The FIFA Under-17 World Cup heralds the rebirth of a footballing nation in India, the hosts. Whether it's the infrastructure at the six World Cup venues or the record fans filling up the stands for matches, India too has paid back the faith football's world governing body showed in the country, which was hosting its first mega event. While that was restricted to organising and viewing, there's still a lot to do when it comes to generating India's own champions in the sport. Jeakson Singh, Dheeraj Singh Moirangthem, Sanjeev Stalin and Amarjit Singh are some of the stars but in India's remote pockets, far away from the six World Cup venues, many more are coming up. This is the story of one of those centres trying to produce global football champions.
This is part two of our series about residential football academies. Read part one here.
Bengaluru, November 9: A few weeks ago, players training at the FSV Arena off Hennur had a surprise visitor in the morning. Although the guest didn't require any introduction for he was an ex-academy player, coach Stanley Rosario formally announced Hendry Antonay's arrival to his boys, the squad of the Ozonegroup Residential Academy. Neither did Antonay speak about football nor did he give any tips for them to succeed. Just the presence of a World Cupper for India, at the age of 16, was enough to give the 60-odd players a renewed sense of hope: football is now a viable profession.
"When you, as a player, see that someone from your academy has made it, it obviously makes you more optimistic about your chances of having a future in football," Mohamed Rafik, the CEO of the Ozonegroup Football Academy, said. "That's what Hendry's visit meant for the players. They were all suddenly excited and were keen to play a practice game with him. Even the senior squad members came down to pat him on the shoulder for being a World Cupper."
Even the Ozone Academy does not need a big introduction in the Indian football scene. Started five years ago by the realty giants, Ozonegroup made in-roads in the football hotbeds like Murphy Town, Gautamapura, Austin Town and other areas and were swift in producing a team that entered the final of the Under-16 Youth League in February 2017. Its residential academy is one of Bengaluru's only two hostel facilities for football.
Rosario, however, made one thing clear at the end of that day's practice session. "It's not overnight that you just happen to make it to the World Cup squad," he told his wards. "Being one of the first players to join the Ozonegroup Academy, it took Hendry five years to get a chance to represent the country. It takes years of training, daily practice sessions - in and out, in and out - to stand a chance. People only watch competitions and select you, but the coach watches you in every session. So each one of you has to give your 100 per cent in every session, and then only you can think of wearing the India colours."
The coach was not just talking about the players' responsibility. It was also a mantra for his own staff and the academy as a whole, contributing to their long-term vision. As S Vasudevan, Ozonegroup chairman and managing director, puts it, "Our long-term vision is to be a centre of excellence which generates players capable of competing in the Asian and global level. As a short- to mid-term vision, we see this academy as a feeder for our own senior team as well as other top Indian clubs."
Currently, the academy operates in three major age-groups: Under-15, U-18 and the senior team. Even its training is conducted the same way - there is Salim Pathan commanding the U-13s, Alex Praveen taking care of the U-15s with Rosario supervising them all as the director of youth development as well as the U-18 coach. Ozone's residential facility has 30 U-15 and as many U-18 footballers and a couple of U-13 players too. Right until 10 am, the Ozone training ground buzzes with rigourous activity, drills and loud instructions filling up the ground. After that, it's time for Rosario's motivational talk.
"Apart from Hendry, we had three others from our academy - Manveer Singh, Gurmeet Singh and Hendry's twin Ajay Alex - figure in the list of probables for the Under-17 World Cup squad," Rosario, who is the only Bengalurean to hold a Pro Licence in coaching, points out proudly. "That apart, three U-16 players - Harpreet Singh, Harpreet Rulbir and Niraj Kumar - represented the country in the SAFF U-16 Championship this year."
The evening's training session also concludes the same way.
Fruits of labour
Rafik concedes it motivates even the club to see Hendry, or another academy product, do so well in the national stage. "This is obviously the fruits of the work we've been doing for the last five years," he said. "It feels good to see the results because it gives you that motivation to do more."
He then talks about the path they are in. "For us in Ozone, Hendry making the squad shows that we're on the right path."
Ah, the right path. Yes, Hendry making it to the U-17 World Cup squad does count as an incredible achievement for an academy that started functioning only five years ago. But the road ahead is a tricky one.
A seven-year-long partnership deal with KNVB (Royal Dutch Football Association) ended in March 2017. As part of the agreement, KNVB nominated 'A' License holder Bert Zuurman as the Ozone coach. Zuurman neatly handled the academy and its senior team so far, but Ozone are on their own now. It was his departure that prompted the recruitment of Rosario, a former East Bengal and Mohun Bagan coach, as the youth director in the summer.
That apart, Ozone's residential facility, operating out of Hosur for the last three years, suddenly shifted 70 km inwards to Bengaluru six months ago. Although Rafik says this was for logistical reasons, accommodating 60-odd students and finding a ground to train them was no easy task. Even now, the residents stay about a half an hour away in a guesthouse in Frazer Town. The state of the art hostel accommodation with a gymnasium and swimming near Hennur, Rafik promises, will be ready in two months.
Accommodating and educating
The hostel was not the only challenge about relocating though. "It's always difficult to move out of a place you've settled in," he said. "But we're a Bengaluru-based company and have our headquarters here. That academy in Hosur, as you may know, is 15 km off the highway.
"It was neatly set up for us. Our hostel was next to the school the players were in. The training ground was within the campus too. Here, we still've to place them in an education programme. They'll definitely be home-schooled since they don't have time for an eight-hour itinerary in their jam-packed day. There'll be separate programmes for each one and by the end of the academic year, each one will've to progress to the next class."
Rafik added that school education is a must if a footballer wants to be part of the academy. "If they don't do well in their exams, we punish them in football since football is their only motivation," he said. "We hope that one day, we're able to convert a good percentage of the academy players into educated national stars.
"If that doesn't work out due to reasons like injuries or inability to perform at the highest level, we'll figure out alternative career paths in and around football. This could be becoming a coach or an administrator, anything. We're planning to design a curriculum which'll help a player make a living around football even after his retirement."
Then there is the challenge of catching up with the rest of the world. At Ozone, Rafik says, players come in only at the age of 13. The rest of the world starts training its children for football from the age of five. "We (India) are eight years behind but the mentality is changing," Rafik said. "We (Ozone) are getting decent players from the age of 13. There are children who're 11 years old too, but we don't want to take them into the residential academy yet. There's also the question of morality within the club whether you want to keep a kid away from his parents when he's still under 10."
The grassroots talk
Apart from 'the right path', the most common term heard in Indian football circles is 'grassroots'. We operate at the grassroots level, we hope to unearth talent from the grassroots. Come on, who doesn't?
That way, Ozone are way ahead of their competitors. "They're labourers back in Punjab," Gurmeet, an upcoming defender, replied even before the question of his background could pop up. At that moment, Niraj couldn't hide a chuckle. "I love watching splitsvilla (on MTV)," he said.
Gurmeet, along with Niraj and Harpreet, were three growing footballers brought to the residential academy from Dibbipura, 50 km off Amritsar. "The three of us used to play together in the ground. We don't have many hockey players from my village. It's considered a football village because of my childhood coach Kularjit Singh."
Rosario, earlier at the team dug out, spoke highly of the 16-year-old defender. "I tip him to be a future India international," Rosario said. "Niraj too has a bright future."
That is not all what Gurmeet is. Gurmeet, you could say, represents the ambition of an entire generation of a junior football team who witnessed their contemporaries play a World Cup. They celebrated them, rejoiced with them and are waiting for another opportunity to present itself.
High footfall for football in Rajasthan
Ozone, through its scouting network, has captured some of these ambitions. "You would be surprised to know that in Udaipur, there were 200 kids who had turned up for our trials. This from a state like Rajasthan that has negligible presence in Indian football. You've the talent in the hotbeds like Northeast, Punjab and local talent for sure, but it's our job to spread to places like Rajasthan, Andhra and Tamil Nadu. We've a player from interior Maharashtra in our squad, so it's not just the northeast or Punjabi players that're being groomed here. We choose the most passionate one. It's a boy for whom football isn't a pass-time sport but a way to survive."
Free for the game
The grassroots tag, in this case, does work out to be true. What's more, the academy is a non-profit venture. "Imagine you're the head of a company and are signing a blank cheque without expecting any return. That's our group managing director S Vasudevan," Rafik said.
"Sometimes, we feel that we're criticised even though we're investing so much into football, and spending crores together to keep the academy afloat. But when you see the aspiration that these boys hold, you want to work with them and work for them. That is what keeps us going."
But it was time to go for Gurmeet & Co. Coach Rosario recalled the rest too. "Team bus is waiting," he explained as the clock struck 10.30 am. A rickety journey back to Frazer Town awaited the boys.
But Gurmeet had one final instruction. "Don't forget to put my coach's name, Kularjit Singh, in the article you're writing. Whatever I'm today is because of him."
(Images: ozonefcbengaluru.com and Aravind S)