Madhya Pradesh may have never been known to produce India’s best footballers but the craze around league football on foreign shores may be finally paying off.
Four young students from Indore – two boys and two girls – have been selected to represent India in the Pacific International School Games to be held at Adelaide in Australia later this month, underscoring the surge in football’s popular appeal among the state’s young population.
This is the first time students from Indore are representing the country at the prestigious Under-19 tournament that begins on November 22 and are among the eight players selected from Madhya Pradesh.
Young students want to prove themselves at an international stage
The four students -- Amol Mathur, Mrinalini Singh, Abhipriya Verma and Akash Rai – are thrilled and want to prove themselves at an international stage.
“My excitement has no bounds. When you are playing a sport such as football which is not played by many females in the country, and then you are selected to represent the country, in itself is a great achievement for any sportsperson,” said Mrinalini.
India has historically struggled to compete at the world stage in football, a truly global game played by over 200 countries around the globe. The country came close to playing in the World Cup in the 50s but standards have slumped since, with current world rankings nearing an all-time-low at 172.
Experts say a combination of administrative apathy, poor training facilities and an emphasis on cricket has sounded the death knell for football across the country. But off late, the popularity of domestic and foreign leagues among the school and college-going crowd has piqued interest in the sport.
States such as Goa, Kerala and West Bengal continue to be the bastions of the sport in the country and produce a bulk of its star footballers but newer centres such as Madhya Pradesh – that used to have little local participation – are fast catching up with students picking up the sport in schools.
Selection trials were held in Bhopal 4 months ago
The story is not very different for the Indore kids, three of whom -- Amol, Mrinalini and Abhipriya -- are students of Daly College, while Akash studies at Swami Vivekanand Higher Secondary School and plays for the local club team. Amol, Mrinalini and Akash study in Class 12. Abhipriya is the youngest in the group and is in Class 9.
They were selected from a big group in trials held at Bhopal four months ago, an event that was attended by all major school and club teams.
“The most important criteria for the selection procedure were that only those players who played the School Games Federation of India (SGFI) nationals could qualify for the trials. And after that, the best eight among the many (from MP) were selected,” said Abhipriya.
Young footballers are practising day and night
In the run-up to the tournament, the kids are practising day and night with their coach Shailendra Verma to sharpen their skills and increase their endurance. “Ever since we were informed about the selection camp, we have been practicing hard to polish our skills. It has now been around four to five months of practicing the kicking, push-passes and tackling,” Mrinalini said.
Will attend a 5-day national camp in Delhi
These four players will attend a five-day national camp at New Delhi, before leaving the country for the tournament.
Team India football captain Sunil Chhetri, who was recently in Indore, also had encouraging words for these young footballers. “International exposure is the most important thing for any footballer and especially for youngsters who will come to realise the difference in techniques of playing football in India and foreign countries,” he said.
But the students are still unsure about taking up football as a professional career, possibly because of the poor funding the sport receives at the national level.
“Frankly, I have not thought about it, but I would really try to give it a shot if an opportunity comes along,” said Abhipriya.
Coach Verma is understandably excited about the development and hopes the success will inspire more young students to take up football in the future.
“It is a great opportunity for these kids as it will give them international exposure, something which players have missed out on in the past. Hopefullyit will boost football and more students will get attracted to this wonderful game.”