Sikkim soccer scheme pays dividends
Gangtok, April 29: Soccer lovers here still remember October 2006 when two teenagers, Sanju Pradhan and Nirmal Chettri of the Sports Academy of Sikkim, ran riot during the Governor’s Gold Cup Football Tournament at the Paljor Stadium.
So sterling were the duo’s performance that then Air India coach Bimal Ghosh straightaway picked up right-winger Sanju and stopper Nirmal for his team. The two are now part of the Calcutta giant East Bengal playing alongside their idol Bhaichung Bhutia.
Sanju and Nirmal are also the products of a campaign named after the Indian football captain — Search for More Bhaichungs — launched by the Sikkim government on April 2, 1999.
The same year, the government also set up the Sports Hostel in South Sikkim’s Namchi to translate chief minister Pawan Chamling’s dreams of spotting more talented footballers in the state into reality.
Around 3,000 Under-14 players from across Sikkim had turned up for trials and of them, 30 best were inducted into the Namchi hostel to receive the state-sponsored coaching and education.
Sanju and Nirmal were among the first batch of the 30 shortlisted players who had graduated to the academy in Gangtok in 2006 for further training and higher education. They were replaced by another batch of U-14 children at the Namchi hostel to infuse more young blood and maintain the production line.
The batch at the academy practise daily at the Paljor Stadium in Gangtok, while the junior players in Namchi do the drill at the Bhaichung Stadium in South Sikkim. After the morning workout, they march off to their respective schools.
As the Search for More Bhaichungs completes 10 years, the government’s two initiatives have contributed much to the state and Indian football. Besides Sanju and Nirmal, Ashish Chettri and Pema Thendup Sherpa are now playing for the Eastern Railway, Calcutta, Sanjay Chettri for the Leyang Club, Shillong and Bikash Jairu and Robing Gurung are with the ONGC, Mumbai. Few others have done stints with the Mohun Bagan SAIL Football Academy. Till date, at least six products of the scheme have represented India in the U-14, U-16 and the U-19 tournaments.
Bhaichung today is happy to see the success of the campaign. “It is a wonderful scheme and it’s doing and done some very good work,” he told The Telegraph. “Both Sanju and Nirmal are doing really well (in East Bengal) which gives the kids from Sikkim a lot of confidence that they too can play and make a good living from football.”
The Indian soccer captain, however, suggested proper grounds for initial practice. “The authorities should be more flexible in letting the kids go for better teams if the offer comes,” he said. “The coaches need to get more training from well-known academies from abroad or from trainers who have vast knowledge on youth development.”
Almost all the recruits hail from poor families and are assured of a career and education after being inducted into the academy and the hostel.
The academy’s chief coach, Hangu Norden Lepcha, said: “The most important part of the scheme is that since its inception 18 players have been inducted either with clubs or have been employed by the navy, air force, army and police on sports quota. We are like a factory, producing players.” He is helped by Milan Singh and warden Suresh Mukhia.
“During selection, we look for the inborn talent and natural skills. Anybody can juggle a ball after some practice but we look for those who have the vision and the good positioning skills,” said Thupden Rapgyal Bhutia, the deputy director (coaching) of the state sports and youth affairs department.