“That is my dream. It is what I train for every day,” says 17-year-old Mrigaank Mahadevan when asked if he sees himself donning the blue jersey and representing India in the football World Cup. The 17-year-old trains for three hours a day at the Bhaichung Bhutia Football Schools Residential Academy in Nashik, Maharashtra to make his dream come true.
The closest India has come to feature in the Mecca of football was in 1950, only for it to not send the team. Beer company Budweiser, in a collaboration with Vice Media, has released a three-part docu-series in “an attempt at telling the untold story of India’s tryst with the World Cup in 1950”.
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An all-out blunder or lack of foresightedness, India is struggling to find a place among the 32 best footballing nations that compete for the world champions’ title. There are multiple factors at play here.
“Globally, coaching begins at age 4. But in India, we have a 6-12 category,” says Henry Menezes, former Indian goalkeeper who recently concluded his term at the All India Football Federation’s (AIFF) technical committee. Starting later than others surely pulls the performance back. The AIFF started the Golden Baby Leagues in 2018 for kids aged 6 to 12 years for “long-term player development” for kids to get exposure to an age-appropriate number of games and playing formats as they grow older.
But here is the catch: Competition is not there as anyone can get into a baby league if interested. “Everyone! Anyone can organise the AIFF Golden Baby Leagues, anywhere in the country,” the AIFF says on its website.
Nikhil Khunteta, coach at Bhaichung Bhutia Football Schools, Mumbai, points to a different problem. “I believe there is a lot of opportunity in this age group, but the vision is somewhat missing. The Indian football ecosystem at the grassroots level is very very competitive, which it should not be. It is competitive in the sense that there are so many academies, teams, and hence competition, when the focus should essentially be on skill development. Winning should only be a by-product,” he says.
“If players lack a strong foundation, it is difficult for them to progress because at age 15, 16 or 17, when our players have to compete, they fall back slightly technically, which is where the real trouble starts as it keeps compounding as they enter the senior national team,” he adds.
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Elaborating further, he says, “When they are 6 to 12, we are essentially teaching our players how to compete. On the other hand, in Europe, the footballing hub, their focus is to develop their players. So, as our kids progress to U-15 and U-17 age groups, they have not really added any special skills other than being the fastest or the strongest player. While the senior football balances out physical differences, technical and tactical differences remain.”
Speaking on the same, Shanmugam Venkatesh, former Indian footballer and former coach of India’s U-20 side, said, “After U-17, a player is a professional player. Hence, you have to complete everything in this span to get quality players.”
But what do kids want? “Playing for the national team is any child’s dream. Everyone wants to represent the country,” says Khunteta. “But the kind of exposure they have of European leagues: Europa, LaLiga, etc, you see 5-10-year-olds coming to you telling they want to play for Barcelona or Manchester United
It is notable here that while governing bodies like FIFA and AFC (Asian Football Confederation) have school programmes, the AIFF is yet to come up with one, Menezes points out. Not just starting at the right age, “coaches should be very careful about the correct age, which can be a task if someone brings a certificate claiming he is 15 when he is actually 20”, says Venkatesh. Here is where the coaches need to step in. “They should not look for results, but after players, because the player with fake age might perform better, but if you pick the right aged one, he will be on the right track and give you results in the long run. Over time, the proper age group becomes stronger than the fake one,” he adds.
Lack of exposure
Experts believe that lack of enough exposure, especially internationally, impacts players’ confidence, eventually impacting overall performance. “Lack of confidence can be an issue as our players do not get that many games or get all the exposure at the last moment. But the confidence level should rise gradually,” says Menezes.
“Even in the Indian Super League (ISL), individual players get about 20 games. While in Europe, they play almost non-stop, sometimes two leagues simultaneously. They just do not have time. There must be exhaustion, but they are demanded to play that much,” the former Indian goalkeeper adds.
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Chinglensana Singh Konsham, 26-year-old Indian national team footballer who plays for Hyderabad FC in ISL, agrees. “Indian football is improving by leaps and bounds. But there are countries all over the world that are improving at a higher rate, as we saw in the recent FIFA World Cup. I think in India, we need to play more matches globally, host top teams in our backyard and spend more time together,” the footballer from Manipur says. “We need to place more importance on the tactical and technical side of the game and that will help us grow stronger,” he adds.
“For a country like India, we need more exposure,” says Venkatesh. “I am not saying that we should play every month, but at least three friendly games before any tournament,” adds Venkatesh, who had previously served as the assistant coach of the Indian senior men’s national team.
Earlier this year, Kushal
The ISL impact
In a bid to “revolutionise” football and “elevate Indian football to an international level”, the Indian Super League, or ISL, kicked off on October 12, 2014. It is co-promoted by Reliance and Star India, and supported by the AIFF. “The league is committed to investing in stadium refurbishment in the 10 identified venues and also to a grassroots development programme that will create a platform to groom football talent in the country,” it says.
However, in these eight years, “unfortunately, we have not grown much,” says Menezes. “Foreign players of that caliber have only started playing over the past two years. So, now you can see some talented players playing alongside the Indian ones. So you can see our players’ basics, attitude, decision-making and acumen have improved. So, you see a spurt in the quality of these players who play in the ISL. The need here is to capitalise on that,” he adds.
“With top players and quality coaches, ISL is a good opportunity for the Indian players,” says Venkatesh, assistant coach of East Bengal Club at the ISL. “When you play there, definitely the quality nationally will eventually improve,” he adds.
“Playing in a league like ISL is very important for a player to be spotted for the national side,” says Mahadevan.
“Although ISL has popularised the culture of football in India, it has not helped improve the quality at the grassroots as the league largely focuses on senior players, who comprise the top tier of Indian football at the moment,” says Khunteta. This year saw the inaugural edition of the Reliance Foundation Development League, which consists of the youth and reserve teams of the ISL clubs. It aims at developing young players.
Contrarily, Konsham believes that the exposure and experience of playing under foreign coaches do help. “It helps when you go into the national team. It improves you immensely, and you know what to do mentally and technically, which helps you grow as a player,” he says.
A focus on grassroots
On India’s way to the World Cup, strengthening the sport at the grassroots level is crucial. “We need to create local-level icons,” says Menezes. “In this, states and districts should also play their part. For featuring in the World Cup, we need to be very professional starting from the district level,” he adds.
Expanding on this, Venkatesh stresses on the need for a technical director in every state instead of a single one for the entire country. “They should go out and monitor what is happening, and then sit together with the India head,” he says. “Also, since not all can play in the ISL, the local leagues should be made strong,” he adds.
In 2012, the AIFF launched its grassroots development programme to “increase participation for children, youth, amateurs, veterans, those with physical disabilities, cerebral palsy, visually impaired and even the socially disadvantaged”. English football club Manchester United earlier this month launched the third edition of its ‘United We Play’ programme, an on-ground grassroots football initiative.
The AIFF has also withdrawn its bid to host the 2027 AFC Asian Cup in the country. “India has always been a wonderful and efficient host to big tournaments, which was amply demonstrated in the recently concluded FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup. However, the executive committee has decided that the overall strategy of the federation currently remains on focusing on the fundamental goals to strengthen our football at every level from grassroots to youth development,” AIFF chief Kalyan Chaubey said, as per media reports.
Rise of Asian underdogs
The 2022 FIFA World Cup will be remembered for the rise of Asian nations, who punched above their weight successfully. While Saudi Arabia’s shocker to one of the top favourites Argentina came as a surprise, the performances of Japan and South Korea have impressed all. While neither could proceed to the quarter-finals, Japan upsetting European heavyweights Germany and Spain, and South Korea cleaning up Portugal will forever be etched in the football World Cup history.
While Japan, South Korea, and to some extent Saudi Arabia have paved the way, will India be a part of the Asian action in the coming world cups?
The road ahead
“The way forward to the World Cup is a strategy aimed at being in the top 8 or 10 in Asia. In the 2026 World Cup, the tournament will expand to 48 teams, and Asia will get 8 spots. Today, we are 19 in Asia, so we should brace ourselves to play our best and try to win every age-group tournament,” says Menezes. “If the intent is to play the 2030 World Cup, we should spot talent among the 14-15 age-old kids. Picking players at the right age is very important,” he adds.
Speaking on the same, Venkatesh says, “For World Cup, the scouting network needs to be very strong. Just go back in history, Punjab has produced excellent defenders. In the south, players play short passes. Go there and pick midfielders. Similarly, Kolkata has produced lots of legendary goalkeepers and proper backs.”
“Not just that, along with players, we also need to teach the coaches,” he adds.
Although Konsham agrees that it is not going to be easy as “other countries are improving rapidly with great road maps for the future, nothing is impossible. As players, we need to believe in ourselves and give our best to achieve that dream.”
If things are properly done, “not just 2030, but India playing in the 2026 World Cup can be made possible,” says Menezes.