Thoi Singh during a practice session Credit: Bengaluru FC

A picture, as the enduring cliché goes, is worth a thousand words. Sunil Chhetri, captain of Bengaluru FC and a legend of Indian football, has his arm casually around a young player. Huidrom Thoi Singh is standing alongside a man he has idolised since he first started kicking a football around. They are in Bellary in Karnataka for a pre-season training camp and having signed a three-year deal with Bengaluru FC, Thoi and Chhetri are now teammates. Thoi is still a teenager. It is the stuff, as another enduring cliché goes, that dreams are made of.

Thoi found himself at the doorstep of a professional career after graduating from the Reliance Foundation Young Champs (RFYC) academy in Navi Mumbai. He was among the second batch of students scouted to come on board at RFYC, founded in 2015, with the vision to play a part in making India a future footballing superpower. Thoi received a full scholarship and spent four years training under the tutelage of experienced international and Indian coaches.

Thoi Singh with Suni Chhetri

The Manipur boy also received high-quality education at the nearby Reliance Foundation School in Koparkhairane, providing him with a holistic environment to hone his skills, with additional support through dedicated departments like sports science and sports psychology. So even as he takes his first steps towards a playing career in the big league, Thoi can draw confidence from the sturdy foundation that the nearly half a decade spent at RFYC has provided him. And at their pre-season camp, the top brass at Bengaluru FC didn’t take long to spot how “comfortable and competitive” Thoi appeared, and the “hunger to compete” he displayed in training.

“Thoi was part of our first phase of pre-season in Bellary and the coaching staff had a good enough look in at the boy to highlight his technical abilities,” observed Bengaluru FC manager Carles Cuadrat. “He was also part of a friendly game we played before our departure to Goa (for ISL), and he looked very comfortable and competitive. You can tell he has benefited from his time at RFYC, and Bengaluru FC is now the next step to shape him as a professional. He has a lot to learn, but it helps that he comes with some good attributes and ability.”

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“It’s still early days for Thoi, and his development will be a process,” added Chhetri. “But from what I saw of him at our pre-season camp in Bellary, the boy possesses the confidence and hunger to compete and not everyone brings that to the table at the first time of asking. You can come with all the talent you want, but if you don’t have the attitude to work hard to go with it, then it amounts to nothing. I’m sure the more he is around a professional set up like the one we have at Bengaluru FC, the better he will develop.”

Thoi’s first memory of being drawn to football is watching Cristiano Ronaldo in action on TV at a friend’s house. It sparked an instant attraction and soon Thoi was out and about in his native Wangoi Makha Leikei in the Imphal district, playing as often as he could. Thoi’s talent quickly came to the fore and he recalls “always winning individual trophies” at local tournaments. The family was poor but extremely supportive, doing all they could to meet Thoi’s requirements as he made impressive progress.

“My brother and mother were my inspirations,” says Thoi. “They always kept me motivated and gave me good advice. From the beginning, I was completely different to other kids and I could tell my parents were proud of me. I always worked hard with the thought that I will play at the highest level.”

Shy and soft-spoken, Thoi made an impression on the coaching staff at RFYC immediately upon arrival. In the initial period, he played in different positions but it was quickly established that Thoi’s real calling was being a forward. Technically gifted with a natural ability to poach goals, Thoi would get past defenders with ease. His off-field shyness was in complete contrast with his aggression on the field, especially when he was in a contest to win the ball on the ground. Though he was stronger with his right foot, Thoi was quite comfortable with his left too, making him a nightmare for the opposition defensive line.

“What stands out most is his belief in his ablity, he understands that he is a good player and he can decide the game,” explains Arata Izumi, the Under-17 coach at RFYC. “He is ready to take up the responsibility and that’s the reason with his outstanding performances he could decide many games. On the pitch, he is technically sound and physically strong with a strong belief in his ability.”

“Tactically, he needed to be worked on,” adds Izumi. “Over the years his decision making has improved in different areas. His strength is dribbling, he has his rhythm in his dribbling and it is difficult for defenders to anticipate what he is going to do next.”

“From day one we saw him as an exceptional talent, he showed qualities that other players in his age group couldn’t,” says Mark Vaessen, Head of the Youth at RFYC from 2015-20 and a technical advisor currently at the academy. “He became more a team player, as his transition to defence improved and tactically he became smarter. His strengths are his technique in small spaces, his speed and acceleration, scoring ability, shooting with both feet, you never know what he’s going to do, he’s very intuitive.”

As he progressed rapidly through the ranks, Thoi produced compelling performances in tournaments. Over the 2019-20 season, he featured in each of the 34 games RFYC played across competitions and friendlies. He was the top scorer with 22 goals and his 24 assists were also the most for the team. No other player in the team clocked as many playing minutes as the 2484 Thoi did, again topping the team charts. Thoi featured at virtually every training session, spending an incredible 11760 minutes on the training pitch.

At the inaugural Vedanta Youth Cup in Goa in 2019, RFYC was crowned champions and Thoi was the standout performer, especially in the final against BFC where he came on only in the 38th minute and immediately began to trouble the opposition with his speed and offensive moves. His goal-scoring spree continued in other age-group tournaments as well, such as the AIFF Elite Youth League and the Mumbai District Football Association (MDFA) Super Division. Sandro Salami, who has taken over as the Head of the Youth at RFYC this year, recalls one group game in particular from the Elite Youth League against Minerva, where Thoi scored two goals.

“It was a game in which the team was really struggling, but because of his individual quality he was able to make the difference,” Salami recalls. “His biggest strengths are his dribble and ability to score goals. He really improved his game in the last year by being more involved. He takes the responsibilities that he has while attacking, defending and transition very seriously. And mentally he became a lot stronger, he is more resilient and not distracted by the opponents that much.”

Having observed him closely since coming into the role, Salami describes Thoi as a “true lover of the game” who considers nothing more important than being on the pitch playing football. Despite his role as a forward, Thoi has no hesitation in running back to help his defensive line. However, it is the “great drive” to score goals that sets him apart, besides his unmistakable technical ability.

“He really stands out with his dribble, he has the ability to keep the ball really close at his feet and change direction at the last moment, making it difficult for defenders to track him,” says Salami. “His overall passing and shooting technique is good. And he has a decent free-kick.”

Armed with these qualities and with a keen sense of discipline that he attributes to his time at RFYC, Thoi is eager to take the next step in his journey. Competing extensively over the last four years, including against opposition from overseas when he toured Japan with the RFYC outfit for an exposure trip in 2019 that included 13 matches, has convinced Thoi that he is “no lesser” inability. The contract with BFC is further validation of his strong belief that one day he will be wearing an India jersey at the World Cup.

For his coaches and mentors at RFYC, watching their ward leave the premises well prepared for the rigours of the road ahead is deeply satisfying. The “kind-hearted boy” who was always at hand to help out other players at the academy, is now ready to take his place in the footballing world.

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