When Pronay Halder's screamer against Chinese Taipei nestled at the back of the net, a wide smile beamed across the face of Tapan Roy, secretary of the Mohun Bagan SAIL Football Academy (MBSFA). Halder spent his formative years as a footballer away from the hustle and bustle of Kolkata in this academy in Durgapur which has been set up as a joint venture between Mohun Bagan and SAIL subsidiary Durgapur Steel Plant (DSP). Souvik Chakrabarti, who made it to the preliminary 30-member squad for the Intercontinental Cup but got sidelined on the second day of the national camp with Chicken Pox also hails from this institute.
While DSP provides infrastructure support to this fully residential academy, Bagan has to pay the day-to-day expenses. The salaries of the coaches and maintenance of the facilities are also borne by the academy itself. While other grassroot establishments are charging hefty fees from their trainees, MBSFA remains one of the rare exceptions where not only all expenses are borne by the institution itself but also a stipend is provided to all players. However, in the absence of any sponsor, the academy is battling in its quest for survival.
"Late Gour Sadhan Bose donated ₹1cr for the first four years. We have listed this academy as a NGO so that we attract donors but that initiative has failed to garner sufficient response. We spend around ₹2.5 lakhs per year behind a trainee including his education. So if he stays in the academy for four years, we end up spending around ₹10 lakhs for him. But Indian football has not yet reached that stage where a club will break the bank for a potential future star," rued Roy from the sidelines of the ground where his young guns are busy in their afternoon training under the watchful eyes of chief coach Jo Paul Ancheri.
The success in the Manchester United Premier Cup back in 2006 remains the crowning jewel of the academy when the U-15s went on to qualify for the finals from the Asia-Pacific zone. Aizawl FC's David Lalrinmuana was the top scorer in the zonal finals. The squad was led by Sanjay Boro and comprised of several promising youngsters like Chakrabarti, Tirthankar Sarkar, Lalrozama Fanai, Malswamzuala and Dipendu Dowary to name a few. While the former Jamshedpur FC right back has gone from strength to strength, most of the other players have failed to do justice to their talents.
Explaining this predicament, Roy elucidated: "In the academy we follow a strict regime and the candidates have to maintain discipline. But once they are out of this protected environment their commitment dilutes. Sankar Oraon and Ram Malik are glaring examples. They were extremely talented and if they had concentrated solely on footbal,l they would have knocked on the doors of the national team. "
"Most of the players are always on the look-out for easy money. Their targets are small. They take part in five-a-side and seven-a-side tournamentsto earn Rs 500-600 per match and this is what satisfies them. Then if they manage to get a government job through sports quota then they are more than happy to shelve their football careers," said Roy.
After completing the evening training session, Ancheri chipped in with his own observations. The lethal striker from Kerala has spent a large chunk of his career in Kolkata as a player and is currently the technical head of the academy.
"Talents from Bengal are drying up. Most age group teams are dominated by players from other states. The U-17 World Cup has helped a bit to regenerate some interest in the cities but the whatever good players that we come across, usually hail from the rural and tribal areas," stated Ancheri.
Bagan have held several trials in various parts of Bengal and although the response has been good , the quality of players has failed to excite Anhceri. "At every venue around 400-500 kids turn up but we hardly find a player with that touch or instinct. Sometimes we come across raw talents. That is fine. If he practices here for a few years, we can polish him. But there has to be something to work upon."
The former India international also believes that lack of national level tournaments at age-group levels is another cause of concern.
"The IFA Shield and the I-Legaue are the two major national level tournaments. There we play a maximum of 20 matches combined. Throughout the year we have to play local age group tournaments. We went to play Sikkim Governor's Gold Cup a couple of years ago and then we went to Tripura as well. But these are not enough," he quipped.
Both Roy and Ancheri believe the All India Football Federation (AIFF) must start a U-20 league as most of the U-18 players are not good enough to break through the senior team of the parent club.
"Most of our academy players have either Indian Super League (ISL) or Mohun Bagan/East Bengal in their minds. They do not think about game time. It is our duty to guide them so that they can continue with their development after leaving the academy. Most of the time they become bench warmers which is detrimental to their career. Therefore, we always say that go to a club where you can start or at least start or get regular playing time," stated Ancheri.
But amidst all this optimism, the spectre of a serious cash crunch always lurks. Ancheri stated that an astroturf ground is a necessity as the field becomes unplayable during monsoons. Roy wants that his boys travel abroad and compete with foreign academies in order to improve their skillsets. But all these initiatives cannot take wings due to a perennial financial crisis.
Despite their lack of financial resources at the time being, the academy continues earnestly in its quest to become the breeding ground for future footballers of the country.