The All India Football Federation (AIFF) has left no stone unturned in their bid to ensure the India U17 team is well prepared for next month's FIFA U17 World Cup. An important part of that project has been the identification of the best young talents from all parts of the country.
But the AIFF's scouting team, led by Abhishek Yadav, went a level above to ensure every avenue to find good players was explored. In partnership with the Sports Authority of India (SAI), the Overseas Scouting Portal (OSP) was launched to ensure Non-Resident Indians (NRI) also had a chance to play for the India U17 team.
US-based NRI Namit Deshpande, one of the defensive mainstays of this India U17 team, has turned out to be one of the early fruits the OSP has offered the nation. Still, the story of him making the India team was not as simple and straightforward as that.
Namit, who hails from the Shivaji Park area in Dadar, Mumbai, moved to New Jersey in the United States of America with his parents when he was less than two years old. However, he had a valid Indian passport which meant he could apply when the AIFF and SAI launched the OSP.
His CV was sent to the scouting team who invited the tall central defender to Brazil where the India U17 team, under the tutelage of former coach Nicolai Adam, was participating in the Atletico Paranaense invitational youth tournament in December 2016.
He flew down with his father and was with the team for 10 days and impressed the German coach so much that he wanted him to join the team immediately. But Namit, who also excelled in academics, wanted to join the team only later in 2017 since he had classes and exams going on in the US. But Adam was not prepared to wait too long for the defender.
Namit's father subsequently informed Abhishek Yadav that his son could not join immediately and went back to the US. However, Abhishek, in particular, kept in touch with Namit's father and used to keep him updated about the team developments which turned out to be key in this saga.
Then came the twist that brought Namit into the picture again. Nicolai Adam and AIFF parted ways and in came Portuguese coach Luis Norton de Matos to take over the team. The 63-year-old wanted to add some physique to the defence and was on the lookout for a sturdy central defender.
Meanwhile, the AIFF scouting team were preparing a presentation on the OSP and required Namit's picture for the same and contacted his mother. She directed them to his father stating that he looks after his education and sports. During the discussions, his father showed some interest in Namit joining the team again.
Not one to miss an opportunity, Abhishek Yadav managed to convince Namit's father and arranged a four-day trial in Goa. Though Namit's parents were not interested in giving another trial, Abhishek managed to convince them that since the coach had changed, another trial was necessary. So, Namit came down to Goa, alone this time, and was given a two-day trial.
"Namit's father had genuine concerns regarding the state of his academics. But we did not want the trail to go cold and had kept in touch with them (Namit and his father) even after they went back to the US. That turned out to be key as when another opportunity came knocking and we invited him for a trial, Namit's father did not have any doubts as to how genuine we were. Everything fell in place as we went the extra mile to convince his father," said Abhishek Yadav, who is also the India U17 team Chief Operating Officer (COO).
Luis Norton de Matos was convinced of Namit's abilities immediately. Namit subsequently went back to the USA after the trial and joined the team in May during their exposure trip in Italy.
He went back again to the US after the tour to write his examinations and is now back training with the first ever Indian team set to play in a FIFA World Cup. On October 6th, in what is a rare instance in Indian sport, we could possibly see an NRI take to the field against the country where he is based.