In 1990, a lean 11-year-old boy in a red jersey took the field for USD Voluntas in a final. His crucial presence in the midfield saw the Italian side beat Bulgarian team, Pleven, 4-0 to lift the Gothia Cup.
The player went on to become one of the finest midfielders of all time – Andrea Pirlo, a FIFA World Cup winner, a two-time UEFA Champions League winner and a three-time Serie A player of the year.
Gothia Cup has been the stepping stone for many of the legends of the game.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic with Malmo, Alan Shearer with Wellington Juniors and Xabi Alonso with Antiguoko have all played in the tournament.
And now the 48-year old Gothia Cup has an Indian champion – Minerva Punjab Academy, which beat Brazilian side Ordin FC 3-1 to win the 13-year-old Boys segment. It has become the first side from the country to win the tournament.
“When the team scored three goals in the first game, it got a lot of confidence and it continued to build on it to win it finally,” Surinder Singh, the coach of Minerva Academy tells Sportstar.
“We travelled with a large contingent and our assistants helped us a lot. One of them recorded our games and another recorded matches of our opponents. We tracked every team we had a chance to face,” he adds.
Gothia Cup is the largest tournament for young boys and girls. In 2023, 1,878 teams came together from 69 countries to play 4771 matches.
To put it into perspective, it has 75 times more games than the 2022 FIFA World Cup, which had 64 matches.
Over the years, several Indian teams have travelled to Sweden for the tournament but until now, only one team made it to the final in any age category – East Bengal (Boys - 16 category) in 1996, when it lost 4-5 to Swedish side IF Brommapojkarna.
All of it changed this year with Minerva Academy’s victory.
Minerva was drawn in Group 38 in the ‘Boys - 13’ category with FC Infonet Tallinn from Estonia and BK Olympic White and IK Sleipner Blue from Sweden. It finished as the group topper without conceding a single goal.
“Before leaving for Sweden, our boys attended strict training sessions for six days where we focussed on physical conditioning (two hours) in the morning and on the technical aspects in the evening, for about one-and-half hours,” Surinder says.
“Then we showed them their own matches, analysed them and also prepared them psychologically. We try to prepare them to play against physically larger opponents so that they can be at par with European kids.”
Surinder has been a youth-team coach for over three decades and has played a significant role in developing some of India’s most decorated footballers, such as Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Anirudh Thapa and Sandesh Jhingan.
And grooming them has laid the foundation for more kids to take up the sport.
“In 2002, 2003, and 2008, I travelled to England with the St. Stephen’s Academy as a coach for 12-year-old boys. We competed with teams from there (the UK) and Italy and we used to beat them. I share those experiences with the children to motivate them,” he says.
Minerva faced Spanish side Technical Academy in the semifinal – a school that is inspired by Johan Cryuff and has nurtured Burnley winger Luca Koleosho, who is also part of Italy’s U-19 European Championship team.
But goals from Lairenjam Sanathoi Meitei and Md. Jayed in the 13th and 24th minutes set it up for a final against Ordin FC, the 2019 Gothia Cup winner and the 2023 Helsinki Cup winner.
“We knew the reputation of Brazilian players. The country produces fantastic individual talent. But we also knew that if we played as a team, we had a chance,” Surinder says.
In the very first minute, Minerva struck. A failed clearance by Ordin saw Malemnganba Thiyam get to the ball and shoot a right-footed hit into the bottom-left corner.
“We watched them throughout the tournament and we knew their gameplan. So, we decided not to give them space to play on the outside,” Surinder explains. “Once we were able to do that, we started dominating the game.”
Though Mauricio David Koch De Assis pulled one back for Ordin, strikes from Lairenjam and KH Azlaan Shah saw Minerva romp home.
Gothia Cup helped Bolivia build a FIFA World Cup squad the last time it played in the tournament. Eight players from the Under-19 side of Tahuichi in 1984 went on to represent Bolivia at the 1994 World Cup.
The win for Minerva can be a step towards the same direction, feels Ranjit Bajaj, the owner of the Academy.
“Our aim is to help India make it to the World Cup by 2034. But for that, the pool of Indian teams have to increase (in these age-group tournaments),” he says.
Brazil had 27 teams participating in the Gothia Cup this year, Spain had 18 teams, and Italy had 14 teams. Though India had sent seven teams, only one, Minerva, registered at least a win in the tournament.
“These boys need to be taken care of. It will be them who have a huge chance to represent India in the AFC U-16 in a couple of years. And then they will look for glory with the senior team. That’s their process,” Bajaj adds.
The Gothia Cup title might be too soon to judge the potential of these boys. But it does make the fans optimistic about the future of Indian Football.
And like Pirlo said, “In football, like in life, there are always millimetres which can change things - the course of a goal or of a life.”
India, too, will hope ‘millimetres’ like the Gothia Cup win pushes it closer to a brighter future in football.
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