CHENNAI: After withstanding a spell of pressure, it was Mahogany FC’s turn to attack. Coach Arindam Biswas animatedly urged his boys to get the ball forward. After a few broken passes, it fell to No 9 Akhilesh, who surged forward with a sudden burst of pace.
After cutting off a couple of defenders in pursuit, the 16-year-old curved in a beautiful ball into the box. Teammate A Mohamed Aslam had only been on the pitch for a few minutes, but had enough wits about him to bundle it in. Delighted, the youngster rushed to the corner-flag, jumped into the air while turning his back to non-existent spectators. He landed, arms coming to rest by his sides, chest thrust forward while his head glared the heavens. It was a Cristiano Ronaldo celebration, as good as any you would see from the Portuguese wizard.
That was as good as it got for Mahogany FC, in their 1-4 loss to Roots Football Academy in their first U-16 I-League match of the season, the first top-flight game of any age group held on TN soil after years. But that was not the point. It was a wonder they even managed to get onto the pitch in the first place.
For that matter, it was a wonder there was a pitch to get onto. Mahogany had a tough time finding a ground, with Indian Super League matches hogging the JN Stadium and surrounding practice pitches, TN’s only representatives in the 55-team tournament was forced to play at the SSN College ground in Kelambakkam, 45km away from the city. As it turns out, is the least of their problems.
The U16 I-League, the first edition of which was held last year, was one of the consequences of AIFF’s belated reactions to India hosting the U-17 World Cup. But if club officials are to be believed, creating it is the only thing that the AIFF has done. “There is a reason why more clubs from the city or the state are not participating in this league,” says Biswas. “We currently get no money from the AIFF for participating in this.” He then looks wearily at the two ambulances lying idle outside the ground. “Regulations require two ambulances on stand-by. I had to pay for the second one.”
Biswas says every game costs around `50,000 — each team has to play six games on a home and away basis in the preliminary round. “Including other costs, it adds up to around `6-7 lakh. We don’t have sponsors or gate receipts and we receive no incentive from AIFF. The only incentive we have is that the boys are excited about playing.”
For all their constraints, Mahogany spared no expenses in preparations. They cherry-picked the best from the 400 kids that they currently coach, spread across 6 centres in the city. Further trials in March saw them unearth talents from as far away as Ooty. “We wanted these kids to stay in the city and train with us,” says Pradip Sivaraman, a coach at the academy. “So we have a tie-up with a school, whereby these selected kids get free education and stay.”
This is Mahogany's tenth year of existence and it has been a fruitful journey so far. "From our last year's U-16 I-League team, three kids are now training with Chennai SAI," Pradip says.