In football, academies help the younger players transition into the senior level smoothly. But if you’re not able to get into one, your journey will most probably be tedious.
With football gaining a lot of traction in India of late, there are popular academies in almost every nook and corner. All the current national team players have been part of youth setups in some professional club. Stars like Sahal Abdul Samad, Ashique Kuruniyan, Ishan Pandita etc. have even trained abroad for a while. But not everyone can get opportunities like these.
One such player – Chennaiyin FC’s very own Aakash Sangwan – has made it to the top without an academy’s help. Coming from the Bhiwani district in Haryana, he had no clue how to take the next step in his footballing career early on.
“I started from the bottom of the table because I didn’t have any Academy background. I was only playing for my school and college teams and in the Santosh trophy. So that was the biggest challenge for me, to make myself a good enough player and to be competitive at the club level as a professional player.”
“Haryana is not a footballing state. There aren’t many top-level Haryanvi players. I feel coming from that kind of place and making it to the ISL could be a long and devastating journey,” he stressed. Sumeet Passi and Himanshu Jangra of East Bengal FC are the only other ISL players from the state. The former is from Chandigarh Football Academy, while the latter is from Minerva Punjab Academy. This make’s Aakash’s journey even more special.
“Now, I’ve finally reached ISL. It feels good because I have always wanted to play here. Chennai is probably one of the best teams in the league, and I’m very happy,” he rejoiced.
His parents were very supportive of him. Even though initially they wanted him to concentrate on his studies, they never stopped him from pursuing football professionally. A move to Chandigarh was the push he needed.
“I initially went to the stadium near my house and played with the guys there. I was enjoying the time, and only then I started imagining myself as a professional footballer. I started when I was in the sixth standard.”
“When I came to the 11th standard, my parents moved to Chandigarh. I saw a whole new level of football there. We moved there basically for my studies. I don’t think football was the priority back then. But when I came to Chandigarh, I found that there are professional clubs. Before that, I didn’t even know that,” added the 26-year-old.
Minerva Punjab FC, now known as RoundGlass Punjab FC, helped Aakash reach the next level. He won the I-League title with them before featuring in AFC club competitions the following season.
“Before Minerva (Punjab) became a professional club, they used to play in local tournaments. First, I was playing against them. Then I eventually started playing for them. They then decided to enter a professional club in the Chandigarh League,” he claimed.
“I got lucky because Minerva (Punjab) came to Chandigarh at a really good time when I was graduating from my college. And if Minerva wasn’t there, I would have to go outside to find a club. People already knew me there. So it was a bit in my favour.”
Aakash now primarily plays as a left-back, but playing in the midfield was his priority a few years back. A shortage of full-backs at Minerva Punjab forced the Chennaiyin FC star to play at a position he now loves.
“From a younger age, I’ve always fantasized about being a midfielder. But I’m a left-footed player, so I can also play as a left-back. So now, it’s my first position. I was with Minerva (Punjab), and we were playing in the AFC Cup. There was no left-back in the team. That’s when I got my first chance to play there. I enjoyed it more. So I decided to stick to it because I was more of a runner and a good crosser, and it clicked.”
He now feels he has the perfect blueprint to succeed in football without training in an academy and is ready to help people like him succeed in the sport.
“In future, I want to help the guys who don’t have Academy background. It’s a step-by-step process. All you have to do is see where you’re at, and try to get the first closest thing to you. Try to make it into your college team because then you will play inter-university tournaments. From there, you will get a little exposure. Then try to make it into your state team and play in the Santosh Trophy. Save as much money as you can because you will need to go to lots of trials. If the opportunity doesn’t come to you, you have to go after it,” said Aakash.
Chennaiyin FC completed a stunning comeback to defeat Kolkata giants ATK Mohun Bagan 2-1 in their own backyard on Monday. The success in their opening game of the 2022-23 ISL has given the team renewed confidence.
“This win means a lot to the team as it gave everyone a confidence boost. I can feel that the team’s belief is greater now than before the game. I’m glad that I was able to play a part in the game as this is my topmost priority for this season, to be able to play as much as I can and learn and grow with the team,” he opined.
Aakash hopes to do even better this Friday as top-tier football returns to Chennai after two years. He wants to make a difference for the club in the Southern blockbuster against Bengaluru FC in front of the home crowd.
“The difference in my confidence is pretty decent from the win in the first game as it was against one of the giants in Indian football. Now, going into the next game, all I could think of is how to improve my performance and help the team. It would be a different feeling altogether to have the home crowd’s support behind us in the upcoming game, can’t wait to play in front of them,” he signed off.