FIFA, the people who run the game on the planet, have long held the view that India is a ‘sleeping giant’ that hasn’t quite woken up to the appeal of the world’s most loved and popular sport. They aren’t far off the mark. We may be the second most populous country in the world but our appetite for the beautiful game has been underwhelming, to say the least.
It was, therefore, a bit of a surprise when India won the right to host the Under 17 World Cup this year. FIFA revealed on 5 December, 2013 that it had selected the Indian bid over the ones from Republic of Ireland, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan. The surprise stemmed from the fact that FIFA had always maintained that the All India Football Federation (AIFF) wasn’t doing enough to spread the influence of the game in the country. It must therefore be said that the win was reflective of the potential that Indian football showed rather than tangible progress on the ground. When the winning bid was announced, India were ranked 154th in the world. By 2014, it was 171.
Yes, the profile of the top league in the country had improved, in its first incarnation as the National Football league in 1996 and its subsequent avatar, the I-League in 2007. But ask anyone except the few die-hards for an opinion about any aspect of the game in the country, the chances were that you would be met by indifferent shrugs. Ask them about the English Premier League, and be prepared for a lesson on the glorious histories of various clubs, right down to the team crests.
The Indian Super League (ISL), which began in 2014 has addressed viewership of the game to some extent. However, this has come at the expense of the I-League and a lot of Indian football’s traditional engines for growth in the form of clubs from Kolkata and Goa have been sidelined. It is hard to imagine a future in which these clubs are not part of the narrative, and a solution will hopefully be found soon.
What has been disconcerting though is the view that the ISL is the solution for all that ails Indian football. A week after 57 million viewers watched Atletico de Kolkata beat Kerala Blasters in the inaugural final in 2014, the Federation Cup, Indian football’s official season opener played to empty stadiums in Goa.
And that’s what a glossed over product will provide. The ISL will do some good for Indian football in the long run, but this has to be accompanied by major changes at the grassroots level, a point that has been stressed on enough over the years by FIFA, national coaches and players and other stakeholders.
The AIFF still does not have a concrete plan enforceable across the country for the development of football. While the AIFF has a plan for youth development (NYDP), coaching and education and a grassroots program that began in 2012, they have left it contingent to the realisation of a National Facility Plan (NFP) which ensures that infrastructure is in place. These include an Elite Centre for various national teams, regional academies in every state for 12-19 year age groups, football school centres for 6-12 year age groups, football only stadiums and training facilities for clubs in the ISL and I-League, enough natural grass or artificial pitches for training and matches in every state and finally, small sized fields in every city and village in the country.
The AIFF currently has one elite and regional academy at Fatorda in Goa. Since 2014, the AIFF has accredited private players through a certification process, but this can only be a temporary solution. It has been seen in countries like the US that the burgeoning of private academies has led to the game being priced out of the reach of poorer communities. We cannot afford for that to happen in India.
Now that the Under 17 World Cup has been successfully hosted, with record attendance figures, it is imperative that the National Facility Plan be given top priority. Every FIFA official who has commented on the conduct of the tournament has stressed that the legacy that the World Cup leaves is more important than the tournament itself.
It cannot be coincidence that England has won two age-group World Cups this year, after decades in the wilderness. In 2012, St George’s Park, the national centre of excellence was opened with a view of creating winning England teams for the future. It is the training base for all national teams at every level in the country. The hope was that the country would start winning world tournaments from 2020 onwards. Their Under 17s and 20s have delivered ahead of schedule. That is the difference infrastructure makes in the development of winning teams.
We can talk about the Blue Tigers and ISL all we want, but it must not escape anyone that India will not make even the remotest dent on the world stage unless we start on the NFP as soon as possible.