Everyone had high hopes from the players who formed the Indian team that competed at the 2017 Under-17 FIFA World Cup in India and predicted that many of those would go on to form a formidable senior national team sooner than later.
But, in over three years since the World Cup, only one of the 21 players — captain Amarjit Singh Kiyam — has broken into the national team while the others have only been playing in the national and state-level leagues in India and abroad.
Kiyam has appeared for India in five matches — the first one was in June last year — while the other 20 have not progressed beyond I-League and India Super League (ISL).
The All India Football Federation (AIFF) tried to make a pathway for these under-17 footballers. With an aim to keep the team members together and provide them a platform after the World Cup, it formed a special developmental team called the Indian Arrows. This team competed in the I-League with varying degrees of success.
Winger Komal Thatal was the only player who had at the time opted to move on to the ISL then and signed a contract with ATK Football Club.
Indian Arrows have stayed in I-League, but the original members who formed the squad have moved on since. Most of them are currently playing for various teams in the ISL.
At the under-17 World Cup, the Luis Norton de Mattos-coaches Indian team played three matches and lost all, 0-3 to the USA, 1-2 to Colombia, and 0-4 to Ghana, and crashed out of the tournament.
Midfielder Jeakson Singh was the history maker as he scored India’s solitary goal in the tournament and thus became the first from the country to score in a FIFA World Cup at any level.
Singh currently plays for Kerala Blasters along with KP Rahul, who played as a winger in the World Cup team.
So, why have the members of the 2017 Under-17 not progressed as expected three years ago?
Hugo Martins, who was the assistant coach of the Indian team at the 2017 World Cup, said that playing at the club level — the number of chances they get there — is paramount to these players’ future with the senior national team.
“I feel that clubs are the most important places for their development. If they don’t get opportunities at the club level, they won’t play for the national teams. At that age, it is very important to play matches. The idea of Indian Arrows was very good to give them the experience to compete with the senior players," Martins, a Portuguese, told IANS.
“In Portugal there are a lot of young players who play for the national U-17, U-19, U-20 but never make it to the senior team. It can happen, but I think the federation, the people who have the responsibility of taking Indian football forward need to think about this (ensuring young Indian players have more chances to play in their clubs).
It is not enough that the clubs just sign them, if they don’t get all the conditions for them to get experience, it is not good for their future," he said.
Former India player Gouramangi Singh says progressing from junior ranks to the senior is not smooth.
“It’s not easy to make that transition from youth level to the senior teams. It is the most important phase of any footballer’s career. The players are stacking up the numbers; they are getting minutes.
It is never the same for everyone, some of them take a little longer to establish themselves, but a few of them have already started to show that they belong there," Singh told IANS.
Brahmanand Sankhwalkar, a renowned former India goalkeeping, says the juniors invariably have to bide their time when they progress to the senior team.
“There are many senior players who are already established in the ISL teams and they are all very serious with things like their fitness and training.
Naturally, they will have an upper hand on these boys, so it will take some time. If they are consistently performing they should get breaks sooner than later," he said.
Sankhwalkar suggests a mechanism by which the talented junior players are kept busy throughout the year.
“There should be a system for younger Indian players in these underage players where they are getting to play against players from countries like Korea and Japan of their age group so that they are exposed to playing against that quality of players.
For now, young Indian players are doing well in the ISL but they should be playing almost every week throughout the year," he said.
Kiyam made his senior debut in the Kings Cup on June 5 last year in a match against Curacao, coming on as a substitute for Pronay Halder. At the club level, while he and most of his teammates played for the Indian Arrows in the I-League, most of them have left the developmental team to play in the ISL.
The 19-year-old midfielder is currently playing for Jamshedpur FC and has made three appearances for the team so far this season in the ISL. While he joined Jamshedpur in 2018, he continued with the Arrows for the 2018/19 season and played eight times for Jamshedpur in the 2019/20 season.
“So far the question of mentality was concerned, Amarjit was the player most prepared for the World Cup. Kiyam and Suresh (Singh Wangjam) used to really lead the players. Sanjeev (Stalin) too," Martins pointed out.
“For example, Suresh is doing very well for Bengaluru. Amarjit has an injury otherwise he would have also been playing a lot for Jamshedpur this season," said Gouramangi.
Wangjam currently plays for 2016 ISL champions Bengaluru FC and has so far made 16 appearances for them.
Sanjeev Stalin was a talismanic figure in defence of the Indian under-17 team and he continued to be that for the Arrows until the 2019/20 I-League season.
In February, Stalin joined the under-23 squad of Portuguese top-flight club CD Aves. The club, however, descended into a financial crisis due to the Covid-19 pandemic, even losing access to their own facilities due to unpaid insurance dues.
Stalin eventually joined Portuguese third tier club Sertanense in August but is yet to make an appearance for them.
Centre-back Anwar Ali could have become the second player from the Indian Under-17 team to have played for the Indian team had it not been for a congenital heart condition which he was diagnosed with in September.
Ali was in the list of probables for the King’s Cup, the Intercontinental Cup, and the World Cup qualifiers against Oman, Qatar, and Bangladesh.
He didn’t play in any of the matches and after the diagnosis the AIFF recommended him to stop pursuing a career in professional football.
Ali filed a writ petition in the Delhi High Court against the recommendation and eventually was allowed to play until the AIFF made a final decision. He last played in the Himachal Football League for Techtro Swades United on December 4.
Goalkeeper Dheeraj Singh Moirangthem’s extraordinary saves and powerful throws that often crossed over into the other half of the pitch led to him being touted as the player who could gain international attention. He got a call-up to give trials at Scottish Premiership club Motherwell and while the club was ready to offer him a three-year contract, Dheeraj could not get a work permit in the United Kingdom and had to return to India.
Moirangthem joined Kerala Blasters in the 2018/19 season and made 13 appearances for the team that was coached by former England goalkeeper David James. He joined ATK next season and was retained for this season after they merged with Mohun Bagan.
He, however, was played just once for ATK last season and is yet to make an appearance this year.
The other goalkeepers in the Under-17 team were Prabhsukhan Gill and Sunny Dhaliwal. Gill became the Arrows’ first choice goalkeeper after Moirangthem left and was with the team until the end of the 2018/19 season.
He then joined Bengaluru FC, where he was understudy to Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, and then moved to Kerala Blasters this season, where he is yet to play a match as Albino Gomes is their No.1.
Dhaliwal, who is a Canadian player of Indian origin, returned to Canada to play for Toronto FC. He now plays for American Varsity side George Mason Patriots.
“The goalkeepers were very good during our trip in Europe. Like all the other players, they wanted to learn, which is very important. Moirangthem played all three matches in the World Cup and was brilliant but the other goalkeepers were prepared to play too," said Martins.
This is the story of those players who had caught the eye at the 2017 World Cup. The others, who all are 19-20 years old, are challenging for positions at which foreigners are currently playing for clubs, either in ISL or abroad.