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Shifting the goalposts

The Indian football story is one of paradoxes—in which optimism and pessimism coexist. From the distant dream of one day playing in the World Cup, to how clubs are trying to foster grass-roots talent, Lounge takes an in-depth look at the state of the game

India versus Syria during the Asian Cup Group B soccer match in Qatar on 23 January.
India versus Syria during the Asian Cup Group B soccer match in Qatar on 23 January. (AP)

It’s organised cacophony at this football ground, where at least five matches are being held simultaneously among different children’s age groups. The St. Anthony’s ground at Monte de Guirim in north Goa is a lush football turf today, but remnants of its stony, dirt past are visible on the neighbouring hillock that’s been sliced vertically, like a slab of hard cheese.

On this ground, developed by the non-profit Forca Goa Foundation, and opened about a year ago, children are jostling each other on a December afternoon. Among the players is a little girl who is more interested in the audience of about 50-odd people than in the football that bounces past her on several occasions. The referee, in a moment of sporting—albeit unconventional—benevolence, halts the game and shows the girl how to kick. Parents participate with varying degrees of enthusiasm: some laze on the grass, others stand on the edge of the pitch and shout instructions. “Send the ball long men, why you passing short, short.”

The Forca Goa Foundation is the corporate social responsibility (CSR) arm of FC Goa, the Indian Super League (ISL) team that’s currently undefeated and among the top of the standings after 12 matches this season. The foundation also launched the Little Gaurs League (LGL), a state-level grass-roots league for children, around five years ago.

With four centres currently in the tiny state—and with two more to come—the league runs for a cost of about 50 lakh, conducts about 700 matches a year, and has approximately 1,600 children participating through 150 teams.

“When we created the LGL for under-8 and under-10 in two zones, north and south Goa, we had about 350 children participating. Only four girls played (in the mixed teams) because the coaches wanted to win,” says Forca’s head of grass-roots development, Nathaniel da Costa. In 2020, LGL started under-6, under-8, under-10 and a separate under-12 girls’ category.

Also read: ISL at 10: Where does Indian football go next?

“FC Goa is one of the highest spenders in youth development if you compare all ISL clubs. It is in the region of 2.5-3 crore per year,” says Lokesh Bherwani, the club’s director of football.

This is a microcosm of the India football development story, one in which grass-roots growth is the mantra, leagues are the pathway to success and the future is ambitious: India playing in the World Cup. There are over 80 football academies accredited by the sport’s national governing body, All India Football Federation (AIFF). Several thousand others are spread across mainly traditional football centres: big cities or emerging powerhouses, like Karnataka, Mumbai, Delhi, Mizoram, Goa, Manipur, Kerala and Bengal.

These clubs and academies cater to age categories of under-6 right up to under-19 and adults. There are leagues for children, structured programmes, a delicately balanced calendar that takes into account seasons and holidays, all indicating to, as a club owner says, a “revolution” in Indian football.

But the Indian football story is also one of paradoxes, between growth and inertia, change and stasis. The AIFF has a league system across ages, with the time-tested structure of promotions and demotions among divisions. There is sponsorship money—including the powerful backing of Reliance Foundation—growing but still inadequate infrastructure, and an awareness of what it entails to succeed in the sport. Football’s world governing body Fifa and several foreign clubs have shown a keen interest in India, though sceptics believe this has more to do with India’s large population—a captive market—than anything else.

Parents are open to their children spending more time kicking a football around at the expense of good grades in school. Some, who were young adults at the time of the cable television boom in the 1990s, that spawned a generation of Manchester United and Chelsea fans, might even dream of having a child play in the highest levels of European club football—or at least in the ISL. There are conversations about India one day playing in the World Cup, a distant dream that seems more realistic now given India’s clout in the world, its riches of a billion and a half residents, but foolhardy given India’s poor standing in world football.

Football in India is a developing story in which optimism and pessimism coexist, like a child that feels it can reach for the stars by jumping.

FIND ‘EM YOUNG

In a conference room at FC Goa’s office in Porvorim, Da Costa talks about their multiple “incredible” success stories. He mentions Kiran Niketan—a primary school in Vasco, run by nuns for children from modest neighbourhoods near the city—with a field “maybe double the size of this (medium-sized) room”, winning the under-8 LGL in 2022. “It’s the only trophy they have ever won,” Da Costa says. “They are so proud of it that for their annual day, they got all the children with their parents and had a trophy show.”

Both Da Costa and Bherwani mention how children now are far more tactically aware of formations and positions. They observe and grasp faster and are eager and unafraid to ask questions. They watch videos on YouTube, ape Cristiano Ronaldo’s celebratory leap, and are not just chasing a ball on the field.

Stronger validation for the changing face of football comes from Karnataka, once a footballing force that later seemed to develop more cricketing heroes. In March 2023, Karnataka won the Santosh Trophy for the National Football Championship, after 54 years, beating Meghalaya 3-2 in the final at Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. It was just a crowning moment to the movement that began when M. Satyanarayanan, a footballer-turned-administrator, took over as the general secretary of the Karnataka State Football Association (KSFA) in 2019. Credited with reviving football in the state and city of Bengaluru, the KSFA also has leagues for age groups from under-7 onwards, with coaching programmes, improved infrastructure, over 350 registered clubs and a focus on local talent.

“Now, even the youngest child knows how to kick the ball with his (boot) lace. We were never taught those things,” says Satyanarayanan, who is also the AIFF deputy general secretary, claiming that the state has one of the best youth leagues in the country.

Others in Bengaluru praise the KSFA’s open-door policies and limited barriers for youth games, allowing small and big academies, all age group access to nine-a-side and eleven-a-side games. Changing demographics has added to the sport’s growth.

“Football is a rich man’s sport now because everything comes for a price,” says Bappaditya Bhattacharjee, co-founder of Game on Sports. Their grass-roots initiative has the Roots Football School, which has teams in AIFF and KSFA youth leagues, men’s C division, and youth teams in six categories.

“If I look at Karnataka 15 years ago, state teams had boys from local areas. Today, youth teams will have 90% boys from the middle and upper-middle class. They can commit to making a football player—with nutrition, coaching, etc,” says Bhattacharjee.

The North-East, in particular Manipur and Mizoram, has a following for football that surpasses other, traditional, centres of football, like Kerala and Bengal. According to an article in Scroll.in, three years ago, nearly 40% of players registered in the ISL were from the North-East—by rough estimates it’s over 30% this season. The sport’s popularity in the region encouraged the Reliance Foundation Young Champs (RFYC) academy—launched in 2015 to identify and support young footballers—to start a Naupang League last year in Aizawl. It ran over seven months and had over 160 teams participating, with more than 1,500 children between the age groups of under-5 to under-13.

Trainees at the South United Football Club in Bengaluru at a briefing session with their coach.
Trainees at the South United Football Club in Bengaluru at a briefing session with their coach. (Image courtesy: SUFC)

“We are more passionate about sports,” says Huidrom Thoi Singh, 19, who plays for the NorthEast United in the ISL, over a text message. “As many people have known, Manipur is a sports house, so growing up I loved playing football. I knew football was going to be my only job in the future because I am not interested in doing anything other than that.”

“Players from the North-East, they want to play, work hard, wherever it takes them…,” adds Godwin Rodrigues, a coach with the I League team Churchill Brothers FC. “They just want to work hard and it will get them somewhere.”

But the influence of coaching centres and academies on football development is not linear. For example, Delhi has over a hundred clubs with 6,000-7,000 registered children, but these numbers are underwhelming for a region with a population of over 20 million. Anuj Gupta, the newly elected president of the Delhi Soccer Association (DSA), takes the example of Valencia in Spain, which has over a 100,000 registered footballers for a population of under a million.

“There are more academies, with real data,” says Gupta, focusing on the positives. “Getting birth certification and medical testing, so overage children are identified, has become the norm.”

One of the biggest forces in grooming players is the RFYC and the Development League (RFDL), an under-21 youth tournament started last year with over 50 teams across nine regions. The top four teams from RFDL qualify to play selected Premier League clubs and South Africa’s PSL youth teams in the annual Premier League Next Generation. “Earlier, people would put two (goal) posts and play. It was organic, not organised. Now, I feel, there are more academies; coaching education has changed, evolved,” says Rodrigues.

A SLOW BURN

India had its footballing glory days from the 1950s through to the 1980s, reaching the Melbourne Olympic Games semi-finals in 1956, winning the gold in the 1962 Jakarta Asian Games and a bronze in 1970 in Bangkok. Old-time followers would recollect movie stars among thousands of people crammed into Mumbai’s Cooperage grounds, following institutional teams like State Bank of India, Air India, Railways. Administrative apathy, among other reasons, led to a fall in popularity, before the Reliance-promoted ISL shuffled things around a bit a decade ago.

The AIFF has a three-tier league system, with the ISL on top, followed by the I- League, I-League 2 and I-League 3, besides the Youth League (Elite Division), Junior League and a Sub-junior League. A Golden Baby Leagues project for kids aged 6-12 began in 2018 with Fifa’s development programme.

For football clubs to participate in national and Asian Football Confederation (AFC) competitions, it’s mandatory to have youth development programmes, at least three age group teams (under-13, -15, -18) of a minimum 20 players each and a grass-roots programme for children. This resulted in ISL and I-League teams investing in football development, to add to institutions like the over 30-year-old Tata Football Academy (TFA).

“What it (the ISL) has done is given football its reach. I have seen few years of the National Football League (NFL, I-League’s predecessor), a few years of I-league and 10 years of ISL. The jump is exponential because of the reach,” says Sunil Chhetri, who plays for Bengaluru FC, and is the third highest scorer of international goals in the world among active players.

“The gentleman sitting over here,” he adds, pointing to the then-Bengaluru coach Simon Grayson before the start of the ISL season last year, “you can get him to come to ISL because of what he has heard and the kind of games he has seen. I can assure you if I had shown him clips of us playing away in Shillong at 2 in the afternoon, he probably would have said no.”

India’s world ranking, since the start of the ISL in a decade, has improved from being somewhere in the 160s-170s to just outside the top 100. Some of its current players, like Chhetri, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and Sandesh Jhingan, have played for foreign clubs in the past. But ISL teams, on an average, are said to make losses of about 30 crore a year. Mint reported in July last year about Disney Star’s decision not to bid for the ISL after the 2022-23 season, on the back of declining viewership and losses. The league itself is now ranked 32 among Asian leagues, as per the rating platform TeamForm.

HYPE, BLUSTER AND THE BIG PRIZE

Over the years, India has had its share of attention from world football in a variety of ways. Many of the top clubs from Europe have attempted to start academies and local partnerships, including Liverpool, Paris Saint-Germain, Boca Juniors, and Arsenal. German goalkeeping great Oliver Kahn brought his eponymous academy to Mumbai and Guwahati last November.

Leading voices of world football have passed through, including Fifa’s chief of global football development and former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, to initiate a Talent Development Scheme (TDS) last November. The TDS will focus on investing in academies, with Fifa aiming to ensure that 75 member associations have at least one high-performance academy or centre of excellence by 2027.

“Our aim,” says Satyanarayanan, “is that the Indian team qualifies for the 2026 under-17 World Cup on its own (without hosting the event). Wenger is serious: Fifa is coming to train our boys and make them skillful.”

“I genuinely believe that India will soon be a formidable force on the global football stage, competing in the World Cup,” Kahn said when he was in Mumbai.

The conversation about India playing in the World Cup is a frequently recurring one, but one that has divided opinions. With the Indian team currently 102 in Fifa world rankings (19th in Asia), its standards improving only recently, playing world football’s elite event might seem like a stretch. Besides India’s unimpressive standing in world football, the team’s best player continues to be Chhetri, 39, with no worthy successor in sight. “Twenty years ago we had (Bhaichung) Bhutia. Now we have Chhetri. How will we grow when there are not enough role models?” asks Pranav Trehan, CEO of Bengaluru’s South United Football Club (SUFC), who does not share Satyanarayanan’s sanguine views on the World Cup. “One myth is that we are round the corner to play a World Cup. I don’t think that will happen unless we host. We are far, far away from it.”

Optimists see the door to the World Cup opening ever so slightly with a 48-team format in 2026, which will increase the Asian quota from four to eight teams. Others feel that India could conduct the event and play in it automatically as a host. Another way to improve the quality of the Indian team could be to include overseas citizens of India, which is currently not possible because India does not allow for dual citizenship.

Also read: Fifa Women's World Cup: A memorable showcase for women's football

“We have 15-20 players of Indian origin in competitive leagues in the world,” says Satyanarayanan. “If we get four-five players … We would have to present this to the government.”

“(The reason) why a nation watches a sport, in my opinion, is based on success. No one cares until the team starts winning. Zero people will watch the game if the team is losing,” says Ambar Aneja, chief executive officer of apparel company Six5Six that has created jerseys for the Indian and a few ISL teams. He mentions it as a way for football’s growth and spread—through its national team.

The sport’s popularity in India is difficult to gauge in tangible terms. While European club football, especially the English Premier League, is a hit among the urban youth in India, its telecast numbers are not remarkable. The ISL has not yet built the kind of legacy fan following that more developed footballing countries have—or indeed even what the Kolkata clubs have. Attendance for FC Goa matches, for instance, have dropped this year, according to people with access to numbers. It’s down from an average of 18,000-20,000 in the initial years to 9,000-12,000 now, at the Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Fatorda.

“Social media and marketing are better now, but that does not mean football is growing,” says Gupta, who is also the co-founder of Sudeva FC that plays in I-League 2. “It’s (running a club) a loss-making venture. It’s only an ego boost that keeps you running a club. Football needs money that the ecosystem brings, like cricket, to bring communities together.”

Bhattacharjee’s team Roots FC, which plays in the BDFA Super Division and may qualify for I-League 3 next season, is already giving the co-founder the jitters. “Our biggest challenge is once you morph from an academy to club, the financial burden becomes unsustainable.”

Fifa's Arsene Wenger (centre) with AIFF officials in Mumbai in November 2023.
Fifa's Arsene Wenger (centre) with AIFF officials in Mumbai in November 2023. (PTI)

CATCH THEM YOUNG

Redeem Tlang returned home one late afternoon in 2002 after kicking the ball around with friends in his Shillong neighbourhood when he saw all his immediate neighbours crammed in front of the TV, watching the World Cup final between Brazil and Germany. The boy was mesmerised by the Brazilian flair, by Ronaldo and the atmosphere in the Japanese stadium. The seven-year-old was hooked for life.

By the time he went on a school football trip to Chennai aged 13, which was an “exciting” three-day journey one-way, his first time outside Meghalaya, he decided he just wanted to play more and travel. Shillong Lajong, the first club of national prominence from the North-East, catalysed his interest, leading to stints with FC Goa and NorthEast United FC, where the 28-year-old winger currently plies his trade.

“Here, football comes over everything else,” says Redeem. “During local tournaments, every community, every household will come to watch and support. That’s beautiful to watch. It’s unity that brings more players and football unites everyone.” This passion for the sport now has support from coaching centres and leagues, which will make future generations better footballers, he says.

Indian football, some say, is way behind other nations of Europe that have a longer history and tradition with the sport. Football followers take the example of Japan, which has thousands of A and pro-level coaches (coaching calibre ranges from D to A and pro, with D being the lowest level and pro the highest) while India has a few hundred.

“You can’t learn to play football at (age) 15,” Wenger said when he was in India last year. “We come in at age 12. At 15-16, you start to specialise in a position. By 16, you should be as perfect as possible.” Footballer Franklin Nazareth says that he only got to learn skills that are taught at the ages of 10-12 in Europe, at the age of 15. Born and raised in Pune, Nazareth got into RFYC at the age of 15, in 2019, and is now part of the Mumbai FC ISL team. “The more exposed you are, you grow more to potential.”

Trehan believes academies that buy international logos (partnerships), paying €30,000-80,000, only get some junior coaches. “My learning is international clubs don’t see much merit in Indian football, barring that we are a country of large population. They want to sell their jerseys. It’s a one-sided affair. What are we getting?”

Children in India, because of the limited matches available to play, are projected to play about 70-80 games by the time they are 16, as opposed to developed nations where they would have played over 400 games in that same period.

“Football is finicky—one injury and your career can be over,” says Rodrigues. “Kids are impatient—they want to earn money fast, want a big contract but that’s possible only with the ISL. You can earn better on a ship.”

Despite the obstacles of infrastructure, football in India is, by all accounts, on an upward trajectory, with the world’s most popular sport making steady inroads in the country. In an age of short attention spans, football has some advantage over cricket, and may only compete in the popularity stakes with e-Sports for second spot in the country’s sporting ecosystem. The investments made over the years may yet bear fruit, though a time frame for that can only be speculative.

“Some of our players had a 11-month season last year. It gives more opportunities for games, to train. All this stuff around it, the analysis, the medical work, allows players to develop in a comparable way to their counterparts in Asia,” said Des Buckingham, the former coach of Mumbai FC. “But for those that are just starting their journey like (Mumbai FC’s) young Franklin, he’s going to have 10-15 years of this as a starting point,” Buckingham said before the beginning of ISL’s 10th season. “The fruition of that in 10 years’ time is going to be massive. In 7-8-9-10 years, we’ll be able to see the real benefit of that.”

“If I’d had basic (training) at a younger age than when I got it, mine would have been a different story,” says Redeem with a smile. “But it was what it was. Better than nothing, right?”

Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle. He posts @iArunJ.

 

 

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