“A sporting powerhouse,” exclaimed Abdul Manaf, father of India Under-17 midfielder Mohammad Shahjahan, when told that there are as many as eight players from Manipur in the squad that will represent the country in the Fifa U-17 World Cup.
Shahjahan, the youngest of Manaf’s eight children, never doubted his conviction in making it to the top echelons of Indian football. “Before buying his first football boots for Rs 250, which was expensive for us, I asked him, ‘What can you achieve by playing football?,’” said Manaf. “Pat came the little boy’s reply: ‘Baba, I think I have what it takes to play in the World Cup one day.’”
Shahjahan’s passion for the game convinced Manaf, a tailor, and his wife Majnun to back their son’s vision. The highly-rated 17-year-old’s talent was never under question. He was regular at the podium in age-group football. The competition for places, his diminutive physique and his parents’ struggle to make ends meet did not impede Shahjahan’s growth as a footballer.
Shahjahan’s precocious ability also found a fan in his eldest brother, Suleiman, an auto-rickshaw driver. Suleiman enrolled his nine-year-old brother in a grassroots academy called Youth Organisation Sporting Club, which was not far away from the family’s residence at Khuri, around six kilometers from Imphal Town.
Father Manaf and brother Suleiman said that they were football aficionados themselves. “I was also playing football when I was young,” said Suleiman. “Because of the financial crisis our family was in at the time, I had to quit the game.”
Shahjahan’s rise from an academy to district- and, later, to a state-level player took little time. Biren Singh, YOSC’s coach and co-founder, remembers his former protege as a “dedicated, hard working” student. “At YOSC, in the U-13 and U-14 tournaments, he won the best player award,” Singh said. “He was regular at practice. Shahjahan, Boris [Singh Thangjam]...they were a talented bunch.”
Shahjahan and defender Boris’s careers almost mirrored each other. Consistent performances at the district and the Manipur youth sides earned Shahjahan a trial at West Bengal’s Kalyani academy. Here, he was selected to play for the U-12 side, which in turn led to a call-up from the All India Football Federation academy in Goa.
Shahjahan’s family could scarcely believe the youngest one in their household’s whirlwind journey. “I can never forget that day [when Shahjahan was picked for the India team],” said Suleiman. “All of us, including our father, cried a lot.”
The ill-fated Nicolai Adam tenure
Proceedings would, however, reach a grinding halt for Shahjahan during the messy regime of former India U-17 coach Nicolai Adam. Shahjahan nearly considered walking away from the game at the time. Adam preferred tall, strong players over technically gifted ones. Around 70-80 players from Manipur, Meghalaya, Sikkim and Mizoram were reportedly rejected by the former India U-17 coach.
Shahjahan fell down the pecking order and was played out of position. His family noticed a change in the midfielder’s demeanour. “I observed a change in his body language [when he was back home],” said Suleiman. “Though he didn’t express it openly, I felt as though he fell out of love with the game.”
Manaf, too, was on the edge at the time but got assurances from his son. “Shahjahan was left out of the South Africa tour [in 2016]. However, even though we were worried, he was confident and told us that he would be a part of the side in 2016.”
The Minerva chapter and redemption
Lack of game time and being tried out in multiple positions had severely taken a toll on Shahjahan. Manaf revealed that his son had mentioned the idea of “quitting the game altogether” during a conversation on the phone.
In Minerva Punjab, then, Shahjahan found a lifeline around mid-2016. The Punjab-based club has enjoyed steady success in identifying and nurturing young talent. At a crucial juncture, the spring was back in Shahjahan’s step.
“I think Nicolai Adam changed his position,” said Amanpreet Singh, chief scout and assistant to Minerva coach Surinder Singh. “He is a midfielder and was played on the wing. He is hard-working despite his physique, but we gradually worked on that that over time.”
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Under Amanpreet’s watch, Shahjahan was realising his potential yet again. In the Nike Cup earlier this year, the Minerva youngsters breezed to the title. Shahjahan was a vital cog in his side, playing every match and scoring the third goal as Minerva beat Bengaluru’s Ozone FC 3-0 in the final.
“He was our main attacking midfielder,” said Amanpreet. “Against Mumbai, we won 8-0 and the combination of [Lalchhanhima] Sailo and Shahjahan was excellent.”
Three other Minerva academy players have also been drafted into the final squad by current coach Luis Norton de Matos. Minerva’s Jeakson Singh-led outfit then went on to stun De Matos’s India 1-0 during a friendly in July.
“We never try to rule the players,” added Amanpreet. “We are friendly and the players are allowed to express their concerns, be it their studies, fitness, family. The owner [Ranjit Bajaj], too, is always available.”
Minerva and De Matos’s faith seems to have paid off. Shahjahan thrives on belief, just like his nine-year-old self who was confident of playing in the World Cup.