I-League: Has Indian Arrows unleashed their true potential yet in football?

Established in 2010, the Indian Arrows (then AIFF XI) was the brainchild of the president of All India Football Federation (AIFF), Praful Patel and the then Indian national football team coach Bob Houghton brought into existence with a view to provide more opportunities for young Indian footballers.

As observed by Houghton, many youngsters in the I-League clubs happened to just warm the substitutes’ bench having a negligible amount of playing time. As a measure to put an end to the practice, a squad with all the young prospects from the youth teams of the country was formed and introduced in the I-League as a separate entity.

After a season, the AIFF reached an agreement with a Pailan Group, who would sponsor the club. However, just two seasons later, the sponsorer could not support the club financially and eventually, the AIFF decided to disband it.

Emergence of exciting prospects

Although in those three seasons the Arrows didn’t get many good results, the players certainly enjoyed plenty of game time in the league. By that time, many youngsters like Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Pritam Kotal, Sumeet Passi, Holicharan Narzary and Jeje Lalpekhlua, who are all part of the senior national team at present, had come into the limelight with their impressive performances.

After the disbanding of the Arrows, these players along with some others were roped in by several I-League clubs such as Mohun Bagan, Sporting Goa, Bengaluru FC, and Dempo SC. Interestingly, these youngsters quickly rose through the ranks and some of them even went on to cement their place in the starting lineups of their respective teams. Little was the realization by then, but the 3-year experiment of the Indian Arrows did bring upon some improvement, if not exceptional, in the players. What was more important was that the confidence of the youngsters had considerably improved and it had an impact on the newcomers too.

With the establishment of the Indian Super League (ISL) in 2014, many of the Arrows graduates were eventually roped in by the newly formed franchises and it certainly was a breakthrough in their careers. During this time, the former Arrows’ players Narzary, Kotal, and Passi even saw themselves called-up for the senior national team duty.

U-17 FIFA World Cup 2017 and Reinstatement

In the year 2017, India hosted the much-awaited FIFA U-17 World Cup where the Colts were part of Group A along with USA, Ghana, and Colombia. Although Bibiano Fernandes’ side didn’t make it beyond the group stages, as was expected, their performances in the three games they played, were simply eye-opening. Interestingly, they also scored a goal against Colombia through Jeakson Singh, which marked the country’s first ever goal in a FIFA tournament. A lot of young talents like, Komal Thatal, Boris Singh Thangjam, Amarjit Singh Kiyam, Dheeraj Singh Moirangthem, and Anwar Ali came into the limelight post the tournament.

The tournament attracted a huge number of spectators and generated a good feeling in the minds of the people regarding the game.

As a result, the AIFF decided to reinstate the Indian Arrows in the I-League from the following season with Floyd Pinto as their head coach. The new Arrows side took the league by storm as they won their opening fixture against Chennai City 3-0, thanks to goals scored by Aniket Jadhav and Boris. The youngsters did a decent job that season as they went on to get three more wins against Gokulam, Shillong Lajong, and Churchill Brothers respectively. Along with Aniket, Abhijit Sarkar and Rahul KP were the standout performers of the season and received a lot of plaudits nationwide.

Key players signed by ISL clubs

In the following season of the ISL, Amarjit, Abhijit, Aniket, Boris, Jeakson, Anwar Ali and Deepak Tangri all were signed by different franchises of the league and some of them were loaned back to the Arrows. In their recent game against Minerva Punjab, the young guns pulled off an absolutely great display. No one would believe at first sight that a team with the average age of players being just 17 years, dominated a team that won the league last season. No wonder several of those players were picked up by the ISL clubs.

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And one can imagine how big a moment it would have been for the young boys, being signed by clubs consisting of several world-class players. It would certainly be a dream come true for them. As for the truest fans, who are observing the rapidly changing scenario of the game in the country, it must have developed a sense of great pride in them.

What’s the future?

However, there is a lot more to the Arrows yet. India is still in its developing stage in terms of football which is understandable from the fact that it is yet to establish a single top-tier league. When that will come into force, more leagues such as a U23 league, U18 league etc. will follow. There are a lot of developments in football that the country needs to bring upon and it is very satisfying to see them working on it constantly. But obviously, it will take a considerable amount of time to see these developments actually come into force and till then, fans and of course the players will have to persevere.

Indian Arrows have unleashed the true potential among the youngsters in the country. Introducing the developmental side in the I-League was surely one of the better moves by the AIFF towards the development of football in the country. The Arrows is definitely a huge opportunity for the youngsters in the country to make it to the big stage and it will be really exciting to see more talent come to the forth in the near future.