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Inside FutbolInside Futbol


Sport Esprit Academy Bringing Indian Talents Closer to Premier League Dreams

Bibhash Dash

It is the stuff that dreams are made of. A sport that takes a young man from the patchy grounds of suburban India to the kind of picture perfect turf that nurtures the footballing powerhouses of Europe.

In July last year, a passion for the beautiful game – that often finds itself playing second fiddle to cricket in India – and a desire to break the norm, gave rise to a dream that had been 17 years in the making.

For Ludhiana-born teenager Dilsher Singh Sandhu, that dream took him all the way from the heat of New Delhi to the cool climes of Leicestershire in England, and he has never looked back. The winner of a £20,000 scholarship from the Sport Esprit academy – based in England – Dilsher was thrust into the limelight in 2012 when, out of more than 3,000 aspiring footballers, he was given the chance to hone his skills at the Brooke House College Football Academy in the town of Market Harborough. 

“I started playing football when I was in my fourth standard, and it was just for the enjoyment,” Dilsher said. “I used to enjoy it, but I never thought I’d make it to England one day.

“I was really happy when I got the scholarship, and I was just like ‘wow!’ It was my dream to play in England.”


And make it he has, thanks in part to the inspirations of his father and of Barcelona’s Cesc Fabregas. Having started his training in late January, the 17-year-old has since taken huge strides in his development, graduating to the elite squad at the academy and making six competitive appearances. Not bad for the son of a retired army officer, and whose mother initially did not approve of pursuing football as a career. India may have realised the earning potential within several levels of cricket, but domestic football remains a sport barely followed and without much appreciation for its financial rewards below the I-League.

For the majority of kids aiming for a sporting career, the risks continue to remain high, as a fall-back option rarely exists outside cricket – opinion for which remained divided between Dilsher’s parents.

“My dad was also a sportsperson,” Dilsher added. “He played hockey for his state, and then he joined the army and now he plays golf.

“And it was my mum who wanted me to study. She always used to say ‘there’s nothing more important than education’.

“But I was always into football. Playing games on the computer and then going out in the evenings, and then watching it. Everything was football.

“When I won the scholarship I told my mum ‘this is a big opportunity and I want to go for it’.”

However, some part of his mother’s advice must have stuck even when thousands of miles away as Dilsher’s daily training routines are supplemented by preparation for his A-Levels (equivalent to the 12th grade board exams). Studies in Sociology, Geography and P.E. leave little time for much recreation, meaning Dilsher’s other dream of watching his beloved Arsenal play Bayern Munich at the Emirates Stadium had to be put on hold.

“I really want to attend a game, even if it’s a place like West Ham,” he added. “The atmosphere is really good, with the fans cheering and singing the club’s anthems.”

But it would seem the risk of leaving his studies in India – and therefore an apparently stable career – to pursue his footballing ambition seems somewhat reduced.

The football scholarship itself came as the result of a month-long talent hunt organised by Sport Esprit, run by former British professional footballer Anish Khinda. Despite retiring from the game at a young age in England, he remained within the football industry to launch the academy, and last year saw the inaugural Indian scholarship scheme held at the Chhatrasal Stadium in north-west Delhi.

Dilsher’s route to success from playing for Delhi’s Air Force Bal Bharti School to potentially a professional future in England seems like the proverbial needle in the haystack in terms of the overall picture of grassroots football in India. Indeed, Sport Esprit are not alone in scouting India’s major cities for talented youngsters. Clubs such as Manchester United and Barcelona have been conducting youth schemes for a few years now. Former Liverpool star Steve McMahon, an ex-pundit for ESPN’s Premier League programming in Asia, has also tapped into the Indian market with an academy. The hype of the Premier League is likely to pull kids towards these high-profile ventures. Whether Sport Esprit can match up to the attraction of these clubs is doubtful, but for now Khinda remains a happy man, even as he oversees the 2013 edition of his programme in the country.

He said: “The purpose of Sport Esprit was to go into schools and provide them with grass roots coaching and pointing the stronger players into the direction of the professional game and more elite development centres.

“The biggest names like Manchester United and Barcelona, they stand on their own platform when it comes to brand recognition. For us it was about giving everyone an equal opportunity and an equal playing level.

“Dilsher was the first winner of our scholarship programme. He’s enjoying it and he has found himself in the elite squad of the academy on regular occasions.

“It’s something he may never have experienced in his lifetime, but through our programme we gave him this opportunity to go and enhance his skills. So he’s very thankful, and he’s also represented our programme in the best way possible.”

As for whether a relatively small academy as Sport Esprit could compete with Premier League teams for attendance, that notion was put down during last year’s project which saw a sizeable turnout by local kids in Delhi – so much so that some had to be turned away.

“The response was fantastic,” Khinda added. “And it just shows the amount of passion and the excitement is here for football. Kids here just want access to structured coaching, which unfortunately, I don’t think they have in India at the moment.

“I was quite amazed at the skill levels here. Technically they could do with a bit more work, but their enthusiasm can’t be knocked.”

However, as passionate as the Indian youth may be about the English Premier League and its counterparts in mainland Europe, the question of whether Indians are suited towards football has been resonating ever since people started playing the sport in the sub-continent.

The physicality of the game, the speed and a general level of fitness are three major reasons often laid out when discussing why the Indian national team fares so badly at the international level – a fact emphasised by their FIFA ranking of 149.

At the grassroots level, the problems remain no different and Dilsher received his own taste of how football is played in its country of origin during his first few days at Brooke House.

“When I first came here, it was difficult to get into the elite squad,” he said. “The game over here is very different from that in India.

“I was actually nervous. I thought the game here is fast and physically very tough. Then the coaches helped me a lot with the exercises and I was able to develop over the next month.

“The others here have been training since September, and for some it’s their second year.
“But I just kept on training and now I compare myself to them and I think I’ve definitely improved my acceleration, speed, physical fitness, tackling and skills.”

Whether his progress thus far will translate to a full-time career in football remains an open question. But for the next set of kids getting ready to impress the academy coaches in India, the story of Dilsher’s journey can provide a healthy dose of inspiration.

“It makes me feel very proud,” he added. “I want to talk to them about the experience, about the level of the game that I’ve experienced, the difficulties I’ve faced.

“It is a lot of pressure as well. You have to do well. Anish selected me because he trusts me and because I played well. So I have to make it.”

On a personal level, Dilsher remains fiercely patriotic. “I want to play for my country, and I would do anything to make it to the national team”. But the reality of Indian football, a world away from that in England, brings a more honest response when pressed further about his future – one he perhaps imagined as a child when discussing the latest transfer gossip around Arsenal with his fellow football lovers.

“If there’s a choice between playing for a club in India and a club in England, it has to be England.

“As I get to know the culture of football here in England – what the fans like – I think ‘what if I get a chance to play for a Premier League club, how would they cheer for me? Would they be chanting my name?’

“That would be a dream come true!”

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Photos courtesy: Bibhash Dash; Anish Khinda