Vincent van Noord | 14th Dec 2022
Every four years, the world sees the biggest and most-watched event in the world – the FIFA World Cup. In India, it brings forth the age-old question amongst hardcore supporters and casual viewers alike. When will the world’s second most populated country qualify for the quadrennial event?
Several reasons why India is not yet there can be owed to several observations cited by numerous experts. The reasons they enlist are physical stature, dominance of a single sport & the massive funding it receives, past results & management / governing structure, better policy support & governance structure, nutrition & support structure, are the areas that India can work towards improving.
India has, over the past couple of decades, taken several steps to address these challenges and drastically improve its footballing ecosystem. The involvement of the private sector & league creation, attraction of international talent & coaches, modern coaching methods & curriculum, and infrastructure development has created a support ecosystem for the coming generations of football players to thrive. India has consistently improved its performance in sports, in general, and its improved performance in the Olympics, for example, speaks volumes in this regard.
Football, as a game, has also changed over the years and presents an opportunity for India. Apart from physicality, the game has become more technical and tactical with analysis playing an increasingly important role every passing day. The game has also become more competitive with gaps between the ‘traditional heavyweights’ and ‘minnows’ becoming smaller. Perhaps the biggest examples are Saudi Arabia beating Argentina, or Japan beating Germany in the group stages of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022.
All this bodes well for Asian football. Such results will see a higher coefficient for Asian teams, thereby increasing the number of qualification slots for the world’s largest continent. This, coupled with an increase in number of participating teams from 32 to 48, 2026 onwards, is a great shot in the arm for such aspirant nations.
An India-specific Strategy
India has focused on a lot of changes at the top tier of football over the past decade. The much vaunted and privately-held Indian Super League (ISL) was launched in 2014 with (almost) retired ‘superstars’ such as Del Piero, Pires and the likes gracing the field. The league has since taken on a much more serious and sustainable approach with an increase in the number of Indian players on-pitch, longer format with more teams, better competition and much more.
ISL has also seen many European Clubs enter the Indian market. The biggest example of this was City Football Group (owners of Manchester City) acquiring a controlling stake in the Mumbai-based ISL franchise. Several other Clubs such as RB Leipzig, Atletico Madrid, FC Basel and others have made forays in India through various approaches.
However, perhaps the biggest reason lies away from the cameras and the public-eye, and requires sound vision and consistent action through a bottom-up approach. Short-term action or elite leagues, though important to create popularity and traction, will do little to create a transformational change in the ecosystem.
The long-term strategy requires creating a pool of elite players across the country in addition to the 200-odd Indian players plying their trade in the ISL or I-League. Investments need to be made right at the grassroots level with the objective of giving kids an opportunity to play the sport from as young as five years old. This includes modern coaching methods, access to infrastructure and a supportive ecosystem. The objective here is to not focus on talent, but ensure that as many kids as possible get introduced to the sport and have fun.
It is from here that the next steps start. From grassroots, as we reach the stage of youth development, around 10 years of age, talent needs to be identified through dedicated scouts and coaches. A customised player-development pathway, complete with dedicated curriculums, age-category competitions, centres of excellence, nutrition & medical support, and much more needs to be created.
However, the entire journey starts from grassroots, getting kids to play. This requires a massive ‘army’ of specialised grassroots coaches equipped with the latest coaching methods.
The Community Angle
Holistic development, starting from grassroots, has a unique benefit. The benefits of team sports toward overall personality development, decision making & communication, working together, leadership, cannot be ignored. It leads to nation-building and reinforcement of positive habits, which means that the youth stays away from negative influences like thefts, substance abuse, etc.
It also creates a movement of engagement and support across the community. Think about your child or best friend playing in the local league. At the moment, there are a few academies like FCBEscola, La Liga Football Schools or Bhaichung Bhutia Football Schools, are few and far between and are only meant for the elite. There are very few credible and large age-specific leagues and competitions.
Considering this, it is very important to strengthen and expand local football clubs and encourage them to run strong grassroots programmes. Similar strengthening and decentralisation must happen at State Associations with transparent and KPI-based allocation of funds. The Golden Baby League is a step in the right direction, however, this needs to be expanded significantly, bringing in more clubs and players into its fold.
Specialist Grassroots Coaches
Specialist grassroots coaches form the centre of this ecosystem. They not only need to teach football, but be active social role models, have a dedicated area of expertise, distinct from youth development/ elite coaches. Through the medium of football, they need to inculcate positive traits, while at the same time ensuring that kids are engaged and have fun.
In developing countries like India, this role is further expanded and goes beyond the field. The coach needs to be a friend, a mentor and someone a child can reach out to. This requires dedicated coaching excellence courses, an area severely neglected in India.
Globally, several such programmes exist. Perhaps the best grassroots coaching excellence programme, specifically curated for developing countries is WorldCoaches. The programme has been curated by KNVB – the Royal Dutch Football Association in close partnership with leading sports institutes and academia from Netherlands. It has already seen great success and feedback in India with over 2000 WorldCoaches trained.
To come up with a robust long-term strategy, thought leaders, ex-players, coaches and experts need to be engaged right from the policy level. All India Football Federation (AIFF) – the national governing body of the game in India needs to carefully examine, understand and adopt global best practices for the development of the game.
Such policies and strategies, when formalised through multi-stakeholder initiatives, need to be endorsed by all key stakeholders. It must have measurable and transparent implementation frameworks with identified roles for all parties involved. Only then will all elements work towards combined good to improve Indian football.
European nations, as leaders of the game, can be a great partner with India. The larger strategic initiatives, deepening relations between both regions from the highest levels of leadership, will further catalyse the same.
Football, Ecosystem, India