Hero ISL clubs’ youth initiatives bodes well for Indian football’s future

When India qualified for the 2020 AFC U-16 Championship to be played in Bahrain in September, the young guns etched closer to scripting their own place in the annals of Indian football history. With a chance to prove their worth in the highest stage of Asian football in their age group, the Blue Colts move a step closer to securing a berth in the 2021 FIFA U-17 World Cup to be held in Peru.

During Anant Tyagi’s Let’s Football Live series which featured Kibu Vicuna in the 13th episode, the Spanish head coach stressed the importance of developing India’s youth setup from the grassroots level. “In India, we have to work better in the long-term future. In football, if you want to create good players and to develop the sport in your country, you have to work in the long term. And that's why the most important thing now in Indian football is to have patience,” the new Kerala Blasters FC head coach said.

With a firm development goal across the Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL), a number of youngsters have started to play key roles in India’s youth teams over the last few years. This is quite evident with the amount of young guns from the Hero ISL clubs who have been vital to India’s youth teams, especially over the last few years. One of the best examples for this is Bengaluru FC youngster Sridarth Nongmeikapam.

Sridarth had a stellar campaign with India’s U-15 side during the 2019 SAFF championships, where he scored six goals, including a hat-trick in the final against Nepal, just one shy of top-scorer Himanshu Jangra. He backed up that performance with another strong display in the qualification round of the 2020 AFC Under-16 Championships, where he scored five goals as the Blue Colts finished on top of their group. His strong performances even won him a trial with Slovenian side ND Ilirija 1911 last year.

When asked about his progress, the 15-year-old Manipuri forward credited his development to his national team’s current head coach at his age-group, Bibiano Fernandes. “I started off on the wing in my early years but eventually settled in as a central striker while in the AIFF set up in Goa. Coach Bibiano Fernandes has been a great guiding figure in my career so far and I have learned a lot of things from him in the last two years,” Sridarth was quoted by the Bengaluru FC website.

However, Sridarth isn’t the only youngster at that age-group from the national team to represent Bengaluru FC. Other names include Ratanbi Singh Chaphamayum and Anish Mazumder, with the latter being the skipper of the U-16 team. All three players were part of the Bengaluru B and U-18 side which took part in the Youth League, 2nd Division League and the Bengaluru Super Divisions Competition.

Another star in India’s youth team is their shot-stopper Aman Kumar Sahni, who plies his trade with Kochi-based club Kerala Blasters FC. The young custodian was a key member of the U-15 SAFF Championship winning team for whom he kept five clean sheets and followed it up by conceding just once in their three qualifying matches. He is joined by Sukham Yoihenba Meitei, who was also a key part of the team that went unbeaten through their qualification round in Uzbekistan.

The midfielder made it to the team only in July 2019, after his strong performances in the Hero Junior League 2018- 19 and the Subroto Cup got him selected for the trials with the U-15 Boys National Football Team camp in Goa. Both players will look to leave an impression with their new Spanish head coach Vicuna, who has made it clear that he will be keeping a close eye on Kerala’s youth teams.

The aforementioned five players were important figures during the U-15 SAFF Championship and the following AFC U-16 Championship qualifiers. These players will look to follow in the footsteps of players like Suresh Wangjam, Amarjit Singh Kiyam and Narender Gahlot, all of whom went on to represent their nation at youth levels, and will look to make an impression in the Hero ISL in the future.

They can also take heart from the praise they have received from Bengaluru FC skipper and legend Sunil Chhetri. “I’m already a big fan of the U-16 team, especially the U-16 team under Bibiano (Fernandes). They look like a really good unit,” he said on a live chat with AIFF TV. “They have played some really good football and it’s all about continuing the push to improve with every step. These boys would want to do better than the previous batch (that reached the quarterfinals of the 2018 AFC U-16 Championship),” said Chhetri.

The Blue Colts are now undefeated in eight matches and stand a chance to qualify for the 2021 U-17 World Cup, should they reach the final four in the 2020 AFC U-16 Championship. If they qualify, India will appear in the competition for the second consecutive edition but the first time by virtue of their performance in a continental tournament. While such high praise from the national team skipper is sure to boost the confidence of the young guns, the onus is now on them to deliver of the promise of a bright future for Indian football.

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