When the All India Football Federation (AIFF) released the final squad of 21 to represent India at its first-ever FIFA Under-17 World Cup, one particular state outshone the rest of the nation by a considerable mile.
Eight players from the Manipur have made the cut in Luis Norton de Matos’ squad as India get ready to host 24 of the best youth football teams on the planet in a three-week long tournament panning six different venues across the country.
Jeakson Singh is one of those boys from the North Eastern state along with team skipper Amarjit Singh Kiyam. The pair of them stands out amongst the rest of the Manipur contingent in a unique manner – they are fluent in the Punjabi dialect.
Jeakson, a defensive midfielder by position, has a long and strong connection to the North Indian state of Punjab. The teenager was just 11-year-old when he had left his hometown in Thoubal district to travel all the way to Chandigarh to work on his football education.
Born in a family who love football, Jeakson’s early introduction to the sport came from his father who was a coach. “Since my father was a coach himself, he acquainted me with the basics of football through his training. I started practising with my father at seven years of age and four years later I headed to CFA,” Jeakson says.
The CFA he refers to is the state-run Chandigarh Football Academy, one of the premier academies in Punjab. It was his elder brother who had recommended the youngster towards the direction of the CFA due to its high-level coaching.
Jeakson’s mind was made up and he would shun all local football tournaments and trials back in his home state in a single-minded aim of joining an academy nearly 2700 kms away from Manipur. He joined CFA along with Amarjit, who is, in fact, his maternal cousin and belongs to the same town of Thoubal.
“Amarjit Kiyam and I are cousin brothers. When I started playing, he too did after 3-4 months following my start. We are both from the same district named Thoubal in Manipur.
“Amarjit is my paternal cousin - his mother is the cousin of my father. We used to stay nearby and were also in the same school as kids. We also joined CFA together,” the 17-year-old says about the team’s skipper.
It was at the CFA where Jeakson learned the basic skills and techniques of the game along with opening up to the various tactical elements involved. He would continue to play for the club for five long years and it was here he picked up the local language.
“I learnt a lot of Punjabi in my five years at Chandigarh as I was surrounded by Punjabis all around. So eventually I picked up the language too. It’s not just me, even Amarjit and Sanjeev (Stalin) can speak Punjabi, too. We converse in Punjabi here. I also enjoy Punjabi music, particularly the mellow or romantic tracks and I can sing in Hindi too,” Jeakson says.
After several years at the CFA, the lure of testing himself in the U-16 I-League and eventually the U-17 World Cup meant the Manipur boy made the switch to the Minerva Punjab FC Academy in the same city.
“At CFA, I trained for at least five years and later left for Minerva Punjab as they were contesting in the U-16 I-League unlike CFA. I thought I had a better chance of being scouted for the U17 World Cup at Minerva Punjab rather than at CFA."
However, when the preparatory team for the Under-17 World Cup was being put together in 2015, Jeakson’s CFA teammates Amarjit and Sanjeev would be selected in the AIFF trials held at Goa but the defensive midfielder would miss out.
“Amarjit Kiyam and Sanjeev Stalin were already selected from CFA and I wasn’t selected then. I used to practice a lot but the competition among the kids at CFA had reduced as the number of kids had gone down,” he says about missing the initial cut for the World Cup squad.
The youngster though would not give up on his World Cup dreams. He would instead get down to the hard grind at Minerva Punjab in order to be the best footballer he could be. He would form a crucial part of the club’s academy team which would go on to win the AIFF U-15 & U-16 Youth League titles two years in a row.
“When at Minerva Punjab, I met many people like Surinder sir (Surinder Singh, former Minerva Punjab coach), Ranjit sir, (Ranjit Bajaj, owner) and others. They wanted me to eventually play for the senior team. I played in the U-16 I-League twice and won both times. So the club signed me for the senior side and made me play in the Durand Cup and DSK Cup which boosted my confidence. I played against Gangtok XI and Indian Navy in the Durand Cup. My game had improved a lot and finally, I made the shift to AIFF, joining the Indian U-17 team,” remarks Jeakson about his stint at Minerva.
The move to eventually join the India Under-17 squad though would come by providence. German coach Nicolai Adam, who had been given the original charge of leading the squad in the World Cup, departed under a cloud of allegations at the start of the current year.
Norton would only officially take over the reins of the team at the beginning of March but would immediately set up fresh trials and friendly matches to bolster the talent pool for the squad just seven months before the main event.
The Portuguese was not satisfied completely with the crop he had inherited from Adam and this would be the ticket to Jeakson’s unlikely path to the World Cup boat which he assumed he had missed.
Minerva Punjab had won the 2017 U16 Youth I-League at Mumbai by defeating Ozone FC 3-0 final with Jeakson scoring a long-range stunner early on. He and several of his teammates caught the attention of Abhishek Yadav, who decided to invite them for a match against the U17 World Cup team.
Jeakson would shine in his side’s 1-0 victory over the World Cup-bound team and his performance was enough to catch the eye of Luis Norton de Matos and team COO Abhishek Yadav.
The Manipur boy would be then called up to join Norton’s boys along with three other players from the Minerva team. It has been almost seven months since but Jeakson cannot hide his admiration for Norton and Yadav.
“Luis Norton is a really good coach I believe. He does not only pick one player, he keeps an eye on all of the lads. He gifts a chance to each one to prove himself, too. I am very thankful to Abhishek sir for giving me this chance to join Indian side. I had high hopes but never thought that I would make it,” he says about the duo.
Named ‘Jeakson’ at birth, the midfielder has always liked his jersey to carry the name of ‘Jeakson’ while playing football. A confident lad, Jeakson’s self-belief in his abilities has never been shaken in an extensive junior career.
Moreover, he is an ambidextrous player and has clarity of thought over his playing style, despite being at a nascent stage in his career. "I can use both my feet but I don’t really use my left foot very often. I am a number 6, operating as a defensive midfielder," he said.
Pitted against superior and experienced opponents in the showpiece event, the pressures of carrying the expectations of over a billion people in a historic opportunity for the country will be huge on the 21 Boys in Blue.
The well-spoken Jeakson replies, “The confidence of the team depends on every individual’s level of belief in himself. I think that if we believe fully in ourselves and perform as a unit, we can achieve a lot while performing well.
“There will be lots of support from the home crowd everywhere so that will help us and motivate at the same time.”
Though he maintains an ultimate goal to one day represent Spanish giants Real Madrid, Jeakson’s immediate target is to play for the Indian senior team.
He could very well be about to set those targets in motion come October 6 when he takes his place at the base of India’s midfield, thwarting the opponent’s attackers and initiating his side’s counters.
Watch Jeakson Singh and the India U17 team in action on Sony Ten 2 and Sony Ten 3 - the official broadcaster of the FIFA U17 World Cup!