Indian football team captain Sunil Chhetri stated that the belief and confidence within young players will improve if they play tournaments such as the Reliance Foundation Development League (RFDL).

The first edition of the RFDL took place last year with seven Hero Indian Super League (ISL) clubs taking part alongside the Reliance Foundation Young Champs. Bengaluru FC, comprising of players such as Sivasakthi Narayanan, Damaitphang Lyngdoh and Namgyal Bhutia, now part of the senior team, emerged as winners. BFC, alongside Kerala Blasters FC, later took part in the PL Next Gen Cup in the United Kingdom.

The recently-concluded RFDL edition was even bigger with over 50 teams participating and with more than 250 matches being conducted in the regional qualifiers before the National Group Stages matches and the National Championships. Bengaluru FC successfully defended their RFDL crown after beating ATK Mohun Bagan in the final. They were among two of the four Indian teams that later took part in the PL Next Gen Cup in India.

Chhetri mentioned how Naorem Roshan and Sivasakthi serve as a prime example for other players from the youth team that they can make it to the top level. The Bengaluru FC captain further cited the importance of tournaments such as the RFDL which provides a platform for youngsters to test themselves against the best and develop their game.

“Sivasakthi and Roshan are the cream of that cake (to have made it to the first team from the reserve team),” Chhetri said in a podcast named Business of Sports by The Economic Times. “Not everyone is as talented as them but yes they are also part of the whole tribe because what happens is the once you see whatever dream or vision.. once you see that somebody is living it and has achieved it becomes a little bit more believable and you work that much harder.”

He further explained: “So with the RFDL, these kids went outside (to the United Kingdom) to play (the PL Next Gen Cup) last year and they did really well. Even (Namgyal) Bhutia (part of the BFC first team) was there and he was the captain. Now again, we reached the finals of the RFDL (and qualified for the PL Next Gen Cup), that gives them a chance to rub shoulders against the best from Europe also.”

“I think if you go to the academy now after playing two-three years of these tournaments, the belief will be different. I've always said that no matter how much you train, if you're not playing games, you will not improve,” he added.

Goalkeeper Sharon Padattil, Thoi Singh, Harmanpreet Singh and Lyngdoh were among the four young players from the first team who were part of BFC’s squad for the 2023 edition of the RFDL and the PL Next Gen Cup respectively. Chhetri explained how facing some of the best youth teams and players will smoothen the transition from the youth team to the senior team for youngsters.

“It’s huge (the importance of tournaments like the RFDL). Some of the matches that I followed in the RFDL, if you see some of the players from teams like Wolves, they are massive. Some of them were 6 feet tall. Now people like Thoi (Singh) and our youth team boys, when they play against them, when they smash against them, and imagine if they can do it 10-12 times a year minimum so when they graduate to the senior team, they will not feel scared or intimidated when they go for a header with Sandesh Jhingan. But what happens is the gap becomes so big for them to fulfil if they don't get enough matches,” he asserted.

Chhetri brought up the example of players part of the India’s Under-17 World Cup squad during the 2017 edition, who are now plying their trade in the Hero ISL and how playing more youth matches have aided their development. Suresh Singh, Anwar Ali, Jeakson Singh are among the many players from that batch who have now gone on to become key players for their respective clubs in the Hero ISL.

He said: “So the Under-17 World Cup boys, before the Under-17 World Cup matches in Delhi, they played at least 48 games in two and a half years with top opponents. They play against the next Neymars and the (Phil) Fodens, who has been top class for Manchester City. And now when you watch those kids in the Hero ISL, some of them are good, some of them are getting better, but none of them are scared. Physicality they can handle. You can judge them on their skill level or understanding and they make mistakes, but none of them are intimidated by sizes because they have been playing for that many years.”