In 2010, a year before he resigned as the manager of the national team, Bob Houghton expressed his concerns about the lack of playing time for younger players in the I-League. Players from Africa were in vogue, which reduced opportunities for those trying to make the step up from age group football. He proposed that the All India Football Federation (AIFF) field a team made up completely of players from the Under 19 and 23 squads in the I-League 2, the second tier of Indian football.
This proposal was accepted, and the deal was sweetened further when Mahindra United was disbanded before the season began. This opened up a slot in the I-League, and the AIFF XI made its bow in the top league, protected from relegation because it was a developmental team.
It was one of the brighter ideas the national federation has had in recent years. The Indian Arrows, renamed thus after the season began, had a decent run in the league and finished ninth out of fourteen teams. More importantly, the cream of Indian talent gained valuable exposure, playing time and a pathway to the senior Indian squad. Their performances encouraged the Pailan Group to sponsor the team in 2011 and the team moved home from Delhi to the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata. Unfortunately, a couple of poor seasons followed and Pailan ended their association in 2013.
The team was disbanded by the AIFF, which was a pity, because there was a lot of good that came out of the exercise. Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Jeje Lalpekhlua and Pritam Kotal are established members of the current national side, while others have made appearances in the past. In the case of many of these players, they were loaned to the Arrows from other I-League teams to learn their trade and invariably returned as better players. It would have been beneficial to keep the core of the side together for a few years but that was not to be.
After the success of the U17 World Cup this year, the AIFF revived the project to keep the core of the team that participated in that tournament together. Stakeholders in various quarters have called for this to be a longer term investment, so that Indian football can reap the benefits in a more holistic manner.
On Wednesday, while making their bow in this year’s I-League, Luis Norton’s side announced their credentials in spectacular style. Playing at Bambolim in Goa, while their permanent residence at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Delhi is being readied, the kids dismantled a Chennai City who seemed unclear about how to approach the game. The Arrows picked up two yellow cards and Chennai had none. If City came in thinking they would go easy on their opponents, it certainly backfired, and they will be better for the experience in the return fixture.
The Arrows on the other hand showed that their ages weren’t an impediment. They will trouble quite a few teams this season with the confidence gained from a World Cup appearance. The togetherness and camaraderie will serve them well and it may not to be too long before we see the likes of Dheeraj Singh, Anwar Ali and Aniket Jadhav turn out for the Blue Tigers.
Only 218 people turned up at Bambolim to watch the future stars of Indian football. That performance deserved a lot more and the hope is that they are well supported at Delhi and during their travels this season. An exciting team needs all the help they can get in their developmental journey.