India’s costly obsession with exposure tours for young footballers
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India’s costly obsession with exposure tours for young footballers

Despite an investment in excess of Rs. 9 crore on exposure tours for the India under-16 football team, questions remain about their relevance.

football Updated: Apr 13, 2018 16:22 IST
Bhargab Sarmah
Bhargab Sarmah
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Football,Indian Football,SAI
Sports Authority of India (SAI) have spent in excess of Rs. 9 crore on a series of exposure tours for the India U-16 national football team.(Twitter/IndianFootball)

On Tuesday, the India under-16 national football team played a goalless draw against Spain’s Fundacion Valencia as part of its exposure tour to that country in preparation for the Asian under-16 Championship later this year.

The result led to many believing that India had held the Valencia U-16 side 0-0. Fundacion Valencia are, in fact, a subsidiary of Spanish giants Valencia CF, who founded the ‘filial’ club in 2013 to promote local talent.

Fundacion Valencia have U-15 and U-13 teams, and while the All India Football Federation (AIFF) didn’t specify the age-group of India’s opponents, club director Pablo Mantilla said India faced the ‘Cadete A’ team, which comprised players who were 14 and 15 years old.

Given the fact that the Fundacion Valencia U-15 side met San Marcelino in the Cadetes Liga Autonómica Cadete, a regional age-group league in Valencia, on Sunday, it is possible their first team didn’t play against India.

India’s tour of Spain is part of a series of trips ahead of the 16-team Asian Championship in Malaysia in September. These tours are being funded by the Sports Authority of India (SAI) at a cost in excess of Rs 9 crore according to reports.

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Spending so much on one group of boys could seem grossly disproportionate given that the AIFF’s budget for grassroots, as per the 2014-17 strategic plan, was Rs 3.15 crore. That of coach education during the same period was Rs 1.78 crore.

Last month, the U-16 side defeated hosts Hong Kong U-17 4-2 after wins over Chinese Taipei and Singapore to win the Jockey Cup, an annual invitational under-17 tournament in Hong Kong. None of India’s opponents have qualified for the AFC U-16 Championships, albeit with teams a year younger. Singapore conceded 17 goals in two of their three games.

Now sample this: the same India U-16 side played SAI Kolkata’s U-18 team – which doesn’t have any player in India’s national setup – twice prior to the tournament in Hong Kong. India U-16 lost 1-3 and 0-2.

The results of those games aren’t available on the AIFF’s website nor did the federation share them through any media release. But India’s wins against relatively unknown opposition have been played up by the AIFF in social media or through media releases.

The India team which left for Spain at the end of March also played in an invitational youth meet called MIC Cup. They won 1-0 against the under-16 side of IFK Stocksund, a fourth-tier Swedish club. The next day, they defeated a team called ‘BCN FC Australia’ 9-0. They also faced a local Barcelona-based community club called Junior CF and lost 3-0.

Option to play in Australia

Kushal Das, All India Football Federation (AIFF) general secretary, had earlier said in a press release that the tours would help the team in its attempt to qualify for the next edition of the U-17 World Cup (in 2019).

To do that, India would need to reach the semi-finals of the AFC U-16 Championship, which is a tall order. India’s best performance so far has been reaching the quarter-finals in 2002 of what was then the AFC U-17 Championship. India qualified for the quarters as a best-placed third team but with 16 teams now, the format has been changed to the top two from each group qualifying to the quarter-finals.

Given the weak domestic structure in India, particularly the absence of an organised youth structure, there is every indication from the federation that these exposure tours will continue.

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Scott O’Donell, former AIFF technical director and ex-AFC director of coach education, questioned the current series of tours.

“I am always sceptical when it comes to exposure tours. The first question I would ask is who are we playing against? What is the quality of the teams? I read the games played in UAE and Qatar earlier this year were mostly one-sided results? What is the benefit of those games? They could have stayed in India and achieved the same results,” he said in an e-mail.

“I can understand the preparation for the U-17 World Cup because India was hosting it, but it does not make sense for these trips to continue.”

O’Donell also claimed that the Indian federation could have taken a more competitive and cost-effective route. “I had discussions with AIFF last year about sending the India U-16 team to Queensland, Australia, to play as a team in the U-18 National Premier League (NPL). The team would have had 20-24 competitive games against decent opposition on a weekly basis, and in a similar climate to that of Malaysia.

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“The FFA and Queensland Football (the state association) had given their in-principle approval for the Indian U-16 team. Unfortunately, by the time approval was given in early December last year, AIFF had already come to an agreement with SAI regarding the exposure trips,” he said.

The registration fee for playing in the U-18 NPL would have been 20,000 Australian dollars, approximately just over Rs 10 lakh. India would have had to pay for travel and accommodation.

Asked about this, Kushal Das said the plan was ‘not feasible as per the coach’, but did not elaborate. Speaking separately, O’Donell though had said he had high regard for India’s under-16 coach Bibiano Fernandes.

Abhishek Yadav, AIFF’s director of national teams, and one of the brains behind the exposure tours, did not respond to this reporter’s question on why the proposal to go to Australia was turned down.

The expenses on exposure tours reveal the absence of long-term planning that is stunting the country’s growth in the game. That is an area Tom Byer thinks must be addressed immediately.

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Byer, a globally acclaimed grassroots football expert who has had years of experience in a number of Asian countries, said over the phone from Australia that India must shift focus and invest in the under-six age-group.

“Obviously there was substantial investment (on exposure tours) ahead of the U-17 World Cup last year too. People think there has to be more investment to build on the momentum from the tournament, but to make it sustainable India needs to focus on the millions of kids under the age six. Unless countries are engaging with the families and parent of those kids, I’m not sure if there will be better results than what’s been achieved in the past,” he said.

First Published: Apr 13, 2018 09:12 IST