One chance! Anwar Ali must have known that was all he had as he was pulling on Minerva Punjab’s jersey in March. For a couple of years, he had looked on as Nicolai Adam called kids he had played with and against, to be a part of India’s first ever World Cup-bound football squad. But now, here he was, preparing to take on those very kids with a chance to impress new coach Luis Norton de Matos.
It may have been long shot, but grit comes to Anwar naturally. He grew up in a village in Punjab, grazing cattle in a small dairy farm that his father owns. He is the third of four kids, brother to three sisters. “He was always a quiet boy,” his father Razak Ali says. “Initially he was more interested in cricket but I encouraged him to play football. We had financial constraints but my friends and local clubs supported him. His school has also been very supportive.”
Back in Goa, Anwar put in a dominating shift as Minerva beat the U-17 team 1-0. After the game, both De Matos and team COO Abhishek Yadav had chats with the defender. He knew he was going in. Razak will be taking a break from his dairy farm in October. “I am looking forward to see my son play in Delhi,” he says. “I am going to watch all his matches.”
Anwar wasn’t the only person who wasn’t handed a golden ticket that evening. The likes of Jaekson Singh, rejected by Adam, Nongdamba Naorem and Mohammad Shahjahan all came into De Matos’ squad from the game. They all have Minerva Punjab owner Ranjit Bajaj to thank. “I actually had two more kids, who I think are the best of the lot,” Ranjit says.
“They couldn’t make it for the Goa game because of exams. I offered to fly them down at my own expense for trials. But the AIFF was not interested.”
However, that really begs the question why Adam did not play more Indian opposition while jetting off all over the world. One practice game against the reigning champs of the U-16 I-League, an event where more than 50 teams and academies took part, yielded four players. “They should have scouted the final rounds of the U-16 I-League a lot more actively,” Ranjit says. “We should not have had to go down and show them we are better.”
In that same game, another player had an embarrassing moment. Goalkeeper Sunny Dhaliwal had the ball when assistant coach Hugo Maartens screamed at him to pass to a particular player. Sunny just stood there, with a blank expression on his face. He did not know who he was being asked to pass to.
In his defence, Sunny had just come down from Canada and was a stranger to the entire squad. He was one of the many identified through the online portal put in place by Yadav. As the days went on, it became clear that Sunny was a huge prospect. At 17, he was 6’5”, with oodles of talent. There was something that prevented him from playing for India. He was not Indian.
“Sunny had a Canadian passport and had to take up an Indian one before he could play for India,” says Kishore Taid, AIFF’s Head of Operations and Strategy. Normally that procedure would have taken months, time that the AIFF did not have. They had until August, the deadline to submit a preliminary squad.
“Me, Abhishek (Yadav) and Bhaichung (Bhutia) went and met AIFF president Praful Patel who arranged a meeting with the Union Minister of State for Home Affairs, Kiren Rijiju. The latter took a personal interest and days later, he had an Indian passport,” he says.
“It really was an example of all the stakeholders working together towards one goal. Everybody desperately wanted this to happen.” The clinching factor, in this case, was the stand taken by Sunny’s family. Sunny was one of the many PIOs identified via the online scouting system.
When the issue of renouncing their respective citizenship and taking up an Indian passport came, most developed cold feet. The other PIO in the squad, New Jersey-native Namit Deshpande, already had an Indian passport.
“His father was adamant that he played for India,” Kishore remembers. “He had all the support he needed from his family.”
The day the squad was announced, Manipur was trending on social media. Eight players out of 21 were from the tiny far-flung state, known mainly for the blockades they face and the footballers they produce.
“Manipur is one of the most passionate states when it comes to football in India,” says Boris Singh, one of the eight.
“Every kid is metaphorically born with a ball and they start playing when they are very young. Even babies accompany their parents to local matches in Manipur. The craze is unlike anything and it continues to grow.”
Most players from Manipur have emerged from absolutely nothing. Ninthoinganba Meitei’s mother sells fish in the local market. Jaekson’s father suffered a stroke while his son was away, training at the Chandigarh Football Academy.
Amarjit Singh’s family had to seek former international Renedy Singh’s help to get to Delhi to watch their son captain the team. Boris himself is an example.
“My father used to help run a grocery shop with my mother but after it got shut, he took daily work,” he says. “There were hard times and they made me the man I am today. I love my family more than anything, they are my life.”
As a kid, a football was a luxury Boris did not have. “I used to play football with a tennis ball when I started,” he says. “It was what we could afford at that time and I had to make the most of it.”
That would explain why the ball tends to stick to his feet every time.
Express takes a look at the bunch set to become the first ever football World Cuppers from India
DOB: August 4, 2000, From: Manipur Position: Goalkeeper
Tidbits: A Real Madrid fan who adores Petr Cech, Dheeraj used to play a lot of badminton when he was younger.
Born: January 2, 2001, From: Ludhiana, Punjab Position: Goalkeeper
Tidbits: Started out playing inter-village tournaments, Prabhsukhan is a Buffon fan and wants to wear Bengaluru FC’s jersey.
Born: October 17, 2000 From: Mizoram Position: Midfielder
Tidbits: A Messi fan, the only Mizo boy in the squad nearly ended up not making the cut. Was spotted by De Matos only six months ago during a practice match.
Born: January 2, 2000, From: Manipur Position: Midfielder
Tidbits: Started out as a goalkeeper while at school. Rejected initially, Naorem was selected after excelling for Minerva during a match against the U-17s.
Born: July 13, 2000, From: Kolhapur, Maharashtra Position: Forward
Tidbits: Started with Pune FC’s age-group teams, Aniket won the golden boot in the Adidas Cup. Big fan of Neymar.
Born: April 21, 2001, From: Barrackpore, West Bengal Position: Forward
Tidbits: Product of Mohun Bagan’s youth academy, Rahim was first spotted playing for the West Bengal U-14 team.
Born: July 13, 2001, From: Manipur Position: Midfielder
Tidbits: A trained takewondo athlete, his favourite film is the Shah Rukh Khan starrer Kal Ho Na Ho. His father passed away when he was with the camp.
Amarjit Singh Kiyam
Born: January 6, 2001, From: Manipur Position: Midfielder
Tidbits: The skipper of the World Cup-bound team, Amarjit plans to go back to Chandigarh after the tournament and finish his 10th standard exams.
Born: January 3, 2000, From: Manipur Position: Defender
Tidbits: The son of a grocery shop owner, Boris will miss the first game against USA thanks to a red card he picked up in the final of U-16 AFC Championships last year.
Born: January 30, 2000, From: Montreal, Canada Position: Goalkeeper
Tidbits: One of the two NRIs in the squad, Dhaliwal sacrificed his Canadian passport in order to represent India at the World Cup.
Born: June 13, 2001, From: Kolkata Position: Defender
Tidbits: A boxing fan, who chose football over cricket, he is a big fan of Arturo Vidal.
Born: August 28, 2000, From: Jalandhar Position: Defender
Tidbits: Initially played cricket. The Sergio Ramos fan is a converted defender having started out as a striker.
Born: January 17, 2001, From: Bengaluru Position: Defender
Tidbits: An Arsenal fan, who left home at 10 to train at the Chandigarh Football Academy, Sanjeev adores Diego Maradona.
Born: May 22, 2000, From: Bengaluru Position: Defender
Tidbits: Big fan of PSG right-back Dani Alves. Was initially dropped by Nicolai Adam, but managed to work himself into new coach De Matos’ favour.
Born: June 9, 2000, From: New Jersey, US Position: Defender
Tidbits: Namit migrated to US with his architect parents when he was just six. His mother is a former tennis player.
Born: September 18, 2000, From: Sikkim Position: Midfielder
Tidbits: Loves MMA and momos. Favourite teams are NorthEast United and Barcelona, Favourite player is Eugeneson Lyngdoh.
Born: January 5, 2000, From: Kalyani, West Bengal Position: Midfielder
Tidbits: Comes from a family of footballers, adores Cristiano Ronaldo. His favourite teams are ISL outfit ATK & Real Madrid.