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The state of Indian football is nowhere near where its fans want it to be and indeed where it should be. For a country that has a population of well over a billion, we should be capable of producing far more players that are at least capable of holding their own against Asia’s elite. Yes that’s a simplistic view that fails to take into account various factors such as the lack of infrastructure in most parts of the country, the low profile of the national league and so on and so forth. So the million dollar question is what does India and the All India Football Federation (AIFF) have to do to shock into consciousness the sleeping giant that is Indian football?
The truth is that there simply isn’t a one-stop solution. No magic wave of a wand will do. There are several things that can and should be done to improve the health of Indian football. Firstly, the I-League needs to gain more popularity. The traditional footballing hotspots of Kolkata and Goa aside the national league is yet to strike a chord with the average young football fan, of whom there are plenty.
While cricket still remains numero uno, there has been a surge in the football market in recent years especially with interest in the high profile European Leagues. Personally, my interest in the I-League was most certainly passing in nature until the formation of Bengaluru FC which meant I finally had a local side to support. The I-League is currently a 13 team league with 8 of the teams from either Kolkata or Goa, hardly conducive to involving fans from all over the country. Theoretically an expanded league with a higher standard of football would create more interest among fans. The corresponding rise in commercial revenue would only help raise the profile of the league and the standard of football forming a cycle of events. In theory, a better quality league should benefit the local footballers although the Premier League is a damning indictment of the fact that a healthy football league doesn’t necessarily translate to the national team. The rise of more “professional” clubs in the form of Bengaluru FC and Pune FC and the proposed new Indian Super League are indicators that we are heading in the right direction in this regard.
Many, including me, however believe that the key to unlocking a bright future for Indian football lies in promoting grassroots football. Don’t get me wrong, the argument made above makes perfect sense but at the end of the day it is papering over the cracks which is of no avail unless the foundation is reinforced. In a time where speculation on the dangers of “over-coaching” are a hot topic of discussion, I’d say that no coaching is a far greater threat to Indian football. In terms of infrastructure, this quote from Ashley Westwood, manager of Bengaluru FC, in an interview with football365.com is revealing, “When I arrived, I walked into a training facility that was two inches thick with dust.” Later in the interview he did say that the pitches were fine. The same unfortunately can’t be said at the grassroots level where unless it’s one of the bigger academies, sustaining a football pitch may not be viable. This is why the onus is on the clubs to promote grassroots football and to be fair most do so. It is heartening to see Bengaluru FC join the trend in their first year.
Bengaluru FC aren’t the first club to take the promotion of grassroots football seriously and most certainly won’t be the last. Almost every club in the country do have their own academy but as mentioned above the large number of clubs from particular areas mean that the net has to be widened. This is where the work of the independent football academies such as the Tata Football Academy, Bhaichung Bhutia Football Schools, Mahindra Youth Football Challenge comes into the picture. Additionally with India being recognized as a rising market for football, we see plenty of big clubs set up their academies in the country which one would hope can improve the standard of coaching at the junior level and provide much needed exposure and infrastructure for the stars of tomorrow. Liverpool, for example, have launched their first academy in India recently.
Moving back to Bengaluru FC, as a fan I’m delighted that the club has taken a step in the right direction in terms of promoting grassroots football. Given that the side was built from scratch at the start of the season, it’s understandable that there aren’t that many local players in the squad. However, as years go on and Bengaluru FC develop further I’d love for them to be associated with a strong academy and develop a tradition of promoting from within and creating a conveyor belt of local stars. We’ve already seen encouraging signs at junior levels this year at the Elite Academy headed by Richard Hood. There has been much to like about Bengaluru FC so far, something that has been appreciated by fans far more unbiased than me, and an apparent focus on development of youth bodes well for both the club and Indian football in general. It’s still early days though and there’s plenty of work to be done but the early signs are certainly promising.