Why Indian football’s mediocrity will continue well beyond FIFA U-17 World Cup
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Why Indian football’s mediocrity will continue well beyond FIFA U-17 World Cup

With the AIFF refusing to look beyond the current tenure of president Praful Patel, and investing heavily on a small group of boys, the Indian football fraternity can forget about any long-term development after the FIFA U-17 World Cup

fifa u17 world cup 2017 Updated: Oct 16, 2017 19:19 IST
Bhargab Sarmah
Bhargab Sarmah
Hindustan Times, Kochi
FIFA U-17 World Cup,FIFA U-17 World Cup 2017,Indian U-17 football team
Indian U-17 football team finished without a point at the FIFA U-17 World Cup and was knocked out of the group stages.(AP)

With the group stages of the FIFA U-17 World Cup over, the line-up for the tournament’s Round of 16 has now been confirmed.

India finished with the wooden spoon, bowing out of the group stages without a point and with a goal difference of -8.

READ | FIFA U-17 World Cup: India football coach admits gap with world is huge

The Luis Norton de Matos-coached team did show glimpses of a promising side in the three games, but were eventually outclassed by three vastly superior teams.

Huge spending on small group

If there’s one thing these games showed, it is that no amount of training or financial investment on a group of teenage boys can turn them into world beaters. It must be noted that close to Rs. 15 crore, as per well-placed federation sources, had been spent on this group of players, with active state funding.

Across the world’s best performing footballing nations, kids start playing football well before they reach double figures, in terms of ages. That isn’t the case in India.

Back in 2015, India’s men’s national team head coach Stephen Constantine had summed up the issue well, saying, “Our problem is we are not teaching young Indian boys at the age of five, six and developing basics. You can’t start at the age of 14 or 15... Players all over the world are starting out at five, six seven — that’s the difference. Until we address it, that’s where we’re always going to be, we’re always going to be playing catch-up,”

READ | FIFA U-17 World Cup: Ghana thrash India 4-0, end their journey

There isn’t a structure in India’s system that caters to kids below ten years of age, neither is there any large scale plan for the long run.

No systematic youth development plan

Earlier this year, Richard Hood, AIFF’s Head of Player Development, formulated the concept of ‘baby leagues’, with inputs from a few senior coaches and former Indian players

Yet, in the absence of a pan-Indian push, it is unlikely to be of much help. India is home to millions of students in the age range of 6-10.

With cooperation from the union sports ministry and state governments, it would have been ideal for the AIFF to formulate a long-term plan, long-term being 15/20/25 years, for pushing the sport among the youngest of students, across both genders, in the country.

READ | FIFA U-17 World Cup: Volunteers caught black-marketing tickets, Javier Ceppi hurt

Hood himself is vocal on these issues on social media, and in one of his recent tweets, said, “National youth competitions are meaningless in the absence of intense year round local and regional multi-tier age specific leagues and cups.”

Hood’s tweet is an acknowledgment of the larger issue plaguing Indian football, but if he understands the problem, it remains a mystery as to why there hasn’t been a greater push from him or his colleagues for such multi-tier age specific tournaments.

Short term focus

As things stand, the AIFF is set to spend significant amount of money in the next couple of years focussing on the current crop of U-16 and U-17 boys. Luis Norton de Matos is set to continue with the current U-17 side, which will now effectively be India’s U-19 team.

READ | FIFA U-17 World Cup: Concentration lapse cost India a point, says coach de Matos

All players have been offered three-year contracts, albeit it remains unclear as to how many of the players will actually sign on the papers. The team will play the AFC U-19 Championship qualifiers in November, before taking part in the I-League as a AIFF-representative team.

“The current under-16 team will follow the same path as the under-17 team in terms of foreign exposure except that we would like them to play in more competitions now,” AIFF General Secretary Kushal Das was recently quoted as saying by The Indian Express.

Such plans will entail heavy investment, likely to run into nine-figures, over the next two-three years.

READ | FIFA U-17 World Cup: Jeakson scores, but Colombia beat India 2-1

With AIFF not being the richest of sports bodies in India, it is surprising indeed that so much time, effort and money is being invested in a group of boys in their mid-teen years.

It is true that none of these boys should be left in the lurch like many of their predecessors have been. That doesn’t, however, call for heavy investment on one group of players, especially when it is known that they wouldn’t miraculously turn into world class players with more training or exposure tours.

Little plan for other wings

Women’s football, for instance, suffers from gross under-investment in India. Until recently, the women’s national team hadn’t played an international friendly for four years.

If there isn’t enough money for organising a single women’s international friendly for four years, how does one justify this investment on a few U-16 and U-17 boys?

READ | FIFA U-17 World Cup 2017: Stepping stone for Indian football, says coach Luis Norton de Matos

Sample this: there isn’t any plan that goes beyond the current tenure of AIFF president Praful Patel. His term ends in 2020, but football as a sport will continue beyond 2020. India, however, is yet to see anything beyond the immediate international competitions.

Japan, at present, has a 100-year plan targeting its national league structure. In India, it is not yet known as to when the 2017-18 season of the I-League will start. It is already the middle of October 2017.

Giant still sleeping

A lot was made on social media about how India put up a fight in the opening two games of the FIFA U-17 World Cup. The team indeed did well against USA and Colombia in small periods of the games, but the possibility of these boys helping India qualify for the senior World Cup in future is highly unlikely, given that India is nowhere near the continental powerhouses of Asia.

If the objective of competitive football was to ‘win hearts’, India would have been the reigning world champions in the sport. Unfortunately, that is not the point of football, and celebrating mediocrity year after year isn’t going to mask the inability of India’s football administrators to look beyond the immediate future.

The term ‘sleeping giant’, initially used by ex-FIFA president Sepp Blatter, is often used to describe India’s footballing potential. Those who have followed Indian football closely in the last decade will know that this ‘giant’ wouldn’t be sleeping had it not been heavily drugged by those looking after it.

First Published: Oct 16, 2017 14:25 IST