It is a memory Muhammed Nemil has never quite been able to shake off. It is 2013 and he is in Tirur, a picturesque little town in Malappuram district of Kerala. Nemil’s team has taken a two-goal lead in the first half. As the players take a breather, the contest, he is convinced, is over. Nemil is still only 11, but in these parts, he is already building a reputation as a prodigy of sorts. As the second half begins, Nemil remembers entering the arena with “no fear.”
Except the contest isn’t over. Far from it. The opposition strikes to reduce the deficit. Another strike follows that levels the contest. And finally, to the utter shock of Nemil and his teammates, they score a winner.
“I still feel lost when I think of that game,” says Nemil. “Confidence is good, but the biggest lesson I learnt that day was that overconfidence is dangerous.”
At the Reliance Foundation Young Champs (RFYC) Academy in Navi Mumbai, from where Nemil graduated last year and earned a contract with the Indian Super League (ISL) club FC Goa, the coaching staff describe him as a “thinker.” That observation comes as little surprise since a lesson imbibed from a game played eight years ago is still firmly embedded in Nemil’s mind.
From the age of five, Nemil has a vivid recollection of “tapping anything” with his feet. In his hometown of Kozhikode, he was out on the streets every day, rubbing shoulders with players who were a lot older and bigger. He came from a family of limited means, but his devotion to playing football was unlimited. Nemil’s doting mother would wake him up before sunrise every morning, take him to practice and ensure he was always able to make it to camps and tournament venues. He remembers her brushing aside all opposition in the family to his pursuit of footballing dreams and once a local training school took him on board, Nemil started to stand out among his peers.
“I used to win medals and trophies for best player and top scorer in almost all the tournaments I played,” he grins. “Football is one of the greatest blessings God has bestowed on me.”
In 2015, an unexpected opportunity knocked on the door. Scouting for its first batch of students, Nemil appeared on RFYC’s radar in Kozhikode. The intention was to identify the best young talent in the country and offer them a fully paid spot at the newly established Academy in Navi Mumbai, where the recruits wouldn’t just receive world class training and facilities, but also a well-rounded education. Nemil’s talent was immediately apparent to the expert eye and he was shortlisted for the final camp in Mumbai for players identified from similar regional camps held nationwide. At the conclusion of this national camp, Nemil was offered a scholarship along with 24 other kids from across the country. From Kozhikode, 13-year old Nemil had reached the next pitstop in his journey.
Nemil with RYFC team
The initial phase was a challenge. Nemil only spoke Malayalam and struggled to find his bearings. However, he gradually came to embrace his new environment, because it was here, after all, that he could do what he enjoyed doing the most – play football.
Under the watchful guidance of expert coaches, Nemil developed rapidly. Though diminutive, he had the ability to strike the ball with enormous power and accuracy with both feet. In a one-on-one situation, Nemil would inevitably outfox his opponent, showing excellent control over the ball and a natural ability to adapt to game situations. Coaches were impressed with his skill to score long range goals as well as his versatility when on the field, displaying a sterling passing and dribbling technique.
Nemil was innately strong-willed and over time, the shy boy from Kozhikode grew in self-confidence. In his age-group, he was undoubtedly the best player at the Academy.
“Where Nemil stands out is his individual player attributes,” says Bhavin Pamnani, coach at RFYC. “He has a great build, strength and agility; he works on his fitness and that is a measure of his dedication and commitment. He is able to manage the ball with both his feet really well which allows him to be very resourceful in matches. His biggest steps as a player have been in asserting himself on the field and maintaining a high level of concentration throughout a game.”
“As he is an intuitive player, it was challenging for him to adjust to a tactical team plan but over time he was able to play according to the tactical plan of the team without losing his creativity,” adds Sandro Salami, Head of Youth at RFYC. “Nemil has a great drive on the pitch and loves to compete. He leads by example in the games. He really stands out in his ability to carry the ball at very high speed and agility on and off the ball. Together with his great running technique, it makes him very difficult to track for a defender.”
As he developed his skill set, Nemil’s goal scoring prowess started to come to the fore. Having scored just thrice in 28 games during the 2016-17 season, his tally improved dramatically a year later when he blasted 17 goals and provided 16 assists to his teammates over 47 matches. A year later, that tally was 25 goals and 15 assists from 53 games. Exposure trips to England in 2016 and Japan in 2018 proved invaluable as the RFYC boys played against local opposition in their age-group, soaking in important lessons about different playing styles and tactics.
Nemil’s trophy cabinet was filling up too. In 2018, he was named the best midfielder in the Super Division of the Mumbai District Football Association (MDFA) league and was also recognised as the player of the tournament at the U-17 Subroto Cup. In the 2019-20 season, he was part of the victorious RFYC team at the Vedanta Youth Cup in Goa, scoring the winner in the final against Bengaluru FC and being named the player of the tournament.
Nemil with Spanish club team
“His finishing is accurate with the right foot but I believe his strongest point is the explosive ability to run powerfully with the ball,” says Arata Izumi, coach at RFYC. “In the final of the Vedanta Youth Cup, he came in as a substitute in the second half and made an immediate impact with his individual efforts to score the winner. In a final game situation against a very competitive side, he produced one of his best performances. It shows he is more than just a good player. He possesses something more important than talent, which is the instinct to be in the right place at the right time. This is essential to be a successful professional footballer.”
“What really stood out about Nemil was the consistency of his progress ratings,” recalls Parth Parasher, Head Sport & Performance Psychologist at the Academy. “He strived to maintain his standards for almost the entire duration and was naturally affected when these high standards weren’t met. I recall one phase, in his final year, where he showed relentless commitment to develop not just the technical but also the mental aspect of his performance. He showed great determination to schedule appointments, follow up on our meetings and transfer his self-learning to his game. In line with the Academy ethos, he was driven to develop himself.”
In March 2019, on the back of consistently strong performances over the last four years, Nemil was offered the opportunity to train at the Marcet High-Performance Academy in Spain. The Academy boasts of a long list of players who have had successful professional careers and this was another significant milestone in Nemil’s progress. Nemil spent two stints of three months apiece at Marcet and Salami recalls being struck by how fast he had adjusted to a completely different culture and environment, showing what he describes as “great ambition and determination to get the best out of the opportunity". Spain was to become a happy hunting ground for Nemil, as impressed with his stint at Marcet, he was offered a spot by Barcelona based third division club FE Grama to be part of their Under-19 squad.
Nemil at Marcet
“In Spain, a country known for technical players, he stood out because of his ability to use both his feet effectively,” says Pamnani. “It made it very difficult for players to defend him. Coupled with the short run up Nemil requires for his shooting, he is a constant threat in front of the goal. This has been one of the key reasons why he has been favoured to play as a striker at his current club in Spain.”
“Nemil is much more expressive now and feels the Spain experience has also changed him in a positive way,” adds Padma Rewari, Head Counsellor and Mentor at RFYC. “Over the years, Nemil has evolved as a person and a player too. His dream is to excel as a professional player and his personal aim is to do the best for his mother and give her a comfortable life.”
After five productive years, Nemil became one of nine players from RFYC to earn professional contracts in the ISL last year, earning a four-year deal with FC Goa. Ravi Puskar, Director of Football at FC Goa, says Nemil’s “quality on the ball” was the standout factor for the club when recruiting him. “For a player of his age, he had an extremely good understanding of where to position himself,” adds Puskar. “We think he will definitely improve what he has already got at FC Goa and we will try and sharpen his skills further to ensure that as a professional footballer, he goes to the very top.”
“With FC Goa, I totally felt at home,” adds Nemil. “ I was confident about their vision. I spent a few weeks last season, playing with the developmental team, and the philosophy of the team coincides with the way I like to play football – to take the initiative in games and outwit the opponents with passing and movement. Having spent some time in Spain as well, it has become easier to identify with the club’s way of football.”
For now, Nemil continues to remain on loan to FE Grama to further his footballing development. This genial, fun loving teenager who loves to dance and pose for the camera, has come a long way since he obsessively began kicking a football on the streets of Kozhikode. But as incredible as the journey has already been, for this Lionel Messi fan, it has only just begun.
This article was created by Reliance Foundation Youth Sports as a part of a partnership with TNM to promote young sportspersons.