Never in the history of Indian sport has one game owed so much to one institution. This twisted version of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s memorable words can aptly be applied to the Tata Football Academy (TFA), which this year has completed 25 years of existence. When it was created in 1987, the Tata Football Academy (TFA) was the only national and Asian academy dedicated to the development of football. Creditably, TFA has maintained its quest for excellence and held its ninth convocation for its tenth batch of 18 graduating cadets, from eight different states, recently. Creditably at this function, veterans like Chuni Goswami, Director TFA, 1986—89, P.K. Banerjee, technical director 1991—1997, Shyam Thapa and coach Ranjan Chowdhury were also present. The 1962 Asian games gold medalist, Arun Ghosh, Director TFA 1997—2002 and Mohammed Habib, coach 1986 to 1999 were also invited but could not make it for personal reasons.
In his inimitable style, PK regaled the young cadets with anecdotes of the past. He said that recently retired international defender Mahesh Gawli, whilst at TFA, used to cry at night as he was homesick. PK revealed how he spent hours soothing Gawli and urging him to stay. He also said that international midfielder Clifford Miranda was mischievous and used to climb trees to eat mangoes and other fruits.
TFA’s contribution to Indian football has been immense, especially during the nineties and initial years of the new millennium. During this period as the Indian economy changed, prices and life expectations increased considerably, so the feeder clubs, often colony based units looked after by dedicated individuals dwindled or shut shop. For decades clubs like Aryans, Kalighat, Kidderpore, Howrah Union in Kolkata, Orkay Mills in Mumbai, City College Old Boys and Arsenal FC, Hyderabad, Premier Tyres in Kerala, Leaders Club, Jalandhar and many others all over the country, nurtured talent and produced good players, who were then snapped up by the big clubs of India. As these clubs and institutions declined for economic reasons, TFA filled the vacuum. If not for TFA, India’s FIFA ranking would have slithered down even more.
Creditably about a decade ago, others have followed TFA’s example like Chandigarh Football Academy and Sesa Football Academy. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) has started an academy in Navi Mumbai earlier this year and a youth development programme since 2007. But for many years, TFA remained the only elite football academy in the country, with excellent training facilities, coaching inputs and foreign exposure trips.
In the last two decades, 120 TFA cadets have represented India in international competitions. Overall, 164 TFA cadets have represented the country in age group national teams. The most successful was the fourth batch when 13 of the 16 graduating cadets represented India. Some of TFA’s exceptional footballers include Carlton Chapman, P. Renedy Singh, Syed Rahim Nabi, Subrata Paul, Alok Das, Dipendu Biswas, Deepak Mondal (received the Arjuna award in 2010), Mahesh Gawli, Noel Wilson, Debashish Pal Chowdhury, Lolendra Singh, Kalyan Choubey, Sur Kumar Singh, Gourmangi Singh and India’s recent pre-Olympic captain Raju Gaikwad. TFA contributed immensely to arguably India’s greatest football victory in recent times, the 1-0 win over United Arab Emirates (UAE), which was then ranked 70 places above India in a World Cup qualifier, in April 2001. There were five TFA players, defenders Sur Kumar Singh, Mondal and Gawli and midfielders Noel Wilson and Renedy in that Indian team which upset UAE 1-0 in Bangalore.
The scouting of talented players is broad based, includes all social categories and India’s diversity is amply reflected in the selected TFA cadets. The recently graduated batch had an ace defender Sanjay Balmuchu, from a village in the iron-ore rich region of Jharkhand. Nicknamed the ‘iron man’, Balmuchu was discovered from the Feeder centre of Noamundi near Tata Steel’s iron mine. Balmuchu has now got a lucrative contract from Churchill Brothers. On the rolls at present is a talented 15 year old cadet Niranjan Sardar from the remote Kalarangatia village in Jajpur district of Odisha. He was spotted in a camp organized by TFA in Kalinganagar.
In contrast, the suave striker Karan Sawhney is the son of a wealthy Mumbai based businessman. Known for being able to “bend the ball” like Beckham, lanky Karan has secured a Rs. 22 lakhs two year contract with Salgaocar (Goa). TFA is egalitarian in its treatment of players. All share the same facilities and stay in rooms without air-conditioning.
At the five-acre academy, the country’s best talent is put through an intensive four-year training programme, given the best equipment and occasional foreign exposure. Previously foreign trips were to Brazil, Germany and Netherlands. However in 2010 the Tata Football Academy signed a technical tie-up with Sheffield United FC. So the TFA senior squad and four coaches visited Sheffield United academy for three weeks in September 2012 to get match exposure against English youth teams and professional guidance. The English club is helping TFA with coaching and technical expertise to develop the Academy and their cadets. Sheffield United’s international coach Lee Walshaw frequently visits Jamshedpur to fine tune TFA’s training programmes and set up modern training schedules.
Creditably the TFA is expanding and have launched a non-residential Grassroots Development programme for local boys less than 10 years of age. Every two years, TFA will induct 75-80 boys under 10 years of age and from 2016 onwards these boys, proficient in football basics, will be available for selection in the Academy’s four year programme. Satellite centres have also been created at all Tata steel locations where sports infrastructure is available.
In the past 25 years, achievements have been stupendous. But TFA must develop a road map for the future and not let complacency creep in. There are a few worrying signs. In 1989, TFA was runners up in the IFA Shield, losing 0-1 to Mohun Bagan. Again in 1995 TFA entered the Durand final, upsetting Mohun Bagan in the semi final and losing in the penalty shoot-out (3-4) to East Bengal in the final. In 1997, a spirited TFA squad, coached by the effervescent Mohammed Habib reached the DCM final but lost 0-2 to formidable Mohun Bagan, which had lethal striker Chima Okorie, Sri Lankan international Roshan Pereira and speedy Abdul Khalique upfront. Reaching the final of three major domestic tournaments were tremendous achievements for precocious teenaged footballers, as they competed against the top senior teams of the country. In recent years, TFA has lost in the initial rounds of the Durand tournament and successes have only been in relatively minor competitions like Nayagrah football tournament and Harbhajan Singh memorial tournament. Has the quality of junior players joining TFA declined or is better coaching needed? It is time for stocktaking.
Of the 18 TFA players who recently graduated, 13 have been snapped up by the AIFF’s developmental team, the Pailan Arrows, an impressive statistic, but how many play regularly in the first eleven. Pailan Arrows have signed 35 players this season so many TFA recruits will be languishing on the bench. Some like Alwyn George and goalkeeper Y. Ravi Kumar have already established themselves and will get regular chances but what about the hard tackling midfielder Siam Hanghal and Simranjeet Singh. Will they wither away, lose motivation and drift through the rest of their professional career? The trio of Bilal Khan, Manpreet Singh and Balmuchu have signed for Churchill Brothers but will also mainly be used as reserves. This withering away of talented graduates should be a cause of worry to the TFA authorities, as it does not concern this batch only but was a repeated feature of the nine previous batches.
Winger Gautam Ghosh from the first batch, rated the most talented in the country, played for both East Bengal and Mohun Bagan but his career never really took off. Central defenders Anit Ghosh and Shanker Lal Chakraborty and striker Dipendu Biswas (once compared to Jurgen Klinsmann for his roving game) from the second batch, were also highly rated but they never really lived up to potential. Another silky striker Sheikh Sanjeeb faded away soon after leaving TFA. So many others cases can be cited, strikers Vimal Pariyar, P.C. Lalawmpuia (reportedly liquor problems) of the 7th batch, Henry Gangte and Branco Cardoza of the 8th batch, defenders Satish Bharti and Amandeep Singh and striker Alex Ambrose (4th batch) and S. Malsawmtlunga and Subash Chakraborty (5th batch). All were promising players but could not make the transition from potential to fulfillment of talent.
TFA should take note of this drop-out rate and make new plans for the future. Some years ago, P.K. Banerjee suggested that Tata Steel start a senior team, where most of the TFA recruits can ply their trade after graduating. He felt that teenaged players coming out of a sheltered and professional set-up like TFA could not cope with the pressures and politicking of club football in the country. The Tatas football club would be a finishing school for the Academy graduates and then they could seek transfers to high profile clubs. Coach Ranjan Chowdhury, a loyalist, who still has TFA on his e-mail ID, supports this idea. It is worth considering as analysis reveals that players who joined clubs without the constant pressure of success, had a successful career. The best example is Deepak Mondal (3rd batch—1998) joined JCT for two years. After he matured as an individual and player he left for the high profile East Bengal in 2000 and his career blossomed. Similarly Gawli joined now defunct FC Kochin for two seasons before signing for Churchill Brothers. Maybe for the next decade, TFA could try out this venture, start a club to give senior tournament exposure and maturity to the Academy graduates.