Tapping into FC Basel's expertise, Chennai City FC are building an exciting grassroots programme!

It wouldn't be a huge surprise to say Chennai City FC were one of the catalysts behind the increasing stature of football in Tamil Nadu in recent times.

The current jewels of Tamil Nadu football - Edwin Vanspaul, Dhanpal Ganesh, Nandhakumar Sekar, Michael Soosairaj and Michael Regin - all owe Chennai City in some part for the rise in their fortunes.

Ever since the Netaji Sports Club was taken over by Rohit Ramesh and re-christened as Chennai City FC, developing local talent and giving chances to youngsters have been a priority. It was evident even when the club entered the I-League through corporate entry.

Despite limited success in the first two years, the club stuck to their philosophy and won the I-League in 2018-19 campaign with a brilliant mix of talented foreigners and young, committed local players.

Soosairaj Suresh Wangjam Indian Arrows Chennai City FC I-League 2017/2018

Now, the Lions have even bigger plans afoot when it comes to youth development. With the expertise and know-how of Swiss outfit FC Basel, who bought 26 per cent shares in the club in February 2019, Chennai City have revamped their youth set-up and are looking to establish a state-of-the-art academy in Coimbatore.

When Basel invested in Chennai City, most expected an influence in the first team with exchange of coaches and players. However, the Swiss club were more keen on grassroots programme and the development of a youth academy. The long-term vision was clear for the Chennai City management and Basel, right from the moment they entered into an agreement.

"Their philosophy is similar to ours. We want to target young footballers from the community at a very young age. Our main focus during our initial conversations with them was focused on our grassroots programme," revealed Chennai City owner Rohit Ramesh.

"FC Basel look at it as an investment and they know India has a lot of potential. But they know we need help in terms of youth development. They have a brilliant academy and have been running it successfully for quite some time. They are trying to help us by sharing the knowledge and setting up an academy," said Chennai City's recently appointed U19 head coach Mouriya Sethupandian. 

While the majority of the forays made into India by European clubs end up as publicity stunts with little to no exchange of ideas or staff, the case with the Chennai City project is different. Basel's seriousness is evident by the fact that Massimo Ceccaroni who was the head of academies at Basel for the last nine years is shifting bases to India to lead the project in an official capacity. More importantly, Ceccaroni is someone who played his entire professional career at Basel and is considered a club legend. In fact, his shirt number is retired by the club in his honour.

"Ceccaroni has been mostly here since November and has been scouting players and aligning with the coaches and trying to ascertain how to share knowledge and bring expertise from Basel to Chennai City. Ceccaroni’s visualisation and objective to find the right players is important," said Rohit.

Rohit Ramesh and Massimo Ceccaroni

The work on the academy is yet to begin, with the club working on the land acquisition at the moment in Alandurai near Coimbatore where they are looking at a 32-acre plot. But Rohit feels by June or July 2020, they can kickstart phase 1 of the project with the first batch of players.

Ceccaroni and Mouriya have already scouted for talent across India and have selected about 150-200 kids under the age of 13 to come for a final trials in Coimbatore. The North-East was particularly seen as a catchment area with almost 50 kids shortlisted from there. In fact, Mouriya says Ceccaroni was left highly impressed by the talent the kids in the area showed.

They plan to take in about 60-70 kids into the academy, with around 50 per cent of the kids from Tamil Nadu ideally. The facility will have a dedicated staff consisting of a team of 11 coaches including Massimo apart from non-technical staff like wardens, cooks and the likes.

Importantly, the club is planning to offer a full scholarship to the kids selected to be a part of the academy. What is key here is that it is not just football that the kids will get a chance to learn, their academic needs are taken care of too. The club have already secured a partnership with a nearby school to take care of their school education. And the plan is afoot to help them complete their university education too so that those players who do not make the jump up to a professional level have something to fall back on in their career.

Which is why the club is planning to have teams till the U23 level in the academy apart from U13, U15 and U18. Incidentally, the club did not field a team in the U18 I-League this season due to accreditation issues. However, they will be fielding the same from the coming season.

While they plan to develop players from their residential academy from the age of 13, the various soccer schools and grassroots programmes (in Chennai) in the works for kids aged 8-12 will ensure they are able to identify and nurture talent from a very young age.

The dream is to one day develop a player who will make it into European football on merit, according to Rohit. However, both Chennai City and Basel are udner no impressions that it will be easy. What is clear is both parties understand it is a long project but the indications are that they are in for the long haul.

"With the help of Basel, floating players into the European market is the ultimate aim. It is going to take time. But it is always a good story or scenario where you have the system in place. If you pick somebody like Soosairaj at age of nine, he progresses steadily through the ranks, gets into the first team and reaches the European level. It is a good story but we want to realise that story and put a system in place where there is such a pathway, provided there is talent," said Rohit.