It may not be an indication of how the All India Football Federation (AIFF) perceives the future but a person who couldn't clear the AFC 'B' licence coaching course last March helms its grassroots programme. That happened despite Scott O'Donnell, the AIFF employee's superior and the federation's technical director, being the course instructor.
With India having over 100 AFC 'A' licence coaches, this seems more than a case for the AIFF to review internally less than three years after the programme in the 6-12 age-group was launched.
The AIFF's idea of having four regional academies and one elite training centre stays alive only on its website, the federation having decided that for now the centre in Goa alone will do. Age-fudging, seemingly inept selections and little activity in most states and clubs are some of the other problems with grooming young players in India.
Jharkhand were stripped of last year's national Under-15 title for fielding five overage players. The Reliance Scholarship programme was hit by 11 failing age tests and in Bengal, this year's nursery (Under-14) league paused to weed out alleged college-goers.
Chosen, but not the best
There's more. Players chosen from an Under-13 festival for the 2017 Under-17 World Cup trained in Goa before exiting in the first round of the 2013 Subroto Cup. Next year, they didn't play. Seeing this bunch, which has been with the AIFF for two years now, new Under-17 coach Nicolai Adam decided to go talent hunting across the country.
HT reported on June 17 that when Adam came to Bengal, he chose only one goalkeeper from a pool of 53 selected by former India players. It fit with what Mohun Bagan coach Sanjoy Sen had to say on youth development or the lack of it.
"What are the Kolkata clubs who have so many trophies doing? Proper youth development programmes should have started long back... And it should not be done in the farcical manner that merely fulfils AFC club licensing criteria on paper," said Sen, refusing to spare even his employers.
The more even-tempered Satyajit Chatterjee, Bagan's football secretary, said emergence of former stars Chuni Goswami and Bhaskar Ganguly was proof of youth development in Bengal. "But, it wasn't and isn't close to the levels it should be," said the former India and Bagan midfielder.
The India Under-19s didn't have a coach for over one year till Lee Johnson arrived in May. Scouting for the senior India team is also part of Johnson's job profile. "If you don't look, you don't find," Johnson told the AIFF website last May not long before India coach Stephen Constantine said in Kolkata, "we will scout anything that moves."
It is difficult to fight perceptions of negativity but Kushal Das, the AIFF general secretary, said a lot of things about the federation, including getting a permanent address in Dwarka, are less than 10 years old. "The whole focus is now on grassroots, youth development and coach education." (India has, according to AFC data last January, nine coaches with AFC Pro Licence. England has 149 with its Uefa equivalent.)"Eight states have already started grassroots activity as have ISL (Indian Super League) franchises," said Das. The AIFF is keen on launching an under-15 league from September, he said. "In two years, it will be converted into an under17 league and there are plans that the Sports Authority of India will start an under-15 league," he said.
Barring Under-14 football festivals, the AIFF now only has an Under-19 league for I-League clubs.
"If the state associations and clubs are not able to solve the crisis, i.e. the lack of competition, India will never be able to close the gap between further developed countries in Asia like Japan, Korea, China, Uzbekistan or Australia. Worldwide, the gap is even bigger as countries in Europe start competitions with children from eight years and older (sic)," according to a report on the AIFF's website.
Certificates for academies
Das said the AIFF's certification process has started for football academies, adding that club licensing in the I-League has made an impact. "As an example, Bharat FC, which unfortunately finished last in the I-League, has embarked on a very good youth development programme." Ditto Bengaluru FC and Pune FC.
This month, the AIFF and Fifa will roll out a roadmap for states, starting with Bengal. The programme will have a technical officer and a marketing officer appointed and paid for by Fifa. The technical officer must have an AFC 'A' licence and seven years experience.
"India's huge potential can only be realised if grassroots and youth development stays priority and quality work is done by engaging and empowering all stakeholders including union and state governments," said Shaji Prabhakaran, Fifa development officer for south and central Asia.
The AIFF website targets tapping football skills of 2.8 lakh children by 2017. "It's difficult to say but we've got to around 20% of that," said Das a little over two years from India hosting the U-17 World Cup.
The AIFF and Fifa will roll out a programme focusing on the states this month in Kolkata. To start with, Maharashtra, Kerala, Assam, Bengal, Delhi, Goa and Mizoram will be targeted. AIFF and Fifa will appoint a technical officer and marketing officer in each state who will be on Fifa's payroll.
"It will be their responsibility to start youth competitions in the state and generate funds for it with the help of state associations. The idea is to empower states," said Shaji Prabhakaran, Fifa's development officer for south and central Asia.
Based on holistic development in football, Mizoram would leave powerhouses Bengal and Goa behind, said Prabhakaran."They are not economically vibrant but have been able to engage the government to organise competitions and work at the grassroots. We hope Mizoram will be an example to other states."