Indian football is a sleeping giant: Here's what the AIFF needs to do, urgently, to rouse it

Sepp Blatter, former FIFA president had called India a ‘sleeping giant’ of football when he visited the country 10 years ago. He had advocated wide-scale reforms and greater professionalism to make the game popular in a country of 1.3 billion people.

Perhaps eyeing the financial pie that cricket had carved out for itself, Blatter had entreated the All India Football Federation (AIFF) to popularise the ‘beautiful game’ with grassroots level programmes, professional coaching academies, leagues and events for all ages and, above all, proficient administration.

A decade later, Blatter — now serving a FIFA ban — might possibly be upset to know that Indian football’s ‘Kumbhakarna’ is still in deep slumber.

In a shabbily marketed FIFA Under-17 World Cup, a shoddily prepared Indian team crashed out at the league stage. Losing all its matches, the Indian boys were mauled by the Ghanaians in the last game of Group A.

Now don’t get me wrong. The Under-17 boys, under the guidance of Luis Norton de Matos gave off their best. They were plucky and diligent. But their best just wasn’t good enough. The boys from the United States, Colombia and Ghana were streets ahead in terms of skill, technique, physique and strategy.

Our young lads may have won hearts, attracted huge crowds for their matches and got rave reviews from the media and football pundits. But the fact remains that Indian football has a long way to go — perhaps, a mountain to climb — before it can be recognised as a world power.

Organising a world event is one thing; learning from it quite another. How many of the technical experts attached to AIFF, or for that matter, any of the state associations, have sat down and made a note of how world class teams train? How many have educated themselves on the strategies adopted by various coaches — and why? Your guess is as good as mine.

Now that the FIFA Under-17 World Cup is over for India — and not for Indian fans, God forbid — what is the way forward for the game in India? As far as Praful Patel — AIFF president and politician turned football ‘aficionado’ — is concerned, it is the hosting of the Under-20 FIFA World Cup in 2019.

 Indian football is a sleeping giant: Heres what the AIFF needs to do, urgently, to rouse it

How can the AIFF 'wake up' Indian football? Illustration courtesy Austin Coutinho

Also, if the AIFF is to be believed, there is a plan — the clichéd, ‘Laqshya 2022’ — which aims at raising India’s football standards to such dizzy heights in five years that the national team will qualify for the senior world cup. This somewhat unrealistic plan, if there is one, hasn’t percolated down to the state and district levels. Therefore, there is hardly any work being done, with the ‘laqshya’ in mind, in schools and at junior levels.

Speaking to reporters after India’s exit from the tournament, de Matos said that the world event should be an eye-opener for Indian football. “Our boys prepared for the World Cup by playing practise games. Footballers from other countries played tough league matches and prepared themselves physically and mentally for the rigours of the world cup,” he said.

The AIFF — in collaboration with the sports ministry — would do well, therefore, to see that all the boys who represented India in the FIFA World Cup now on, play for top Indian clubs and are employed by PSUs, top private sector companies and government departments. They need to be given every possible support to help them graduate into the senior Indian team in three to five years, and make them an integral part of the ‘laqshya’.

A great morale-booster for these boys would be if some of them are found good enough to play in the junior leagues in Europe and America. Talent scouts from various clubs, and countries, are at the world cup venues to look for talent.

The Portugal-born Indian coach — whose grandfather was born in Goa — also said that it is time India introduced leagues at the Under-13 and Under-16 age-group levels. This, the AIFF should understand, would mean hunting for talent in schools and colleges. Therefore, Sports minister Rajyavardhan Rathore’s plan to revive national level inter-school and inter-collegiate competitions in all sports is a step in the right direction.

Praful Patel has to realise that taking Indian football to the world level is a gargantuan task. He shall never be able to achieve this alone. Therefore, he has to stop being a ‘dictator’ and learn to take the state associations along with him; give them powers and make them accountable.

The state of Maharashtra, with the Western India Football Association (WIFA) as its football body, is ruled by Praful Patel. It is therefore surprising that except for a few places like Kolhapur, Nagpur, Pune and a few other districts, there is hardly any football activity in the state.

The Mumbai District Football Association (MDFA), under the aegis of WIFA now has the young, dynamic Aditya Thackeray as its president. MDFA too, sadly, is content with the conduct of its annual club leagues and does pretty little to promote the game at the grassroots. What’s more, WIFA hardly gives heed to problems faced by Mumbai clubs even though its headquarters are at Cooperage, in Mumbai.

The annual events of the Mumbai Schools Sports Association (MSSA) and the Mumbai University sports department are a sham, to put it mildly; the facilities provided to young players are appalling and despicable. Is it surprising then that very few youngsters take up sport as a career in the city, except for cricket?

India had a great football culture till the 1960s. It was then ruined by internal bickering and politics. The Federation Cup, the Durand Cup, the Rovers Cup, the Bandodkar Trophy, the Stafford Cup and many other tournaments played through the year, all over India, kept the top clubs busy. Each of these events attracted large crowds.

The coming of the National League (now I-League) in the mid-1990s made these events, including the Santosh Trophy for the national championships, unfashionable. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the introduction of the franchise-based Indian Super League (ISL) further broke up the local club and tournament structure. The talent flow ebbed and is now down to a trickle, because a grassroots programme wasn’t put in place.

The president of AIFF therefore has a humongous task at hand; especially if his ‘laqshya’ has to be come true, at least by 2032! He shall have to take all state associations into confidence, delegate tasks and see to it that leagues at the Under-13, Under-16 and senior levels are conducted in every district of the country. District associations not toeing the line will need to be disbanded.

Further, coaching standards have to improve by leaps and bounds, with AIFF certifications and train-the-trainer programmes. Coaches should receive promotions to higher levels only after they have worked at school and district levels for a year. A talent scouting team in each state should recommend players to AIFF’s academies for specialised coaching.

Finally a football league/tournament structure has to be worked out for the country. This should have a bottom-top approach, with city/local leagues being played from June to August. The state league can then be played from September to November, followed by the I-League/ISL from December to May.

Players who do not find a place in the state league or the I-League/ISL, then get the opportunity to play other tournaments during the top Indian league season.

Confucius once said, “To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order, we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right.”

The Chinese philosopher made this statement 2,500 years ago. The AIFF, and Indian football, could probably benefit from paying heed to it in the 21st century!

The author is a sportswriter and caricaturist. A former fast bowler, he was also president, MDFA. He is now a coach and a mental toughness trainer.

Updated Date: Oct 14, 2017 11:21:16 IST