Millennium Post

Time to wake up

In a country where cricket is worshiped and players are idolised, it is indeed heartening to see individual sports spreading its wings following India’s recent successes at the international level. On the flip side, football, by far the most popular sport across the globe, has diminished to a new low with India going down to minnows Afghanistan and Nepal besides drawing with Bangladesh in the just concluded SAFF Championship played in Kathmandu.

If low resources and poor infrastructure are major factors harming the growth of football, the system too has failed to develop a strong league for which India’s performance at the international arena has gone from bad to worse.

After India won the Nehru Cup in 2012, shocking a superior Cameroon side in the final, many thought the triumph will usher in a new wave in Indian football. However, one year down the line, not much has changed and the game still remains directionless. India lost heavily in the two international friendlies played in 2013 – against unheralded teams Palestine and Tajikistan.

However, nothing can beat India’s horrific performance in the recently concluded SAFF Championship. The record six-time champions surrendered meekly to Afghanistan in the final after struggling against small teams like Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

While India’s international performances are going down  at an alarming pace, the domestic scenario too looks bleak with I-League, the country’s biggest football tournament, not churning out new talents at the expected rate. While the All India Football Federation (AIFF) is looking for measures to rescue the game, the scenario won’t improve until India gets rid of inefficient management in state associations as well as the national body.

Here’s are seven key points which need to looked upon to lift the game from its poor state.

Licensing and lack of infrastructure: All I-League clubs don’t have a stadium of its own. The ones in which they play are owned by state associations. Improper funding has been a major factor blocking the growth of football clubs. According to AIFF, most I-League clubs have failed to take the licensing criteria seriously and if the issue is not sorted out, it might even lead to their suspension from the next season. Most clubs end up spending large chunks of money on players' salaries which in turn hinders the growth of infrastructure. As per the licensing criteria, the clubs must chalk out a proper youth development programme and build a stadium of its own for which AIFF has stipulated a five-year time frame. Sadly most of the clubs have fallen way behind schedule.

Absence of big sponsors: I-League recently lost out on major sponsors and is currently facing a severe crisis in functioning as a major league without a principle sponsor. The tie-ups with corporate houses too have taken a major step backward. This in turn leads to poor funding and lack of promotion and marketing of the sport. Currently the national team too is devoid of a shirt-sponsor, creating a major blockade in the direction which Indian football is heading to.

Advent of IMG-Reliance league: Following the stupendous success of Indian Premier League, all other sports in the country are now trying to come up come up with their own leagues. A good 40-50 years of solid cricket has given birth to IPL which became an instant hit with the fans. But the case of football is very different. The premier division National Football League began in 1996 while the I-League began only in 2007. So it’s unlikely a new two-three month long league targeting cities would be a big hit. With semi-retired and retired footballers playing in it, the new venture’s capacity to draw fans to the stadia in big numbers definitely looks implausible.

Disproportionate representation: Over the decades, Indian football has been witnessing the rise of teams mainly from West Bengal, Goa and Kerala. Other parts of the country hardly account for major clubs, a factor which doesn’t augur well for the national team with football being primarily a team game. AIFF general secretary Kushal Das stated in a recent Indian football forum that local leagues have been the major driving forces in states like West Bengal and Goa. ‘These states have strong local leagues and that has helped in building strong teams. Even the north-east region is now trying to develop the standard at the local level. However, big states like Delhi and Chennai have failed in this account. The lack of local community leagues doesn’t allow players from these places make it to big clubs in other states,’ he said. For an overall development of football, the game must spread into all corners of the country.

Team fiasco: The forthcoming edition of I-League comprises only 13 teams. The number of teams is way below if compared to most countries running its own league. AIFF initiated youth side Pailan Arrows ceased to exist after the West Bengal ‘chit-fund scam’ took centre stage, which also led to Prayag United losing its major sponsor. Another team, Mumbai Tigers, which was supposed to join I-League from this season pulled out at the last moment citing lack of preparation and facilities. The players of these clubs are the most badly hit as they must find a new club or just train with AIFF without a team to play for.

Few positives: There are talks about English club Queens Park Rangers entering I-League in 2014-15 season. Certain home players too are targeting clubs abroad and undergoing trials in foreign countries, gaining vital exposure in the process. Also, young clubs like Pune FC have started to give more focus on youth development, having teams of age-groups. Indian football will surely be served better if more academies come up like Chandigarh Football Academy, a fully residential establishment which inducts students at the right age of seven and takes care of their education and other needs. The academy, which has former India captains Harjinder Singh and Tejinder Singh as its chief coaches, sends 12 players along with a coach for 15 days to Egidius Braun Sportschule, a club based in Leipzig, Germany for advanced/specialised training twice a year. Such ventures provide the necessary exposure required by young footballers.

What the future holds: AIFF is hoping to increase the number of I-League teams to 20 within next five years. It has formulated a programme called ‘Lakshya’ through which it is aiming to develop the game at the grass-root level. India has also bid to host 2017 U-17 FIFA World Cup. Though it faces severe competition from other bidders, AIFF hopes hopes to clinch the deal provided the Commonwealth Games fiasco doesn’t become a blockade. Also, AIFF is giving more importance in developing women’s football and planning exposure trips for them, a move which surely augurs well for the overall development of football in India.

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