In the eastern throngs of Imphal, a group of 14-somethings are running on the streets as part of their morning warm-ups. Pushing them is coach Biren Singh, who shares his name with the chief minister of Manipur.
There is probably an extra spring in everyone’s steps for the last few days ever since it was announced that three boys who went through this same grind a few years ago have made it to the India’s squad for the Fifa U-17 World Cup.
Defender Boris Singh Thangjam and medios Mohammad Shahjahan and Ninthoinganba Meetei had their first football coaching lessons at the Youth Organisation Sporting Club of Imphal before being picked by bigger academies or made it to the Indian team camp.
Apart from these three, Mohammed Nawaz and Rakip were among the six culled from the group prior to Luis Norton de Matos announcing his 21-man squad. Even Minerva Academy player Asheem Henba, who was also part of the squad in the early days of De Matos’s reign, also originally started his career at YOSC.
While the likes of Minerva Academy and the Chandigarh Football Association Academy are being feted for contributing four and three players respectively to the Indian team, YOSC’s contribution has largely gone unnoticed.
Founded as a club in 1973, the Youth Organisation Sporting Club of Imphal was a place where children could come and play football, basketball and badminton. But it wasn’t until 1996 that a coaching system for these kids was put in place.
Back then, Biren and the other co-founders had pooled in their own money to buy gear for the kids and equipment including goalposts and other footballing essentials.
Even today, Biren, former India Under-17 team assistant coach Bitan Singh, Sharad Singh and a physio are the only staff at YOSC as they look to maintain their year-long schedule. While Biren and Sharad are C license holders, Bitan, who has even managed the India Under-14’s and the U-16’s, is a B licensee but is much more experienced as his body of work suggests.
Volunteers also manage to help out from time to time, as Bitan suggests it’s a community effort. “We request coaches from in and around the area to lend a hand for half an hour or an hour, and most of them agree.”
The academy remained in a semi-professional state till Bitan retired from active football in 2004. The batch of 2007 started playing school football tournaments and by 2010, they were winning them.
The 2011 batch even won the Nike Manchester United Premier Cup. And some members of the 2012 batch will start against the United States on Friday.
Success has come at a price though. Regional heavyweights such as Neroca and Shillong Lajong have often successfully sought their players for their youth squads.
With more and more clubs throughout India looking to Manipur to scout talent, clubs like YOSC run the risk of being relegated to the feeder club role in the ecosystem. Due to them not being a professional academy or a club with a defined contract system in place, they are often forced to let their wards go for next to nothing.
Bitan isn’t happy with being limited to the role though. “When we played Neroca, we beat them 5-0, 6-0. They come and take our players after the Under-17 and Under-19 level. We let them go because we cannot afford to pay them huge salaries. We give them a small stipend but we cannot match the bigger clubs.”
Former internationals Sachindra Mangang and Lokendro Singh are graduates of the club, as are many who’ve gone onto play for the likes of Dempo, Mohun Bagan, Sporting Clube de Goa. Currently, YOSC graduates Mohammed Sabhaj and Mohammed Yashir play for Bengaluru FC Under-18’s and FC Goa Under-18, while Mohammed Ajou, who played for Minerva Under-20 in their 1-0 defeat to the Colombia Under-17 team, is also from the same club.
The most they’ve ever received in exchange for letting a player go, Bitan said, are some footballs and a pair of stockings for every player.
Biren said they run four age groups primarily: “We have the Under-12, the Under-14, Under-16 and Under-19. All the groups run simultaneously and we keep promoting players very often.”
Secret to success
YOSC’s success is no secret. While most clubs practise for parts of the year, Bitan insists that they do it throughout, having separate practice patterns for the summer and winter months, ensuring top match-fitness of the players. All it requires, he said, is a ground, a few balls and willing players.
But Bitan, who also works with with Tata Trusts, said that it has become increasingly difficult to sustain the daily functioning of the club without institutional support.
“We still pour in our own money into the club,” said Bitan. “We can’t become an academy, competing in age-group leagues because we need to have additional manpower and for that, we need investment. We have grounds, we have good coaches, we have everything else. If the AIFF recognises us as an academy and accredits us, then maybe we have a chance of getting some funding.”
While they can’t afford to compete in the Manipur State League, they compete in the Imphal Super East Division League, a semi-professional league, and even won it in 2015.
Since its inception, YOSC has filled an important gap in Manipur’s footballing structure as there was a distinct lack of academies at the time. But with organisations pouring money into football in the North-East, the club still hasn’t lost its relevance.
A little help can go a long way, said Bitan. “We also wish to compete in the age-group national leagues with the likes of Minerva and Tata Football Academy. Once we have a budget, I can tell you 100% that we will start challenging these teams.”