Indian Super League’s (ISL) ‘youngest’ goal scorer has aged by just one year since 2015. Gourav Mukhi is believed to have been 15 when he led Jharkhand to the national youth football title three years ago. On Sunday, the striker made his debut in the ISL and even scored a goal for Jamshedpur in the 2-2 draw against Bengaluru. It prompted the league organisers, Reliance Industries Limited, to declare that Mukhi was the youngest Indian to play, and score, in the tournament. His age according to them? Sixteen.
It’s a story that’s left the football fraternity scratching its head. Mukhi had emerged as one of the hottest prospects in Indian football in 2015. He had scored five goals in Jharkhand’s 8-3 win over hosts Goa in the final of National Sub-Junior Championship. This was the time when India was building its squad for the 2017 Under-17 World Cup, and Mukhi’s performance impressed the scouts. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) summoned him and his four other teammates for a selection trial to join the U-17 World Cup squad at the National Academy in Goa. According to one of the officials who saw the match, Mukhi had shown maturity beyond his age.
As it turned out, he actually was. Just before the trials, the five of them ‘confessed’ to being overage, resulting in the AIFF stripped Jharkhand of the title and suspended all five players, including Mukhi, for two years. The state association was levied a fine of Rs 1 lakh.
Ghulam Rabbani, the secretary of Jharkhand Football Association, doesn’t dispute the fact that the players were overage. “They had cleared age verification tests at multiple levels. Only when they were called up for the national U-17 team selection trials, they failed the test. That shows how hollow the system at lower level is,” Rabbani told The Indian Express on Monday. “We don’t have records with us right now.”
Rabbani claims he has known Mukhi for more than a decade. Asked specifically what Mukhi’s age should be right now, Rabbani said: “He was around 15 when we won the Championship in 2015. So by that logic, he should be 18 right now.” When told that his age, according to the ISL organisers, is 16, Rabbani fumbled: “Sixteen? Pata nahi kaise. (I don’t know how.)”
A senior club official said that they went by the documents given by Mukhi and that he was scouted last year from the local league. Mukhi, though, couldn’t be reached for comments. While he was suspended for two years, Mukhi played several inter-village tournaments in Jharkhand, according to Rabbani, and continued to score goals. After his ban was lifted last year, he was in the fray for the Santosh Trophy squad but just days before the team was to be selected, he suffered a head injury. “He got into a scuffle with someone at his village and was hit on the head. He suffered severe injuries, so we couldn’t select him,” Rabbani said.
But he made to Jamshedpur’s reserve squad and played for them in the second division of the I-League, where he scored six goals in 10 appearances. Those performances fast-tracked him into the senior team and he made an immediate impact, scoring two goals in the pre-season matches before netting his first official goal for the team on Sunday. While his goal scoring prowess isn’t disputed, there are question marks over ISL’s claim that Mukhi is 16 and the youngest to play, and score.