A shock of blonde hair ensured Bidyananda Singh was often the centre of attraction at a football training camp at Doha’s Aspire Academy, even though he was among a group of junior footballers featuring players from the Netherlands and Australia.
The week-long camp saw the India U-17 regular being rechristened ‘Honda’, due to his stark resemblance to AC Milan’s Japanese international, Keisuke Honda.
“They also called me that because they couldn’t pronounce my name,” said the 16-year-old, smiling broadly.
Singh, a defensive midfielder, was at the academy in the Qatari capital for a camp conducted by youth academy coaches from Barcelona, Manchester United and Inter Milan. By the end of his stint there, scouts from Barcelona had expressed an interest and have been following the youngster’s progress since.
Singh became one of the first Indians, along with Milan Basumatary, to play in the academy’s All Star team. Incidentally, he also scored the opening goal in his side’s 3-1 win over Ajax.
The irony of the nickname was that Singh’s involvement in the team came at the expense of other Japanese players at the academy. Despite the achievement, he lamented that his trip home would be delayed because of his Doha visit.
A long journey
Not long before Singh stepped on the neatly-manicured grass at the state-of-the-art Aspire Academy in Doha, where the Barcelona coaches declared him the player of the camp, he played his football on a surface littered with pebbles near his home in Moirang, Manipur.
Singh trains at the All India Football Federation (AIFF) Academy in Navi Mumbai, which has kept him away from home for a year.
Singh recalls leaving home at the age of 11 in 2008, to train at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) complex in Manipur, 45 km away from Moirang, where his skills were first recognised.
The decision wasn’t solely based on his love for the game. As the second son of a retired army-man from the Assam Rifles and a mother who ran a grocery store from their home, Singh recognised the strain his footballing ambitions put on the family. additionally, there were no coaches and very few coaches near his home.
“Moving to the SAI complex meant that my parents didn’t have to worry about my meals, nor did they have to worry about my equipment as the academy provided me with the boots and kit,” he said.
A call-up to the national team arrived soon as the AIFF selected Singh to play in the U-13 team in 2009. He put in a string of steady performances at the base of the team’s midfield; this resulted in limited trips home.
One of his rare forays home, however, is not one he remembers fondly, even though it followed a U-14 tournament in Goa in 2010. “Nobody was home when I got there,” he recalls.