Conceived by Bob Houghton back in 2010, the Indian Arrows project had a rough first innings. Fed by the academies of clubs across the country, as well as the All India Football Federation’s (AIFF’s) own training centres, it is a rare example in global football. The purpose is simple — to bridge the gap between age-group competition and senior football for boys who have represented the country and need to transition to the professional ranks. How? By giving them access to a full season of competitive football in the I-League while still under the care of the federation. It was a great idea that project had its fair share of problems. Money, unsurprisingly, is right at the top of the list. After three seasons, and three different coaches, the idea was shelved.
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In 2017 it was revived by another philosopher-coach, Luis Norton Matos, who argued that the effort put into training the batch of boys to represent India at the Under-17 World Cup would be wasted if they were not further nurtured. Given how many of that class of 2000 are currently attached to pro clubs in both the Indian Super League (ISL) and the I-League, the revival seems to have been a good idea.
The Odisha government has since stepped in with a major grant, as well as providing the club and India’s under-15 team a permanent home and training facilities in Bhubaneshwar, securing the immediate future. The Arrows were able to convene in November 2020 to begin preparing for the challenge ahead this season.
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This season, two accomplished former internationals will mentor the generation being groomed for the Asian under-19 championship — Shanmugan Venkatesh and Mahesh Gawli. Both have been part of the AIFF’s thinktank for a while now and are well aware of the country’s ambitions on the international stage.
Venkatesh is on a break from his duties as assistant to Igor Stimac with the senior national squad and undoubtedly keen to share some of that experience and knowledge with the younger players. With nearly a 100 India caps, Gawli is no stranger to football at its hardest. He is widely regarded as among the best of his generation. Gawli was a key player in the Dempo side that won three national league titles in five years with a largely Indian defence. In today’s environment, with most clubs opting to spring for foreing recruits in positions such as central defence, the Arrows’ defenders will have a significant impact on the national teams of the future. And in Gawli, the AIFF has found a top man for the job.
One thing is for sure with the Arrows — you never know when they come up with a little bit of magic. Over the years we have witnessed a famous win over Mohun Bagan at the MB ground, some great individual goals and moments of teamwork that make the world seem a little bit brighter. This season will be no different.
A couple of streets away, locked in a different glass and concrete monstrosity, the league’s new boys are counting down the days to their debut. Sudeva Delhi FC started as a residential football academy just six years ago and has demonstrated tremendous intent in this short time. Driven by the oddball duo of Anuj Gupta and Vijay Hakari, Sudeva are Indian football’s smallest big club. When the Delhi Dynamos moved out of the city the opportunity for a direct entry to the league reared its head; for Gupta and Hakari the chance to be the only Delhi club in the top leagues was too tempting not to go for.
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“Sabko pata hai Sudeva ke paas paisa nahi hai (everyone knows Sudeva do not have the money),” Gupta half-jokes. What he means is the club is not designed to splash out on big transfers and bells and whistles. They have built the structure from the ground up, focussing on developing scouting networks, training infrastructure and lasting relationships. All this meant that when the pandemic hit, Sudeva’s academy boys were shielded from the violence unfolding outside its walls.
“In the six months when the world stopped, we were lucky enough to be able to keep playing football,” Gupta says. Through these challenging months Sudeva were able to keep their close to 150 boys safe and comfortable while also making sure their education did not suffer too badly. Accelerated entry into the league and the impact of Covid, though, has made some of the going tough.
What makes Sudeva stand out in the league this season is the decision to field an all-Indian squad. With immunity from relegation for the year, Sudeva do not have much to lose, no matter what their final position on the league table. Since the club claims to be in it for the long run, the approach is hard to argue against. Almost a third of the I-League squad has been promoted from academy teams. The rest are a mix of scar-wielding veterans and talented young players from ISL clubs such as Bengaluru FC and East Bengal who were not getting enough game time at that level. There is also a strong Delhi connection with plenty of local representation on both coaching and playing staffs.
Leading the line is one of the Delhi boys — Ajay Rawat. The hardened striker is on a comeback of sorts. He brings the hunger and the experience of having won the league as far back as 2013 with Churchill Brothers. Goalkeeper Rakshit Dagar and former India international Augustin Fernandes are league winners too while cultured winger Kean Lewis was a regular in the BFC side that won the Indian Super League in 2018-19.
Not that winning the league is likely to be the target for Sudeva. If you are reading this the chances are you are familiar enough with the global system of football to know that it takes money to win leagues. Yes, even in India. So what can we expect from head coach Chencho Dorji and his boys? It is, quite honestly, hard to say at this stage.
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Sudeva’s friendly results include an encouraging draw with Punjab FC and a win over Gokulam FC. And some of the young players on the squad have great pace, confidence and ability. However, in most aspects of operations, Sudeva are complete noobs. We expect that rawness to be expressed in the form of some memorable goals and closely contested games. We also expect to see a couple of very young players make an impact (more on this in later) against more fancied opposition. Most of all Sudeva will focus on building its philosophy and learning from this debut season. The learning curve will be sharp and not everyone will emerge unscathed. But, as Gupta puts it, “Without the threat of relegation why live in fear of finishing last?”
(Note: This correspondent is currently on assignment with the Sudeva Delhi FC squad in Kolkata for the I-League 2021 season.)
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