As the first ever Indian team to take part in a FIFA World Cup gears up for the challenges posed by the tournament, the nation’s imagination will be captured by Canadian-born goalkeeper Sunny Dhaliwal, who went to great lengths to play for the team, among others.
It is no secret that intensive scouting and support work from the All India Football Federation (AIFF) has gone into assembling this squad of youngsters.
Not only have the best talents in India been scouted but, at the behest of the National Director of Scouts Abhishek Yadav, the AIFF, in collaboration with the Sports Authority of India (SAI) also opened an avenue for Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) to showcase their talents and be a part of the team.
The Overseas Scouting Portal (OSP) gave those residing abroad with a valid Indian passport a chance to play for the India U17 team and that is how US-based defender Namit Deshpande came to coach Luis Norton de Matos’ plans.
Sunny Dhaliwal, however, having been born in Canada, did not have a valid Indian passport in March and was not eligible to play for India despite being born to Indian parents.
This is where the committed work of Director General of Sports Authority of India (SAI) Injeti Srinivas and the AIFF helped out the young kid in fulfilling his dream of playing for India.
Back in March this year, Sunny Dhaliwal’s father sent a video of his skills via email to Abhishek Yadav, who also serves as the COO of the India U17 team, because one needed a valid Indian passport to apply through the OSP. However, looking at his physique and skills, the team management decided to give him a special trial but conveyed to Sunny’s father that they had to take care of his citizenship status.
Having been presented an opportunity, Sunny flew down to Goa within a week for the trials with his father. The coach, who was on the lookout for some physical presence in the defence and goalkeeping department, liked what he saw and so did all the coaching staff, paving way for his induction into the team.
But the snag was that he did not have an Indian passport. Not to be deterred, the player’s father immediately contacted the India U17 team management to explain the problem in May. Abhishek Yadav, along with AIFF COO Kishore Taid, SAI’s football coach Mohammed Ali met in Delhi with Sunny’s father to discuss the next course of action.
Sunny’s father was asked to follow up in an official manner with the Consul General of India (CGI) in Toronto while the team management told him they would also try and resolve the issue. Both parties went on to contact CGI in Toronto but there was no clear precedent as to how the case should be resolved. Kishore Taid, on behalf of the AIFF, also shot off a letter to the Home Ministry.
The ministry responded after 15 days with the rules and possibilities but there was no real progress on the issue for about a month or so. There was a lack of clarity on the rules and things seemed to be hitting a dead end.
Time was running out for Sunny as the deadline to submit the initial 35-man list to FIFA was on August 11th. The passport had to be obtained before the date or all the work would have gone down the drain.
During the U17 World Cup draw on July 7th, Abhishek Yadav, Bhaichung Bhutia and Kishore Taid met with AIFF President Praful Patel to discuss the issue. Patel projected a positive picture and was confident of getting the deal done and asked the team to seek his help for pushing the matters through.
But the turning point of the saga was the visit of the SAI DG, who is also the Sports Secretary, to Delhi’s Nehru stadium when the U17 team was training there. When Abhishek Yadav and team apprised him of Sunny’s situation, the DG asked for all the communication and details of the issue. He immediately contacted the relevant person in the Home Ministry and instructed them to move the file forward as soon as possible.
Abhishek Yadav recollects that the short meeting with the DG changed the complexion of the saga and credits him for the implementation of the OSP as well.
“When we broached the OSP with him (Injeti Srinivas), he was very interested in the project and was convinced of its potential within 30 minutes. His inputs strengthened and fine-tuned the project. In the Sunny issue, his intervention changed the outlook of the case. Mr.Praful Patel and Mr.Kushal Das too supported the cause all throughout,” said Yadav.
Meanwhile, Patel also helped the team follow up with the Home Ministry through Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju.
Subsequently, when Sunny’s father went back to Canada towards the end of July, he received a call from the CGI of Toronto informing that the Home Ministry has sent a response in the affirmative.
The approval came on 24th of July but the passport was issued within two days on 26th July and Sunny joined the U17 team in Mexico for the Four-Nation tournament in the first week of August, signalling the successful culmination of a saga for which credit must be given to the SAI DG and the AIFF for having imbibed the importance of the situation and lending a helping hand when it was needed most.
“This was a collective effort by the Government Of India, SAI and the AIFF. It wouldn’t have been possible without the support of Kiren Rijiju and Praful Patel. This is certainly a precedent for everyone to follow with regards to the process of getting a passport for an NRI Athlete,” Kishore Taid said to Goal.
However, the AIFF and SAI, along with Sunny Dhaliwal’s parents, have set a brilliant example to follow for NRI athletes to obtain a valid Indian passport and represent the country in the future. For now, Luis Norton de Matos will be grateful that he has enough options on his hands as the India U17 team take to the field in the global footballing extravaganza.