On a hot May afternoon, even as temperatures remained above 30 degree Celsius around 6 pm in Mumbai, 22 young football fiends continued to raise the heat at the Reliance Corporate Park in Navi Mumbai, on the outskirts of Mumbai. They crossed, they passed, they dribbled, they tackled, and they scored too. While the occasional chatter among a small crowd gathered on the sidelines veered towards the IPL playoff match that would follow later in the evening, squeals of “shoot”, “get him”, or an exasperated “come one, ref” would immediately bring you back to the intense battle of attrition going on in the middle.

This was not your everyday soccer match, not the kind that inhabits every other alley in India. Because the winner would take home silverware signifying a multi-national conquest: The ‘Reliance Foundation presents Premier League Next Generation Cup’ that’s a collaboration between the philanthropic arm of Reliance Industries Limited (the owners of Network18, the publishers of Forbes India) and the Premier League (PL), England’s most elite football league.

The competition was launched in 2019, with Mumbai hosting, among others, the under-14 and under-15 sides of Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea in the inaugural season, with a repeat season in the city in 2020. The third edition moved to the UK in 2022, where the under-21 colts of ISL outfits Kerala Blasters and Bengaluru FC, which topped the domestic Reliance Foundation Development League (RFDL), faced off against the academy teams of Tottenham Hotspur, Leicester City (now relegated to the lower division) and West Ham United, among others.

The fourth edition of the Next Gen Cup, which recently concluded in Mumbai, doubled the number of Indian participants to four—the top four finishers of the 60-team RFDL—along with PL clubs Wolverhampton Wanderers aka Wolves, West Ham United and Everton, and South Africa’s five-year-old soccer venture Stellenbosch. The Wolves won the trophy by beating defending champion Stellenbosch 5-4 through a penalty shootout.

“When we started, we had the under-14 competition. Fast forward to now, we have under-21 teams playing against each other,” says Neil Saunders, director of football, PL, a globally acclaimed league of 20 English teams. “The fact that we’ve been able to progress to this age group shows the quality of young players in India.”

The roots of the collaboration, says a Reliance Foundation Sports spokesperson, lie in a mutual cooperation agreement signed between the PL and Football Sports Development Ltd (FSDL) in 2014, and renewed in 2020, to bring the best practices to India to develop its football ecosystem. This year, Reliance Foundation joined hands with PL as title sponsors for the tournament.

“Reliance Foundation Sports invests in Indian football as part of its CSR strategy,” says the spokesperson, adding that RFDL, which throws up the Indian qualifiers for the Next Gen Cup, was instituted last year with the aim of developing the youth football structure in India. “It started off with only ISL clubs,” he says, “This year, we’ve expanded it to over 60 clubs across the ISL, I-League, Division 2, and SFA-nominated clubs, playing over 300 competitive matches.” From among them, Bengaluru FC, Sudeva Delhi FC, Reliance Foundation Young Champs (RFYC) and ATK Mohun Bagan made it to the Next Gen Cup.

This collaboration brings to India a celebrated academy template—which has fostered the likes of Sir Bobby Charlton, David Beckham, Gareth Bale, Luke Shaw and Marcus Rashford—to propel its development programmes, while also enabling the pipeline that feeds England’s national team to gain exposure—from the street-style play of the South Africans to India’s tactically sound game, as James Collins, the U21 head coach of the Wolves put it. Add to that the acclimatisation to Mumbai’s searing heat, a new time zone and switching into the game mode every few days, and one gets the whole game experience.

“Back home you don’t get to play a lot of tournaments, that’s what we got coming to India. The main thing I will take home from the tournament is the winning mentality,” says 19-year-old Ollie Tipton, the captain of the Wolves, beaming after leading his team to the trophy.

His Indian colleagues have gained a look-in into the rough and tumble of international football, and benchmarking themselves to it. Consider the confidence-booster that it has been for Franklin Nazareth, a central defensive midfielder, and Chirag Bhujel, a right winger, who were part of the RFYC team that narrowly lost 1-2 to Everton. “We dominated the match,” says Nazareth of his team, which scored in the first minute of the stoppage time in the second half. “We lost the game, but we were in it till the last minute against an English academy side,” he adds.

Saunders draws a parallel between the Next Gen Cup and the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) that the PL launched in the 2012-13 season with an eye on developing more homegrown players. The EPPP works in three phases with footballers, from foundation (under-9 to under-11), youth development (under-12 to under-16), and professional (under-17 to under-23). “Youth development doesn’t happen overnight,” he says. “Some of the standout performers you see in the PL at the moment, be it Bukayo Saka, Phil Foden or Marcus Rashford, they all started at a PL academy from the age of nine and probably didn’t make their debut until 10 years later.”

The Next Gen Cup also provides the Indian clubs a platform to catch the talent early and transition their academy graduates from cadet leagues to the first team. Example: Sivasakthi Narayanan of Bengaluru FC, who played the inaugural season for the RFDL and scored two goals against Leicester City in the 2022 edition of the Next Gen Cup, also won the Hero ISL Emerging Player of the Year in the 2022-23 season.

Says Arata Izumi, a former Japanese-Indian professional footballer and the current RFYC coach, “This tournament has been one of the biggest hopes for football in India ever since I came to the country in 2007. I’ve seen a lot of young players struggle with no game time and no clue about how to get on with their career. This is a tournament where they can really showcase their talent.”

Besides, the Next Gen Cup brings Indian youngsters crucial game time, otherwise amiss from routines due to the lack of youth competitions. As teams like Bengaluru FC played regularly in the season, with the second division, the RFDL league, and finally culminating in the Next Gen Cup, it’s shaping the mentality of his wards, says Darren Caldeira, former footballer and the director of football for the club. “They’ve got a game every three days for the past two months. At times even though it felt like they played a lot of football, they are beginning to understand what it takes to be a top player,” he says.

Adds Caldeira: “If you go back 10 years, no young footballer would imagine playing against a PL academy team, or travelling to the UK to the academies themselves, meeting some of their first team players, like former Leicester City player Kasper Schmeichel. Now that’s happening, thanks to this tournament.”

How has the impact been on the ground? It’s perhaps telling that, while no Indian team has made it to the finals of the Next gen Cup yet, ATK Mohun Bagan, a team from a country ranked 101 by Fifa, managed to hold West Ham, a PL team academy, to a 1-1 draw in the opening match of this year’s tournament. Says Kieran Driscoll, the under-18 coach of Everton, “The one thing that's caught my eye playing the two ISL teams is just how they threatened in the attacking moments of the game. The willingness to go and run forward, that winning mentality was clear from the start. You could see it meant a lot to them to be playing against a club from the PL.”

The Next Gen Cup is perhaps best summed up in the words of Evangelos Vellios, the under-23 head coach and the first team coach of Stellenbosch FC. In its fledgling five-year-old life, the South African Club has already won the tournament once, and finished runners-up once. “In the last two years, we've played Nottingham Forest, Leicester, West Ham, Wolves and gone toe-to-toe with those PL teams,” says Vellios. “In the two years that we’ve played in the tournament, we’ve seen so many of our boys become men.