight players have made it to the senior team till date, with four of them making their debuts and establishing themselves in the first team.

It was while at Shillong Lajong that Pradhyum Reddy (right) first laid eyes on Eugeneson Lyngdoh. The India midfielder moved to Shillong in 2011 and later followed Reddy to Bengaluru FC, where he established himself as one of the best players in a league-winning team.   -  Vipin Chandran

 

Two paths

Depending on where they are placed in the hierarchy of Indian football, clubs develop local talent for either of two reasons: to bolster the main team or to earn revenue by selling players.

An example of the first is FC Goa.

“The existing structure and ecosystem have made our work a little easier,” says Lokesh Bherwani, the club’s head of scouting. “And with the kind of talent we have at our disposal, we don’t really look beyond our backyard unless forced to. Our age-group teams are almost fully filled with Goans. The only time we looked elsewhere was when we couldn’t find the kind of goalkeeper we were looking for.”

FC Goa is benefited by strong local leagues, for both seniors and kids, that are contested not only by the smaller academies, but also by some of India’s finest clubs such as Dempo, Salgaocar, Churchill Brothers and Sporting Goa.

“Our players play a lot of games across the season, almost like what’s seen in European teams,” says Ravi Puskur, FC Goa’s director of football. “We are in action for almost 11 months a year. As much as we can train players and drill our philosophy into them, it is playing competitive games that takes them to the next level.”

Not all youngsters make the transition to the first team, “but a good chunk does because it is a combination of good coaching, playing time and the club’s efforts to bring them through,” says Puskur.

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At the other end of the spectrum, I-League side Chennai City FC is not shy about positioning itself as a stepping stone for rising players. The club makes a conscious effort to stay within its state despite the lack of proper leagues for the seniors as well as the youth teams in Tamil Nadu.

“We are based in Tamil Nadu, which means we need to give our state’s players a chance to showcase their talent,” says Chennai City FC owner Rohit Ramesh. “And we are very open with our players when we recruit them. We are happy to have them play and develop with us. But if the right offer comes, we are more than happy to help our players make the next step.”

In five years, the club has helped five Tamil Nadu players move to the ISL: Edwin Vanspaul, Michael Soosairaj, Michael Regin, Nandha Kumar Sekar and Srinivasan Pandiyan. Soosairaj later moved on from Jamshedpur FC to ATK for the highest transfer fee ever paid for an Indian footballer.

Notably, all of Chennai City’s star players who moved to the ISL were scouted from the state leagues. But the local leagues in Tamil Nadu have not been held over the last two years owing to an ongoing tussle within the state’s football administration, a development that has deprived Chennai City of scouting talent at home.

Then there is Real Kashmir, the first club from the northernmost part of India to play in the I-League. Real Kashmir, despite a politically challenged scenario that sees lockdowns and curfew imposed frequently, uses the many unofficial local tournaments as a scouting platform.

Team owner Sandeep Chattoo says the club in four years’ time has established junior teams and now has plans to expand them. Four of Real Kashmir’s junior players will make the transition to the senior team this year. Creditably, the club finished third in its debut season in 2018-19 and was in fourth spot when the I-League season was called off earlier this year.

Bengaluru FC CEO Mandar Tamhane (left) with club and India captain Sunil Chhetri. As Bengaluru FC started winning trophies and gaining popularity, it realised the need to increase its attention on youth development and look beyond the state’s borders.   -  K. Murali Kumar

 

Covering India’s length and breadth

While it’s not feasible for one club to scout for talent all across the country considering its size, clubs still manage to find players from all corners of India — and this is where local academies, clubs and leagues come into play.

Top-tier clubs make agreements — usually “unofficial” — with smaller academies, schools or colleges. In return, they get compensated — but the method vastly varies. While financial incentives do exist, the approaches include an exchange of knowledge between the coaches; supplying kits, balls and other necessary equipment; arranging matches to increase exposure, and more.

“If we have someone who is working for us, helping us in scouting, there is not going to be an announcement regarding the same,” says Bengaluru FC CEO Tamhane. “If someone starts announcing that their club or academy has an understanding with a big club, a lot of unwanted stuff can happen. We do not want these coaches or academies advertising themselves as a pathway to the club. At the end of the day, we are happy if we get just one good kid from them rather than a random set of 20 or 30 kids who get sent because they were promised a move to a big club.”

Ranjit Bajaj, the former owner of Punjab FC who now runs the Minerva Academy, says most clubs host trials in the state capitals but not in other districts, and “that’s where our scouting system is falling behind.”

“We aim to change this approach because how do you expect a 10- or 11-year-old to travel to your chosen venue for trials? The turnout will be poor because parents will be reluctant to make the trip and will have to spend money and time. We have to completely change our approach to scouting – we have to go to find talent and not expect them to come to us,” he says.