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From The Grassroots

Meticulous training, a seasoned coach, hardworking boys: 3 musketeers behind Minerva's World Youth Cup victory

Minerva Academy FC's victory in the Gothia Cup, which has seen superstars like Andrea Pirlo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic take their baby steps, is a historic moment in Indian football. The only time when an Indian club had come close to this feat was East Bengal in 1996.

Meticulous training, a seasoned coach, hardworking boys: 3 musketeers behind Minervas World Youth Cup victory

Jubilant Minerva Academy Football Club players and coaching staff pose for a photograph at the SKF Arena, Gothenburg, Sweden, after winning the Gothia Cup Boys U-13 title on July 22, 2023.


Sudipta Biswas

Updated: 13 Aug 2023 7:24 PM GMT

The atmosphere at Delhi international airport on Wednesday morning was quite unusual. A group of youths sporting ‘INDIA’ jerseys were dancing to the beats of dhols, as their exuberant chieftain kept chanting, ‘Bharat Mata ki’, to which the boys shouted ‘Jai’. It followed the chorus, ‘Who are we? We are the champions’.

The Delhi airport has witnessed several such energetic celebrations in the past, of Indian athletes returning home with global laurels. But the one which occurred in the wee hours of July 26 took the onlookers by surprise. It was a moment never seen before in Indian sports history – an Indian football team returning home after winning a famed multilateral tournament abroad.

Minerva Academy Football Club, based in Chandigarh, scripted a historic chapter in Indian football by winning the Gothia Cup, commonly referred to as World Youth Cup, in Sweden last weekend by beating Brazil’s Ordin FC in the final. No other Indian academy or club had won a tournament of this stature, the most prestigious club tournament for youths.

The only and last Indian club that had come close to Minerva’s feat was East Bengal in 1996, when its U-16 side lost to Swedish side IF Brommapojkarna 4-5 in the final.

That the victory was historic was captured in the words of Igor Stimac, the Croatian World Cupper and the current Indian head coach.

"I just need to tell you how proud as an Indian national team coach I am and all of you for who are there representing India in the biggest youth tournament you can imagine. Congratulations, congratulations million times...whole India is proud of you...come back home safely,” says Stimac, who was among the very first ones to acknowledge Minerva’s magnificent achievement.

Gothia Cup is a multi-event tournament where teams – both boys and girls – from across the world compete for honours in 22 age groups.

The victory left the Indians numb, and it took much time for many to grasp its significance in the pivot of Indian football. To put Minerva’s win into context, the Boys U-13 event, where Minerva emerged champion, featured 194 teams from 27 nations, including seven from India. Adding to this is Gothia Cup’s rich history, which is now in its 48th year.

Hitherto, this tournament saw players like Andrea Pirlo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Xabi Alonso taking their baby steps into competitive football before bursting into the international arena. Another fascinating fact about this tournament is that it laid the foundation of Bolivia's 1994 FIFA World Cup squad, with eight players from the 1984 Tahuichi U-19 Gothia Cup team featuring.

So, how did Minerva, an Indian side owned and managed only by Indians, make a historic turnaround of fortunes in such an august tournament?

“Last year, when we played the Mina Cup (U-12) in the UAE, these boys won the tournament after beating academies of Manchester City, Barcelona, La Liga HPC and a team from Dubai (Dubai City). We competed really well against them and became champions. So, this time, to give them a tougher competition, we had enrolled them in the Gothia Cup as it is the biggest youth level tournament in the world,” Surinder Singh, Technical Director of Minerva Academy, told The Bridge.

Mission Gothia Cup

"The journey had started when we created a WhatsApp group called 'Misson Gothia Cup'. All the kids that we have in the U-14 age group were added and then the daily training started - two sessions a day and six days a week," says Ranjit Bajaj, the club's fervent squire.

Surinder, who has been with Minerva since 2015 overseeing the academy's youth setup, adds, "We started the preparation six months ago, when we planned to enrol the team in Gothia (Cup). We wanted to win the tournament. The Mina Cup win had given us confidence."

“We have 50 players in the U-14 batch at the academy. Out of that, we selected the best 19 after in-academy selection trials. We arrived in Gothenburg two days prior to the kick-off, and the team went through the videos of their group stage opponents,” he adds.

Slotted in Group 38 of 'Play off A', Minerva began its journey with a bang, winning all of its three group games. It thrashed Swedish club BK Olympic White 3-0 – two goals came in the first half (each half consisted of 25 minutes in the Gothia Cup) and another in the second. Sailex Oinam, Anurag Ekka, and Moosa Ashiq Sofi were the scorers.

The Minervans followed it up with an identical 3-0 win over FC Infonet Tallinn of Estonia, with Azam Khan scoring a brace and Lairenjam Sanathoi Meite one. In their final group game, Surinder's boys hammered Sweden's IK Sleipner Blue 12-0, with Thokchom Denish Singh and Mohammad Jayed scripting hat tricks.

"These three wins, that too without conceding a goal, gave us a lot of confidence, and our boys remained consistent in both their offence and defence throughout the tournament," says a jubilant Surinder, who has recently cleared AFC Pro License.

Meticulous preparation

Immaculate planning, apt selection and a rigorous fitness training process before the tournament came in handy.

"My assistant coach Asutosh and myself have done the players' selection after assessing their performance in the trials as well as the past events. Our fitness team also made sure these boys do not struggle in cold weather. The boys followed strict diet and fitness regime. Before every match, we checked whether a boy recovered or not and was drinking optimum water or not. If any player does not adhere to the fitness decorum, they are fined. This is a rule at the Minerva," states Sunrinder.

Before the team's departure to Gothenburg, the squad was put through meticulous fitness training at the Sagar Diwan Athletics Training Centre in Chandigarh, which made them adept in negotiating inclement weather.

"Since mid-March, these boys were coming to my training centre, which is 40-45 km from the Minerva academy. If their class is scheduled for 4 o'clock in the morning, they used to wake up at 3 and travelled in a group with two to three coaches. It was a very difficult task because they all were kids. But they were a passionate and dedicated lot," says Sagar, the strength and conditioning coach, who has also trained the likes of golfer Shubhankar Sharma and cricketers Harmanpreet Kaur and Shubman Gill.

"We focused a lot on strength training, agility and endurance building, coordination, cardio and the balance drill. In each and every session, all the players participated 100 per cent. There was no chance that even a single player would make us feel down," he affirms.

That the preparation was ideal was evident in the way the team played and stood up to every bit of challenge from their opponents. In fact, Minervans, in a display of their superior fitness, played three games in a single day, including the semifinal, and won all of them.

Minerva maintained consistency in the knockouts. In the Best of 64, it outwitted Hasle-Løren IL 1 of Norway 5-0, with Azlaan scoring a brace. In the next game, they handed AFC Eskilstuna of Sweden a uniform defeat.

Solid strategy

Chalking out a strategy for such a huge event was not easy. With so many teams contesting, knowing the immediate opponent was near to impossible. But Surinder, a seasoned youth coach since 1997, effected an impeccable plan to make the task easier for his boys.

"We had retrieved the videos of last year's final, semifinals and quarterfinals from the tournament website and YouTube. We analysed those matches, made the boys watch them, and then we decided the formation that we should deploy. When we advanced to the Best of 64, we started finding where our next possible opponents were playing," describes Surinder, the coach who has also trained the likes of Anirudh Thapa, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Sandesh Jhingan and Anwar Ali, the mainstays of Indian national team.

Besides the players, Minerva travelled with five non-playing staff, including Bajaj. Other members were Asutosh Kashyap, the assistant coach, Neeraj, the media manager, and team manager Jasprit Singh.

"Ashu (Asutosh) would go and record our next possible opponent's match. Likewise, Neeraj would record our match. Before our next match, we sat together, analysed the opponent's style and set the strategy accordingly," says the coach.

Up against another Swedish side Onnereds IK 1 in the Best of 8, the Indian boys' emboldened show meant they pierced through the opponents' defence ten times in 50 minutes. Lairenjam and Malemnganba Thiyam, the highest scorer of last year's Mina Cup, scored twice each.

'Never felt boys were under pressure'

Asked if his boys negotiated any challenge in the tournament, Surinder says, "Initially, we assumed that it would be a massive challenge for our boys. But we prepared very well. A lot of focus was given to fitness in the last six months. And technically, too, our players were no less. They controlled the ball possession and matched taller opponents' physical challenge. Our boys never felt that they were inferior to them.

Since we planned for each match, we did not allow the opponents to play their game in their preferred style. If they were good in the build-up, our players pressed hard. If the opponent opted for a long ball strategy, our boys allowed them before pressing hard in counter-attacks."

Surinder, however, admits that the inclement weather in Sweden was his players' biggest challenge, which they overcame with scientific fitness training.

"Weather was our biggest challenge. Suddenly, cold wind started blowing during the matches. But our players adapted to that situation well as they were at the top of their fitness. We controlled their diet, like the quantity of carbohydrates and protein they should consume," reveals Sunrinder, who oversaw India's U-13 and U-14 sides in 2011 and 2012.

As every base was covered, Minerva boys did not disappoint and delivered an astounding performance at every stage of the tournament.

Notably, Minerva conceded only two goals - one in the quarterfinal and another in the final - and slammed 46 against en route to their trophy triumph.


"Our plan was to play with ground passes and taking control of the midfield. We mostly played in 3-4-3 format, and the boys maintained that shape. But most impressively, these players overlapped and covered each other's positions very well. The wingers came down to aid the defence and the wing back went up and aided the midfielders. This mid-game transition happened smoothly. This team is tactically and technically well equipped and understand what we want from them. Mentally, they are strong, too," stresses Sunrinder.

He adds, "These boys have been together since 2018. Over the years, a friendship has developed amongst them. They also have the capacity to fight back even if they are down by a goal. They got a brilliant first touch, and they have terrific sense of passing. In each match, the boys moved in sync."

In the semifinal, Minerva faced the Spanish side Tecnifutbol Academy - a football school inspired by legendary Johan Cruyff and produced an alumnus like Luka Koleosho, who is part of Italy U-19 European championship team.

Minerva Academy FC U-14 boys with Ranjit Bajaj at the Sagar Diwan Athletics Training Centre in Chandigarh. (Photo credit: Special Arrangement)

"The Spanish team was playing with ground passes, our boys crowded the space and disrupted their play, then they switched to long ball strategy. I instructed my defenders not to go up and win the aerial balls, and they won all of them. Captain Sailex stood out. He marshalled the defence," says Surinder.

India won the match 2-0, with Jayed and Lairenjam scoring in the 13th and 24th minute, ensuring India's march to the final, where they ran into Brazilian side Ordin FC, the champion of the 2019 edition.

"In the final, there was very strong cold wind, but it did not deter our players," says Surinder.

They were unscathed and delivered a dazzling performance, outgunning the Brazilians 3-1. In the very first minute, Thiyam got the ball into the zone and struck a goal with his right foot. Four minutes later, Lairenjam beefed up India's lead. Though Brazil fought back from a Mauricio David Koch De Assis goal, there was no respite for them as Azlaan ruined their hopes of a comeback and took India home with a 23rd minute scorcher.

While the team has six players from Manipur, it is vibrant in look, with Moosa from Kashmir heralding the midfield alongside Chetan from Punjab and Anurag from Bengal. Wings were covered by Denish and Azlaan, both from Manipur. Meanwhile, Jayed, also from Manipur, finished the tournament as Minerva's highest scorer with nine goals and won the Most Valuable Player accolade in his age category.

Asked how they looked after Manipuri players' mental well-being in the backdrop of the volatile situation in the Northeastern state, Surinder says, "We have a psychologist who looks after the players' mental well-being. Even during the Gothia Cup, we arranged daily calls with their parents."

'They should get more chances'

As the team now has won two international trophies in as many years, Surinder says the bunch should be given more foreign exposures. "They should play more tournaments. They should get more such chances. We have already started planning for foreign exposure trips for next year. We have to see which country and teams will be suitable for them for international exposure," says Surinder.

As Minerva Academy remains engulfed in a festive mood, celebrating the club's magnificent feat, Bajaj, who dreams India will play in the 2034 World Cup, says they owe it to the hard work of the backroom staff, who made the victory look sleek.

"We have a solid backroom staff taking care of these boys like there is no tomorrow. Surinder Singh is our backbone. He joined us from St Stephen's Football Academy and has been overseeing Minerva's progress since. We won the all the titles under him, including the AIFF national title. All the boys that come from our coaching factory is from his stewardship. Then strength and conditioning coach Sagar has put up massive effort. Besides them, there were eight physios who were working on these boys. There were two massage therapists and one hydro therapist. All of them were involved from day one. These are the people 99 per cent responsible for this win. Now, you know how we won it," Bajaj signs off with a grin.

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