The right formation
With junior World Cup championships being hosted in the country (2017 for men and 2021 for women), streamlined professional league tournaments domestically and improved infrastructure, football in India is witnessing a resurgence
He former president of FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association), the governing body of international football (soccer), Sepp Blatter, had once called India the “sleeping giant” of football. His comment resonated with many in the country, who feel that with the world’s second largest population, India is under-represented in the world’s most popular sport. While it’s true that in this cricket-loving country, football hasn’t had much success with mass following, but it has flourished in certain pockets of the country. In Kolkata, Pune, Goa, Srinagar and parts of the Northeast, football reigns supreme. Critics may say that these are diminishing segments and the national team hasn’t had any luck on the international arena, but slowly a revolution is taking place on the field. In the past five years, football has made huge gains in India.
One of the major triggers of this growing fan base has been the age-group world cup championships that are being held in the country. The under-17 (U-17) team competing with the world’s best at the 2017 World Cup, hosted in the India for the first time added significantly to the phenomenon. Since the successful completion of the grand-scale event, the sport in the country, along with those associated with it, has seen a much-needed infrastructural change. The young Indian teams appearing in international sporting events benefit from the global exposure when they compete against the world’s best. In the U-17 matches, the Indian youngsters were up against the likes of Columbia, Ghana and the USA. India will also be hosting the U-17 women’s World Cup in February 2021 and has bid for several other global events, which ensures a top-down approach, allowing for a more systematic building of the grass-roots or baby level football ecosystem.
One of the biggest positives that we can draw out of India hosting age-group world cups is that the infrastructure – be it existing or new stadiums and training facilities or the increase in investments made in the sport – is being revamped. FIFA has stringent norms for approvals that have to be met in order to host these events and as a result, players get to train and play in world-class facilities. The U-17 World Cup was hosted across seven venues that included Guwahati, New Delhi and Kochi. In addition to these stadiums, there were several other training grounds that received massive upgrades and have helped budding local players train better in the years that followed. For the women’s world cup too, the choice of venues is aimed towards spreading awareness about the sport across the country. One of them is Ahmedabad in Gujarat and another is Bhubaneswar in Odisha. What’s also different is that India will actually be building an U-17 team for the women’s world cup. Trials have been held across the country to select emerging players, who will then be groomed in world-class facilities to prepare for the event. This will ensure that a much-needed awareness about the game is created amongst budding players. A solid start for what may eventually become a thriving sporting environment.
Living the dream
Any sportsperson is defined, in essence, by their willingness to persevere, he or she is a person who does not give up. It is natural for a player to face rejection and then to emerge victorious with determination and hard-work. Sunil Chhetri during his days in Delhi used to play age-group level football. He was earmarked since that time for a bright future, he did very well across U-19 and other groups before he joined Mohun Bagan on a three-year contract. For the next two years, he saw very little of the pitch, he acquainted himself with the bench but worked twice as hard to match the level of football that was being played at the club. Top-level football is as much a test of mental strength as it is physical. He persevered and started getting some game-time during his third year, so much so that he earned himself a transfer to the JCT football club from Punjab after his three years. Again for the first two-years there, he got very little game time. Moreover, West Bengal is a hot-bed of football where the media, the people, are all part of it, but JCT, based out of Phagwara in Punjab, saw very little of that. Even there, Chhetri struggled against very little game-time, he used to practice with the team and then continue when everyone else left the field, in the third year, he finally made it to the club’s premier ranks. He led the club to a second-place finish in 2006-07 and the years of practice finally showed when he was also named the Indian Player of the Year with 11 goals (fifth highest) for JCT FC. From there his growth curve became absolutely steep and he never looked back. Even when he is well past 30 years of age, he has shown no signs of relenting. Many have joked about him joining the studio for the next year’s AFC Asian championship and Chhetri has answered all his critics by not showing any signs of relenting. “You mark my words”, he has often said. That is his level of determination and that, is why he is still called India’s ‘Mr Football’.
As these global events make their way to India, not only are they helping increase people’s participation, and enthusiasm towards the game, but a definitive uptick has also been observed across the domestic circuit, significantly raising the standard of how the game is played. Only when a country has a fully-functioning domestic ecosystem, can it hope to bring its best and most talented players to the international stage. In terms of local-level football in India, the National Football League, started by All India Football Federation (AIFF), the governing body for the sport in India in 1996, gave way to the professional I-League in 2007. However, the sport in its entirety was restructured with the arrival of the Indian Super League (ISL) in 2014. A brainchild of AIFF, the ISL has become increasingly popular event in the country, and can help India find a foothold in Asian football as well.
With ISL attracting international players and highly qualified professionals offering world-class training, many young players and budding talent have gained significantly. The positive effect is discernible from the Indian team’s remarkable performance on the international circuit at AFC (Asian Football Confederation) Asian cup last year. The ISL now operates with a significantly larger ecosystem and considerably increased budgets. Earlier, where teams were only spending INR 30-40 million every year, there are teams with annual budgets of upto INR 500 million today. This has managed to give Indian players a great opportunity to become full-time footballers and earn a lot more.
Additionally, there have been several government programmes that have been launched to promote the game, like the Mission XI Million (2017) that boosted involvement in the sport at school level. The main aim of the programme is to instill the passion for football in around 11 million children from over 37 cities and 12,000 schools across all the states. The Sports Association of India (SAI) has taken several initiatives to boost the sport, be it the SAI Training Centres Scheme (STC) and the Centre of Excellence Scheme (COX) for senior-level players.
The AIFF strategic plan (2019-2022) aims to have 11,000 junior level players (below 12 years) playing across 200 ‘baby’ leagues by 2022. The association plans to successfully run atleast one league (each for players under 13, 15 and 18 years) in every Indian state by 2022, a decision that will provide a massive stimulus to Indian football.
As the sport moves in this direction, there will also be a need for more technical personnel for the around 40,000 junior league matches being planned by 2022. In this regard, the AIFF says that almost 18,570 coaches (9,357 currently) and 15,000 referees (5,940 currently) will be certified through development activities directly associated with well-structured competitions. As of 2019, over 60 accredited football academies have already been setup in India, a number that stood at just 12 in 2015-16.
Indian football has become very competitive and professional. The ISL operates like a well-oiled machine with new franchises, transfers etc. Big corporates are investing in the game, a recent example being Kolkata’s century-old football club, the legendary East Bengal joining the ISL. The age-group teams for India are also doing well on the national and international circuit. What India now needs is a unified system with a premier league functioning in sync with the lowest localised tiers. A unified system, professional standards, improved infrastructure and an enabling environment is all that is required to fan the flame of football in India, a flame that seems to have been reignited.