Delhi might not be on the mainstream Indian football map, especially after Indian Super League (ISL) outfit Delhi Dynamos shifted base to Bhubaneswar and re-christened themselves as Odisha FC. Even the I-League does not have a team from the national capital.
However, as far as youth football is concerned, Delhi-based Sudeva FC has been setting the standards in the last few years. With an established residential academy in place and a sound record in the various age category tournaments, Sudeva are now looking to make that step up and are eyeing a spot in the I-League from the 2020-21 season onwards.
Driven by a motivated management who have lofty ambitions, Sudeva have made steady progress through the ranks ever since they were established in 2014 by Anuj Gupta and his friend Vijay Hakari.
Anuj, a lawyer by profession, and his school friend Vijay who is an engineer got together in 2014 and set up Sudeva FC with just a couple of academies, in partnership with schools. However, the limited time that kids had to train after their curricular activities led Anuj and Vijay to take the decision to start a residential academy.
"We started with a couple of school academies just to understand the mindset of the parents. Soon we understood that it was not going to work out when kids just train for 90 minutes. Then we identified a school (Vedas International) in Gurgaon. We did a residential academy there for one year but since it was far from the city, we wanted a place in Delhi," Anuj told Goal.
That search led Anuj and Vijay to an eight-acre plot near Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal's office where they set up their residential academy with funds they had saved from their professions. They also managed to rope in sponsors like Chevrolet (General Motors) who invested through their Corporate Social Responsibility scheme in 2016.
In fact, the facility was so impressive that FIFA inked an agreement with Sudeva to use their pitches as a training ground for the U17 World Cup teams in 2017.
Despite the facilities, what Anuj and team came to realise was that they were not getting enough talents with just Delhi as their catchment area. They duly started scouring the country for talented kids. However, with Sudeva being a relatively unknown name at that point, the club decided to offer full scholarships to kids to come and train with them.
"During the initial three to four years, we came to a realisation that talent will not come to us. Instead, we needed to go find the talent. Literally, we travelled all across the country. We selected kids. Initially, it was difficult to convince parents because no one knew of our academy. Then we gave 50-60 kids full scholarships so that we could build a reputation and our brand. Then we did a 70-30 ratio, with 30 per cent of the kids given full scholarships while the rest had to pay. Every year, we travel for three-to-four months to scout for talent," Anuj revealed.
With a thriving academy and facilities in place, I-League youth licenses followed for Sudeva. They got U15 and U18 licenses in 2016 and the following year, they got the U13 license as well. They reached the semifinals of the U13 Youth I-League twice since while they also played the I-League second division this time around but could not make it past the preliminary round.
In 2017, Anuj decided that Sudeva needed to have a tie-up with a European club. However, since the aim was not to have a 'namesake' partnership and have something more tangible, they searched for clubs they could buy and finally found one in 2018. They bought Spanish third division side Olimpic de Xativa. Immediately, there was an exchange of ideas and personnel, with Spanish coaches coming in to help Anuj and team scout for talent while the cream of them were sent to Spain. And the results are there to see.
Three Indian boys, who were born in 2000, are already in the first-team of the club and two of them have made their debuts. A couple of boys from Sudeva - goalkeeper Shubho Paul and striker Mohit Danu - are a part of the India U16 set up right now.
"In 2017, I started travelling to Europe in order to search for a club I could buy and not partnership. In 2018, I found Olimpic de Xativa who play in the Spanish third division. Then I invited a Spanish coach and travelled India to search for talent. 13 boys were selected and this year, we got 35 boys. The idea is to send the best boys to play in Spain."
"Every year, we do a pan India trial. Last year it was 15 cities. This year, it will be four to six cities only though," he added.
Despite the setback in the second division of the I-League, Anuj is very confident that the club can make an impact in the I-League, if their bid is accepted by the All India Football Federation (AIFF).
"I feel we are ready for the I-League because we have been doing very well in youth football and in every category, we have performed well. We gave 15 players to the India camp. And two of them - a goalkeeper and a striker in the India U16 team - are our boys. These things make me believe that if we get a chance in I-League, we will have a strong youthful team. The idea is to develop players who can play in the national team. We need more Indian players to play in the national leagues."
"If we get a team in the I-League, the idea is to be a factory of players. India requires more clubs with residential academies. We want that platform so that our players can show what they are capable of. We have put in a lot of effort into building this."
What they have built is a thriving residential complex that has about 150 kids in various age groups and there are enough coaches, physiotherapists, goalkeeping coaches and fitness coaches in addition to a technical director (Nigeria's Afolabi Rabiu) and a head coach (Spain's Xavier Cogollos). In fact, there are about 50 staff in total to take care of these kids including cooks, security guards and technical staff.
What motivated Anuj Gupta, who studied law in the United Kingdom, to leave his profession and chase his passion for football is a dream that he knows might come across as unrealistic to many.
"I left law beacuse I felt that the bigger mission is to help India get to the World Cup one day. It’s a dream, I know. But I took that decision. It was against my family's wishes too but it is my dream. It is very important to keep your dreams alive," he said.
"You can’t think that India cannot produce players. You can't think that the system in the country is like that and give up. You need to dream. That is what I want to bring to the table."
Anuj also revealed that Sudeva wants to give more opportunities for youngsters, to ensure they have more playing time. Which is why they will be opening a couple of more academies in the future.
"There is so much of hunger in kids to succeed but what we see is as the child grows older, their levels go low since at a higher age category, the number of academies are less, coaches are less and the parents do not let kids take football up as a career.
"The coaches in Spain tell me that what Indian players lack is tactical knowledge and intelligence of movement. They do not lack fitness or other technical attributes. It is tactical knowledge. That comes with playing under one system or team for a long time. So having more matches in the formative years is very important.
"We need to make sure children keep playing competitive football. I’ve been doing U13, U15, U18 and college level Sudeva football league so that students get to play matches at all levels. And it is a free tournament. I don’t take money from this," Anuj assessed.
Judging by the pace at which Sudeva FC have come along since their inception, credit to a passionate and driven think-tank, an I-League berth will not only be richly deserved but also help them take that next step.