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The unofficial initiation process at the Minerva Football Academy is a three-step procedure: a dose of Punjabi music and movies, introduction to the regional cuisine, and a crash course on the quintessential local cuss words. So it comes as no surprise that India U-17 squad’s Jeakson Thounaojam, Nongdamba Naorem and Mohammad Shahjahan, all Manipuris who trained at Minerva, not only speak like a “proper Punjabi munda” but also cuss like one.
“The first thing they learn in Punjabi is all the galis,” Minerva owner Ranjit Bajaj says.
The India squad that featured in the FIFA U-17 World Cup had eight players from Manipur and nearly half of them are from either Minerva or Chandigarh Football Academy. Rich in talent, but lacking in training facilities, many aspiring footballers from the northeastern state enroll at these residential academies where both their training and education is taken care of.
“Most of them come from a really humble background. And these boys work really hard. I have seen them train for two hours extra after the evening sessions,” says Bajaj.
India U-17 captain Amarjit Singh and his cousin Jeakson, who switched to Minerva last year, left their homes in Thoubal district as 11-year-olds harbouring dreams of donning national colours one day.
“They were really shy when they arrived. They hardly spoke , but understood the instructions well,” recalls Sandeep Singh, a coach at CFA.
Amarjit, Naorem and Jeakson, who scored India’s only goal at the U-17 World Cup against Colombia, have shown great maturity and fearlessness. According to coach Singh, the exposure trips that the team had in the run-up to the the World Cup instilled a lot of confidence in the youngsters.
“I believe these kids are playing fearless football because they have played in a lot of competitions against tougher opponents. Once you know you belong at this level, it makes a huge difference,” adds Ranjit.
Manipur has produced a large number of India internationals over the years, including Renedy Singh and Irungbam Surkumar Singh, both cadets of the Tata Football Academy in Jamshedpur. Despite having raw talent, Renedy believes the only way for Manipuri youngsters to prosper as players is to leave the state.
“We don’t have many academies here (in Manipur). You look at Minerva and CFA. They have great facilities and coaching set-ups. Boys from the state have always been moving out in search of opportunities,” the former India international says.
The biggest challenge to deal with is homesickness, Renedy believes. It took him almost two years to overcome that.
Ranjit, whose academy has 38 students from Manipur at the moment, has dealt with such situations more than once.
“We have a warden, who keeps in touch with their parents. They can call at any time to talk to the kids. The parents need to know how their kids are doing here,” Ranjit says.
At CFA ,the Manipuri kids are given Punjabi lessons and encouraged to interact with kids from other states. At Minerva, once every week they organise a movie outing. “ I see all Manipuris attending the movie screenings even if it is a Punjabi movie,” Ranjit says.
He says the academy has left no stone unturned to make the boys feel at home. Although the boys soon develop a taste for Punjabi cuisine – Amarjit’s favourtie dish is tandoori chicken – the academies have modified their menu a bit. “We have added rice. They love their chicken and rice. And yes, they love their food spicy,” Ranjit says.
To deal with the language barrier, Minerva has also employed coaches from the state. “That’s something we learnt the first day. We realised we will always have kids from Manipur coming. Some don’t’ even speak English and Hindi when they come here,” Ranjit says.
A fresh batch of 30 kids from Manipur has arrived at Minerva. None of them speak English or Hindi. Have they undergone the initiation process?
“They have learnt very fast.”