The Indian Arrows project has provided the nation with top talents like Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Jeje Lalpekhlua, Pritam Kotal to name a few
The Indian Arrows, a developmental project of the All India Football Federation (AIFF) designed to provide valuable game time to the brightest young footballers in the country, is all set for the upcoming season of the I-League.
Under head coach Shanmugam Venkatesh, the AIFF has handpicked the cream from the youth circuits to constitute the Arrows squad. The team, consisting of mostly 17 and 18 year-olds will compete against professional clubs with overseas players in the I-League which is set to begin in January in Kolkata.
And these potential stars also constitute India’s junior sides at the U16 and U19 level.
The current crop of players are in Kolkata where they are preparing for the upcoming edition of I-League, but their long term target is to do well on the international stage.
"The vision is to prepare for the team for the U19 AFC qualifying round in 2022. I-League, IFA Shield and whichever tournament we play now is preparation. Of course, the I-League is a great opportunity for them. The U17 boys getting a chance in the I-League is a big thing for them. After the I-League this season, they will gain more experience and at the end of the day I want to see more players from this team play for senior India and top clubs. This is our target," explained coach Venkatesh Shanmugam.
The team has already competed in the recently held IFA Shield against senior clubs. Though they could not make a mark, Venkatesh believes it is just a matter of getting more minutes under their belt before the team starts performing.
“I thank the AIFF for giving us the opportunity to play in the IFA Shield. The Boys played after a long time and first time they played against senior players and foreigners. It was a great experience before the I-League start. Of course, the result was not in favour of us, but it was good experience for the boys and it will help for the upcoming I-League,” he said.
No doubt, the Arrows project has been very important for Indian football in the last decade or so.
In 2010, then India coach Bob Houghton noticed that several players from the India U-19 on joining the I-League clubs were mere benchwarmers which was hampering their development as players. The AIFF President Praful Patel then floated the suggestion of keeping the lot together to aid their development, an idea which excited the Englishman as he believed that with a combination of top coaching and good facilities, the kids could continue to develop.
Desmond Bulpin, a familiar name in the Premier League who nurtured the likes of former England forward Peter Crouch, was roped in at the helm. The team participated in the Federation Cup as AIFF XI and in their first-ever professional match on 21 September 2010 against JCT FC, they won 1–0 with Malsawmfela scoring the first goal in the team's history. However, the team finished third in the group and failed to progress to the next round.
In the same season, they participated in the I-League and under the sticks was a certain Gurpreet Singh Sandhu who has now established himself as India’s number one goalkeeper. Whereas, leading the lines was Jeje Lalpekhlua, the Mizo sniper who went on to win the AIFF Player of the Year in 2016.
Jeje proved his mettle in the very first season. He scored a whopping 13 goals including a hat-trick against Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan. In fact, the striker became the highest Indian goal-getter in that season.
The team showed character and passion and were not afraid to go up against the big boys, a hallmark that defines the Arrows teams even now. Out of 14 teams, they finished on the ninth position, a commendable job given that it was their debut season and went up against sides who had quality foreign players in their arsenal.
In the next season, the AIFF rechristened them as Pailan Arrows and shifted base to Kolkata. In this season, several new faces like Pritam Kotal, Pronay Halder, were inducted into the team who would go on to become stars. Both these players are regulars in the India national team squad and in their club side ATK Mohun Bagan as well.
But the star campaigner in this edition was CS Sabeeth who scored nine goals and was the highest Indian goalscorer. He also scored a hat-trick and for his consistent performances, he was snapped up by Mohun Bagan in the next season.
In 2013, the project was dismantled due to financial constraints but it was revived in 2017 after the AIFF successfully hosted the FIFA U17 World Cup. India’s U17 team was given a chance to develop and improve by playing in the I-League under the guidance of Portuguese manager Luis Norton de Matos.
The batch had several promising youngsters and most of them have now gone on to sign contracts with Indian Super League (ISL) clubs while a few like Amarjit Singh and Narender Gahlot have even represented the India senior national team.
Lalengmawia, a player of this squad, went on to become the youngest captain in an ISL match when he was given the armband by coach Gerard Nus against FC Goa on November 30, 2020.
One of the greatest victories of this side came in 2019 when they stunned Mohun Bagan 3-1 at the Salt Lake stadium. In the same season, Rohit Danu became the youngest ever goalscorer in the I-League with his 14th-minute strike against Aizawl FC.
Danu, aged 16 years, five months and 27 days, beat the previous record of Jitendra Singh, who was of 16 years, six months and 13 days when he scored against Shillong Lajong on December 26, 2017. Interestingly, both Jitendra and Danu achieved the feat for Arrows under the tutelage of Floyd Pinto.
The AIFF has a strong network of scouts who crisscross the country to find the best talents for the team. They hold trial camps in the several footballing hotbeds of India and handpick potential players who are then sent to Bhubaneswar for final trials and the green signal from the coach.
Most players of the India U19 & U20 team hail from the Indian Arrows set up. In fact, one of the most famous wins for the India U20 team - a win against Argentina in the COTIF Cup in Spain - was spearheaded by boys comprising the Arrows team. Except for Sahil Panwar, all players of the starting XI that stunned Argentina’s U20 team 2-1 were part of the Arrows setup.
With Indian FA continuing to nurture the project and ensure the progress of India’s Next Gen does not suffer, the outlook is bright. And their performances in the upcoming I-League will be keenly viewed by Indian football fans and clubs who will be looking out for the next potential superstar of Indian football.