For 20 years now, the Steel Authority of India (SAIL) football academy at Bokaro has been shaping future talent for Indian football in its state-of-the-art facilities in the mineral-rich town.
The Bokaro facility is one of the two football-dedicated academies run by the state-owned steel-making giant. Promotion of sports has always been an integral part of SAIL’s philosophy since its inception in 1954. As and when the steel-making plants at Rourkela, Bhilai, Durgapur, Bokaro and Burnpur were set up, so were the sports facilities for workers and employees of the plant.
Over the years, a total of six academies dedicated to football, hockey, archery and athletics have mushroomed around the plants run by SAIL.
The football academy at Bokaro was set up in 1998. It is currently overseen by chief coach Subhash Rajak, who has been associated with the academy since 2008.
“When the academy was started in Bokaro in 1998, we started with the U-16 age group. In three years, we had established a senior age group too and the senior academy in Burnpur was formed,” he explains in a chat with Goal.
The residential academy at Bokaro has a capacity of 40 cadets. What sets this excellent academy apart from the several which have come up in India over the past few years is its whole-hearted dedication to the development of the trainees. Since its very beginning, the vision of the academy has been to provide every deserving child a pathway to professional football, no matter what his economic background is.
Recruited cadets at the academy are provided every facility, from their medical and schooling to their clothing and apparels. With the steel plant being a largely integrated facility, every single service ranging from schools, hospitals and transportation have been set up by SAIL within its township.
“We provide the cadets almost everything, from travelling expenses to the clothes they wear. Their education, accommodation and food is provided in our excellent residential hostel. We have a beautiful stadium complex (the Kumaramanglam Stadium) which we are also in the process of upgrading. Medical facilities are also provided for free in the SAIL hospital we have for the plant. The schooling is done in the in-house school and the cadets are provided with transportation as well. These and many more facilties are free for them, so that they may concentrate on their overall development and hone their soccer skills” the chief coach states.
With such excellent facilities at their disposal, it is no surprise that there is a clamour for the seats available at the academy every year. To ensure that no deserving candidate is overlooked in the selection process, the academy employs a two-phase approach to their recruitment every year.
“When we conduct our selections, we go to various states. We know that there are some children who will still not be able to attend the trials due to a lack of funds for travel and other handicaps. In the first stage, we go to states like Manipur, West Bengal, Odisha, Jharkhand, Mizoram and Sikkim. There we form selection committees involving the state coaches and then we conduct the recruitment,” Rajak explains.
“In the second stage, we write to the secretaries of all the state associations we haven’t visited personally to recommend their best children who would want to trial at our academy. For these, we provide all expenses, like the to and fro travel, accommodation and other amenities,” he adds.
Potential cadets are not made to jump through hoops to be eligible for selection with talent being the defining requisite rather than tournaments played on paper.
“We have an age criteria. This year, for example, we selected children born between 2002-03. We keep a minimum height requirement of 168 cms. We do not require the children to have played in various state tournaments previously. As long as someone has the talent, the SAIL academy would be interested in recruiting him,” the head coach states.
Once recruited, the cadets at the academy undergo a three-year training programme at the academy before they move on the senior facility in Burnpur. During this three-year stay at Bokaro, each cadet is also provided with a stipend in addition to all the other amenities.
“What we do here at Bokaro is train the children till the U-19 level. In the first year, we get them up to basics before moving to competitive tournaments in the second year like the B.C Roy Trophy, Subroto Cup and the Coco Cola Cup. We want to train them in the best way possible during their time here so that they can achieve good results in these tournaments before they move on to the Burnpur academy after their third year,” the chief coach says.
The academy’s contribution to the rise of football in Jharkhand is immense. When the facility was established in 1998, the authorities had hoped to channel some of the ever-growing passion for the sport in the Jharkhand region. At the time, the Tata Football Academy (TFA) at Jamshedpur was the only academy running in the area.
Now, 20 years later, the SAIL academy has truly put Jharkhand on the footballing map of India. The performance of the state in competitions like the BC Roy Trophy, Subroto Cup and the Coco-Cola Cup has been outstanding in recent years.
This year, the state lifted the Tier II BC Roy Trophy by defeating Jammu and Kashmir in the final by 4-3. Last year, the Bokaro Steel City (BSL) + 2 High School from Jharkhand triumphed in the Subroto Cup International U17 level too. In both these wins, the contribution of the SAIL Football academy has been massive. This trend of the academy providing the bulk of the players for the state sides is not new and has been prevalent since its very inception.
“We have received a lot of support from the Jharkhand Football Association over the years and we can safely say, we are the very best in the state when it comes to the junior level,” Rajak says with pride.
While the focus on football development is obvious, the academy prides itself on looking after the overall development of each cadet.
“When we recruit cadets for our academy, we want to provide them with the complete development. It is a total commitment. We are not only focused on the development of the football skills of the boys but the overall growth of their persona. We want them to take their studies seriously and we provide them with extra tuitions in case someone needs it. What we want is that when these children graduate from the academy, they are totally capable of taking care of themselves and should never feel that they lack anything,” Rajak says beamingly.
The cadets at Bokaro are made to undertake two training sessions every day – morning and evening. The morning session is the busier one where all the technical aspects of the game are focused upon. The evening sessions are much lighter with a focus on gym work, swimming sessions and theoretical lectures.
The majority of the day is devoted to other activities like schooling.
Over the years, the success-rate of the academy has been phenomenal. Many of the cadets are snapped up by the academies of East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Shillong Lajong the moment they graduate from their three-year program. The rest of the batch moves on to the senior academy at Burnpur.
The success-rate of graduates continuing their dreams of professional football at a higher level is more than 90 per cent, according to Rajak. While there have been many graduates who have gone on to play in the I-League and the Indian Super League (ISL) over the years, the likes of Prabir Das (ATK), Abhishek Halder (India U19s and Indian Arrows) and Ginkaholen Haokip (recruited by East Bengal this year) are the most recent examples.
Even then, this success is not enough for Rajak and the academy who are constantly striving to improve in every aspect and evolve with the changing times in Indian football.
“We want to reach a level where every month or two, one of our trainees is called up to some India age-group team camp. We are striving to improve our facilities and training to achieve such a level that we can produce players of that calibre on a regular basis," he says.
The academy was recently awarded a two-star tag by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) which makes it eligible to participate in the AIFF U18 Youth League for the 2018-19 season. While this is already an exciting development for the academy, further improvements are being planned by Rajak and co. in partnership with the AIFF itself for which discussions have already been held with Director of National Teams Abhishek Yadav.
“We have been bringing more changes in our training program recently to suit the needs of higher-level professional football. We have held talks with Mr. Abhishesk Yadav over this. What we are going to do is implement the same training program as the one used by our national team at various age groups. Under this partnership, coaches from the AIFF will also visit our facility in Bokaro from time to time to oversee the program and suggest any changes,” Rajak says about the potential collaboration.
“We want it to be a symbiotic relationship. We know that we are not perfect and there are many things we can learn from the training programs of our national teams. Similarly, there are many good aspects the national coaching setup can absorb from our programme. We want to constantly improve our training programme and curriculum. That has always been our motto and so we will take every step possible to improve every day,” he adds.
While constantly striving to improve the facilities and programme, the academy has also started a separate grassroots football programme for children in age group 6-12 from the largely tribal areas around the Bokaro steel plant.
Started last year, the programme has already seen more than 125 children participate across four training centres set up in the region. The programme sees the coaches of the academy travel to these four centres on a regular basis to conduct coaching camps.
All this and more has been helping the SAIL academy stand apart from their peers over the years with their dedication towards shaping Indian football for the better. Their 20 years of existence have already catapulted the passion for football in Jharkhand to a much higher level and it will not be a surprise.
It is not a stretch to say that the SAIL Football Academy in Bokaro is the backbone of junior football at Jharkhand at the moment and it will be no surprise to see them form the spine of the Indian team in the future should their commitment to the cause remain as unwavering as it is now.