Every third player in the India’s 21-member squad for the FIFA U-17 World Cup has a strong Chandigarh connection. It was the training stint in this city that helped them secure a berth in the national squad.
These players have either come through the Chandigarh Football Academy (CFA), established in 2000, or the Minerva Football Club based here.
And the credit for making Chandigarh a major football hub in the country goes to former international Harjinder Singh, who was a coach at CFA since its inception until this July.
The growth of CFA not only saw its players establish themselves in the game but also more academies being set up in the region. Four players — Amarjeet Singh, Sanjeev Stalin, Prabhsukhan Gill and Jeakson Singh – in the World Cup squad are products of CFA while Anwar Ali, Nongdamba Naorem and Mohammad Shahjahan are associated with the I-League club Minerva Football Club. Jeakson switched from CFA to Minerva last year.
“It’s a dream run for any coach,” says 63-year-old Harjinder. “When we started playing, we never thought India will play in a World Cup one day. Though it is the under-17 World Cup, it is a step for future endeavours. One hopes India will touch great heights in football in the coming decade.
“Not only the U-17 team, three of our trainees are also part of the U-16 team, which speaks volumes about Chandigarh’s domination in the age group sections,” says Harjinder, who has played for JCT and East Bengal and was part of the Asian All-Star team in 1974.
In 2010, when Chandigarh defeated West Bengal to win its maiden national under-19 title for the Dr BC Roy Trophy, 10 players were from CFA. One of them was current India defender Sandesh Jhingan, who has become the country’s highest paid footballer.
“Because of CFA, the competitive football culture has developed in the city and that has helped a number of players don the national jersey,” says Harjinder, who recently left the academy and joined Delhi United Club.
CFA success: 36 and counting
Until a decade-and-half, Chandigarh hardly had any presence in the national football scene. But that has undergone a change since the first batch graduated from CFA in 2004-05. And post 2010, even every senior team has a Chandigarh player. Till date, 36 CFA trainees have played for India in various age-group sides.
The academy was set up thanks to the late Gen JFR Jacob, who was the Lieutenant Governor of Chandigarh. “It was early 2000 when JFR Jacob, who was also the Punjab governor, made a media statement that he wanted to open a football academy in the city. That was the turning point.
“The very next day I requested the president of the Chandigarh Football Association to arrange a meeting with Jacob sir and things worked out. Before Chandigarh, he (Jacob) was governor of Goa and there too he opened an academy. But it was a public-private partnership and didn’t work well.
“So, Jacob sir wanted the academy to be fully under the administration,” recalls Harjinder. “It was in April-May, 2000 when he made an announcement that the academy will open on August 7. I had three months and I visited all corners of Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh in connection with the selection trials. Finally we selected 24 players in the 10-11 age group.”
CFA’s first success story came in 2005 when four trainees selected in the India U-15 SAF Cup squad. There was no looking back after that.
Entry of NorthEast
The story of CFA’s success spread like wildfire and once the first batch passed out in 2004, players from the North East started arriving.
“During the 2004 trials, we had four players from Mizoram. In the next batch in 2007 also we had a couple of players from there. But after seeing our success story, the Mizoram education department opened its own academy under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan scheme.
“After that it was Manipur from where we got players. Amarjit (captain of the India U-17 World Cup squad), and Jeakson are part of the 2011 batch, which had five-six players from Manipur,” he says. “Manipur is a football powerhouse and players coming from there to our academy is a big honour.”
Passport to better life
Till date around 50 CFA trainees have gone on to play professional football, which has proved a route to better life.
“One of the major points behind CFA’s success is our trainees making it big in the top professional league. Around 90 % of our trainees are from humble background and football gives them hope for a better life. Because of many success stories in the last 7-8 years, many kids have motivated to join CFA.
“It was only due to our reputation that Sanjeev Stalin’s (U-17 team member) father travelled from Bangalore to get his son admitted in the CFA five years ago. And today he is among the stars of the World Cup squad.”
Harjinder quits CFA
Harjinder, however, was critical of the Chandigarh sports department, blaming its functioning for his quitting in June to move to Delhi club, Delhi United.
“They want to run CFA as another ordinary academy. Every time I had to fight to convince them that this is one of the country’s best academies and players here need extra care and facilities,” says Harjinder.
“Finally, I decided to call it a day and shift to Delhi. I requested Karnail Singh, director of the UT sports department, to give me a couple of months off to help set up Delhi United’s coaching programme, but he sat on the file for four months and later rejected my application.
“I felt if he didn’t want to approve my leave, he should have at least informed me straightaway, and I deserve this much respect. And I decided I can’t take such treatment anymore and chose to move on after spending 17 years to make CFA one of the country’s top academies,” says Harjinder.