It’s not every day that the Premier League comes to India, bringing together giants like Star Sports, Department of International Trade, UK along with a host of Indian stakeholders of the football world. As part of a two day conference called “The Movement“, organised by India On Track, football’s premier stakeholders discussed the Indian football landscape. From Indian Super League (ISL) club owners like Abhishek Bachchan, legends such as Alan Shearer and representatives of Charlton Athletic Football Club, every viewpoint came packed with expertise.
India On Track is an organisation that is creating a system for raw talent to be nurtured and providing recreational opportunities for children to learn and imbibe essential skills, through development programs, centres of excellence and partnerships. The organisation recently tied up with the NBA, to create and operate the NBA training centres in India, adding to their previous tie-ups with Arsenal Soccer Schools, Prakash Padukone Badminton Schools, Pune FC, LaLiga and a host of others.
With more and more young people taking to football as their choice of sport, and the ecosystem itself beginning to improve, the ISL and the I-league are on the right track to becoming globally recognized and revered leagues. However, for any sustained development to take place, its foundations must be set in stone, and in this premise, football in India is hinged on its youth development and grassroot programs. A panel of five, were brought together, to discuss how India’s youth development would help make India a football nation.
Gaurav, the chairman of India On Track (IOT), says that it begins with creating a sustainable environment, which is why IOT is trying to establish a pyramid model, that allows young talent the opportunity to compete at regional and international tournaments.
The style of coaching and systems itself need to change, Franz (Founder,YUWA) points out. YUWA, an organization that helps empower young girls through football, is breaking gender stereotypes and producing female footballers that have competed across the world. “Systems are only as good as those that are implementing and taking them forward. It cannot be a military style exercise. We have a saying – no laps, no lines, no lectures. The coach is the guy on the side, not the guy on stage,” says Franz, advocating for a more collaborative coaching process.
On the world stage, India has much to work on, especially with regard to infrastructure and nutrition. “There’s a big physical difference when the girls from India compete internationally,” he continues, adding that the girls find themselves a foot shorter and 10 kgs lighter than their opponents. “However, what they lack physically, they make up with their work ethic,” Franz quips.
As much as organizations like YUVA contribute to the ecosystem of football in the country, growth is fueled by corporate investment and government intervention. G. Srinivasan, the Assistant Vice President of Marketing and Communication of ISL, says it’s a slow burn and unfortunately, youth development is not looked at because people want fast returns.
Gaurav, IOT Chairman, says that at present, grassroot development cannot attract sponsors, “Today, we have not even 10 academies running in the country… compared to China that is trying to achieve 20k centres, by 2020. We should aim for 100-120 residential/non-residential centres and ensure all ISL and I-league clubs have an academy along with state building infrastructure.”
Gaurav adds that at present, it’s an economic problem and it needs an economic solution. G. Srinivasan added that a pipeline must be created to have a steady supply of players not only to provide increased opportunity but to generate revenue (through selling) which would help maintain sustainability of enterprise.
More often, Indian players come onto the development cycle much later in the process, in comparison to other players across the world. Charlton Athletic FC’s brand development manager, spoke about how, from a brand engagement standpoint, children are targeted from the age of 18+ months. “Traditionally, a child makes a connection with a club by the age of seven, hence even children aged five and six are engaged with the club at school, through a partnership system.” “The idea is to use football as a message for education and then groom them from being fans to potential players,” says Chris. Franz adds, “I believe India can be a top footballing country. Even if we pilot with one state really well (with development models), such as Jharkhand which has the population equal to that of Canada, it can have a massive impact.”
Finally, the panel made their concluding remarks about the road ahead for Indian football with a consensus on the fact that the benefits of a long term plan must be sold to potential investors. Chris talked about moving the buck to local communities and local youth to build engagement rather than spending exorbitant amounts on securing global talent. G. Srinivasan also spoke of bringing in more evangelists and those that have the passion to follow through with it, who use the current scenario, as a vision to be sold of India being a superpower in football.
Another consensus was that state funding must improve and increase manifold and then, directed better. For example, even if a minuscule percentage from Mumbai’s local budgets; which are huge, are invested in sports or infrastructure, over the next three years, $200 million can result in 4-5k pitches, which is very small for a country like ours. Gaurav added that in the past, 70-75% was funded through public efforts and it has not seen any constructive end. Support must be at each stage of the pyramid. There must be monitoring agents and money must be audited and accounted to assess impact.
Though the Prime Minister has urged young people to take football up as a sport, there must be a follow through and like all things it must see action. Because, advocacy alone just doesn’t cut it.