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Saturday, June 19, 2021

A fresh field of opportunities


The game is poised on the verge of a new leap in India, but do we have the wherewithal to cash in?

It is boom time for Indian football. The first AIFF Regional Academy in collaboration with FIFA kicked off at the Father Agnel School premises in Navi Mumbai on May 1. Twenty U-15 boys, including two goalkeepers, are a part of the residential academy in the School premises. Scott O’Donell, Technical Director, AIFF Regional and Elite Academies, conducted the first training session which was more of “fun than intensive training.” Colm Toal, Head Coach, Youth Development and National Team Coach Savio Medeira were also part of the first training session. “The academies would provide the national coach more options when he sits down to choose the Indian squad in the future,” Toal maintained.

With FIFA’s guidance and support, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) has plans for setting up regional academies and an elite academy. In Phase 1, three  more regional academies would be set up in Bangalore (Goal Project), Kolkata (Pailan World School) and Delhi/NCR later this year. The tenure in the Elite Academy will be for two years (till the age of 18) from where the boys can move to various clubs.

In the next phase (by March 2013), academies have been planned in Chennai, Chandigarh and Kerala. Each academy will house the maximum of 30-35 boys in the age group of 13-14. FIFA’s guidelines for this scouting process are being followed. The Goa Technical Centre, currently being used as a training centre for the U-16 and U-19 national teams, may be converted into another regional academy.

The Liverpool Coaching Academy in India was launched as the first Steve McMahon Football Academy (SMFA) in October 2011 at the Genesis Global School in Noida. ‘The Academy has enrolled kids in the age-groups of under-8, under-10, under-12, under-14 and under-16. They plan to open two academies this year with 500 kids across all age-groups at each centre. In the next 18 months centres will also be opened in Mumbai, Goa and the Southern states.

Considering India’s negligible international football status (FIFA ranking in April 2012, was a lowly 165) this overwhelming desire by FIFA and renowned foreign clubs like Liverpool, Arsenal, Everton, Bayern Munich and Celtic to upgrade football in India may have other hidden motives. After all India is not like Bahrain or Qatar, on the verge of qualification for the World Cup. Are the reasons to help Indian football altruistic or market-oriented?
The popularity of English and European football is increasing rapidly with live telecasts of English Premier League (EPL) and Spanish league matches beamed in by satellite TV. So supporting English clubs, like Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal or Barcelona and Real Madrid reflects the growing self-consequence of contemporary India’s globalizing elite. The urban cosmopolitan youth have the desire and spending power to purchase the merchandise of leading foreign clubs and join their global fan base. After all India’s English speaking middle-class is 120 million strong, more than the population of Britain.

For some years now there has been a shift in the sporting culture of metropolitan Indian schoolboys of the mall-going middle and upper middle-class. They are seceding from international cricket and switching loyalties to English league football. With the decline of the West Indies and Bangladesh and Zimbabwe becoming insignificant competitors, international cricket seems like a small and tawdry colonial sport. So the  middle-class is drifting towards international football as it is the very ultimate in cosmopolitan belonging. It is this thriving middle class that the foreign clubs are targeting as potential customers and fans.

During his first visit to this country in March 2007, FIFA President Sepp Blatter had remarked that India is a sleeping giant. FIFA and the foreign clubs are trying to awaken this slumbering giant. The motives may be commercial but if in the process football infrastructure and standards improve, it can serve as a launching pad for the revival of Indian football.

A positive development is the launching of new clubs, especially in the North-East. The most successful is United Sikkim FC which qualified for the I-League by winning the 2nd division title in April 2012.  Nicknamed the Snow Lions, United Sikkim FC will play their home matches in the I-league next season at the 25,000 capacity Paljor stadium. With funds received from Goal Project 2, an artificial turf has been installed at the stadium. Founded in 2008 by the Sikkim Football Board and with help from erstwhile Indian national football team captain Baichung Bhutia this club has improved football standards in Sikkim.

In nearby Meghalaya, Shillong Lajong is already an established professional club, playing in the main I-league. In
Shillong another prominent club Royal Wahingdoh has also emerged and their rivalry with Shillong Lajong is intense.

Another new club Pune FC has established themselves as one of the most professional teams in the country. They regularly finish in the top five in the I-League. Players are paid on time, well looked after and proper emphasis is given to age-group football.

However, the picture is not all rosy. In 2010-11 two clubs, Mahindra United and JCT,  closed down. JCT was the only I-league club from North India and was an outlet for promising talent from the region. Mahindra United were Mumbai’s best club and were national league champions in 2005-06. Also with the relegation of HAL and Chirag Kerala from the 5th I-League this year, there will be no team from South India in next year’s edition.

This is a setback as during the golden era of Indian football in the 1950s players from this region were dominant. There were eight players from Mysore (now Karnataka) in the 1948 London Olympics and nine players from Hyderabad in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics when India finished fourth. So when the 6th I-League kicks off there will be no representatives from either North or South India. The teams are from Kolkata, Goa, Mumbai and the North East and are not really representative.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017