India’s U-17 World Cup Team Owes a Lot to This Chandigarh Academy

Chandigarh Football Academy and Minerva FC have contributed to a third of India’s FIFA U-17 World Cup contingent.

5 min read
Amarajit Singh Kiyam is a graduate of the Chandigarh Football Academy.

The Chandigarh Football Academy and Minerva Football Club have together contributed to a third of the Indian Under-17 contingent at the FIFA World Cup.

At 8 pm IST on Friday, India will create football history by not only hosting a FIFA event for the very first time on its soil but also marking the country’s first-ever World Cup appearance across any age group.

All eyes will be on the young Blues who have been clubbed into Group A along with the United States, Colombia and Ghana.

Amidst huge anticipation and feverish excitement as the Indian football team take on the United States in their opening encounter in the group stage, the union territory of Chandigarh will be watching on proudly.

When the All India Football Federation (AIFF) named a 21-member squad for the tournament about a fortnight ago, seven players with strong connections to the city made the final cut.

Four are products of the famed Chandigarh Football Academy (CFA) while the remaining three ply their trade for I-league club Minerva FC.

India take on USA in the Under-17 World Cup match on Friday.
India take on USA in the Under-17 World Cup match on Friday.
(Photo: AP)

The Blue Colts captain Amarjit Singh Kiyam, midfielder Jeakson Singh, defender Sanjeev Stalin and goalkeeper Prabhsukhan Gill are graduates of the CFA, with Jeakson transferring to Minerva in 2016.

Manipur-based midfielders Nongdamba Naorem and Mohammad Shahjahan along with defender Anwar Ali from Punjab are all part of the I-league outfit’s fold.

Behind the Scenes

Chandigarh Football Academy

After being established in August 2000, courtesy of the then governor Lt Gen JFR Jacob, the academy proved adept at training future stars. A lot of credit for this is down to the efforts of Harjinder Singh, the former Indian international.

The erstwhile JCT midfielder has been associated with the CFA since its inception. His role was all-encompassing – right from scouting for the first batch of talented members taken in under the academy’s wings to setting up detailed coaching programmes for the batches.

Harjinder’s passion for the game and his vision and commitment yielded results with the very first batch. With four academy trainees selected for the India U-15 team, CFA's credentials received a shot in the arm and the success story spread across the country.

This has seen a steady stream of youth arrive at the academy from across the country, talent that needed to be honed and polished. These graduates have then gone on to represent clubs and country across various levels and age groups.

Amarjit and Jeakson, cousins and teammates, left their homes at the tender age of 10-11, within months of each other, to join the CFA. Both of them come from modest backgrounds, but the love for the game has been deeply ingrained in them owing to their families as well as place of birth.

The boys hail from Manipur, where the skipper Amarjit’s father is a farmer-cum-carpenter and mother is a fish-seller. Jeakson was born to a local football coach, who also happens to be Amarjit’s maternal uncle.

Similarly, Sanjeev hails from Bengaluru and joined up with the CFA at the age of 11 after hearing about the coaching facilities at the academy. The defender was born to a central government contractor father and his mother sells jerseys on the footpath.

These stories are a common theme across most trainees/graduates of the academy – modest upbringing but the love for football uniting them all in spirit and mission.

The country has seen a host of promising footballers emerge from the CFA including the likes of current national players such as Robin Singh, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Daniel Lahlimpuia and Sehnaj Singh. Bengaluru FC left-back Nishu Kumar and Shillong Lajong midfielder Samuel Lalmuanpuia are also products of the institute.

Amarjit Singh Kiyam
Amarjit Singh Kiyam
(Photo: PTI)
A one-of-its-kind setup, the academy’s USP is the age from which talent is scouted, trained and provided for. While most such academies take in teenagers and thereabout, the CFA aims at recruiting players in the age group of 9-11.

This age advantage provides them with a huge boost as the ability to learn new skills, adapt and ingrain reduces with each passing year.

Amarjit and co are well aware of their academy’s successful alumni; however, when they take to the field on Friday night, the youngsters will have only the World Cup on their mind. Tonight is their night of reckoning, their moment in history – a first ever World Cup featuring and hosted by India; nothing and no one can take this away from them.

Minerva FC

In a practice match at the start of the year, Minerva’s youth – winners of the AIFF youth league – caused quite the stir by defeating the Indian U-17 team 1-0 in Goa.

Diminutive but technically gifted players overlooked by former national U-17 coach Nicolai Adam got a second chance to showcase their skills to the new man at the helm.

In fact, Jeakson Singh did not make the India squad under Adam and neither did Shahjahan. However, the appointment of Luis Norton de Matos proved to be a boon for both as another round of trials and friendlies were conducted.

By then, Jeakson had transferred to Minerva from CFA; along with the trio of Anwar Ali, Shahjahan and Naorem, the teenager grabbed his chance with both hands (or legs, shall we say!). All four were selected by de Matos and will be eager to set the World Cup stage alight with their performances.

A Challenging Future

The CFA’s only regret during the 17 years of its running had been the brain drain. Many of its young stars were often cherry-picked by clubs who could offer the players more exposure and games on a national/international platform.

However, the biggest setback came in Jul 2017 when Harjinder parted ways with the academy to join Delhi United club. The coach who earned the academy the reputation it boasts of today deemed the administration and facilities unfit for running ‘the unique academy’ that CFA is.

An embattled CFA will have its hands full in dealing with Singh’s departure. Will this set Chandigarh and Indian football back by decades after GenNext finally offered a glimpse of making some progress? Will Delhi United be the new CFA? Only time will tell.

For now though, all this will take a back seat as Chandigarh gears up to cheer its favourite sons along with the rest of the country.

(Maya Mahadevan is currently a freelancer, who hopes to carve a niche for herself in the world of journalism – through sports writing or storytelling. Football and tennis are her joint first-love. She also has an interest in hockey and badminton. A financial analyst by profession (engineering followed by an MBA), her other areas of interest include travelling, listening to music and reading. The writer can be reached at @mayamahadevan)

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