As India tumbles in Asian Cup, focus shifts to grassroots from top to bottom approach
When India was thrashed by a technically superior Uzbekistan at the Asian Cup, a country which reaped the benefits of a robust grassroots facilities, the focus shifted to the old anomaly of Indian football - the missing system at the grassroots.
As the Indian men’s football team tumbled at the AFC Asian Cup, the most frequently talked about yet missing element in Indian football came to the fore again – the absence of grassroots football. It hurt Indian football more than anything else.
Despite being the world’s most populous nation, India could not replicate its growth trajectory of other walks of life in football.
India faltered badly in Qatar, the host of the Asian Cup, showing dismal quality and inability to meet the level of Asian sides.
Poor positional awareness of Indian players and their incapacity to hold on to the ball even for a fraction of a second and create precise passes were evident again.
That old saying that having and running a commercial league alone is not enough to elevate the level of the game of a national team became evident again.
In a sport of surprising results, India’s failure became more noticeable when countries like sectarian violence marred Iraq pulled off an upset win against Asian giant Japan, and Indonesia beat the Golden Star Warriors of Vietnam, which fell to India meekly ten years back but transitioned into a mighty side a decade later. Again, the reason was Vietnam's persistence with grassroots football.
India is a poor man's giant in the regional SAFF championship. But its failure to operate in cohesion at the pinnacle of Asian football got exposed as they went up against more technically and tactically nuanced teams.
Be it as a defensive unit against Australia or in its intent to transit to an attacking form of the game against Uzbekistan, breaking loose its defensive shackle, India coach Igor Stimac's wish for a good show even in losing cause before the FIFA World Cup qualifiers in March has been unfulfilled.
There is no harm in losing as goals - the ultimate thing to achieve in football - can come under any circumstances, sometimes against the run of play too. But India's apparent failure to put up a resistance against its sturdy opponents put on the view that the country made little progress over the years. All these talks about the advancement of Indian football remain lip service.
As India remains goalless in the tournament due to its blunt attacking prowess, the focus shifts to opponents and the process they follow to facilitate their rise to the top of continental football. In India, Uzbekistan’s emergence as a title contender has shaken off many. It has now been read about with eyes wide open in disbelief.
After India's 0-3 thrashing at the hands of Uzbekistan, our football analyst John Mathew was right on the money when he wrote, "India has a technical, tactical and experiential gap with the central Asian side that is yet to be bridged. They are the bridesmaids of Asian football and India is someone who gets an occasional invitation with the big boys of Asia. That difference in pedigree was well on show."
Uzbekistan, which came into the Asian Cup only in 1996, headed off its passion, concentration, and resources to grassroots football and built academies, the sporting pivot where players like Abbosbek Fayzullaev, a 20-year-old CSK Moscow star, were groomed.
The country’s well-structured grassroots system and academies are predominantly the reasons for its rise as a strong footballing nation.
To its credit, Uzbekistan is the reigning U20 Asian champion and pre-quarterfinalist in the U20 FIFA World Cup in 2023.
The country's U17 and U23 teams came close to being champions of Asia in recent times. Its U17 side even advanced to the quarterfinals of the recent youth World Cup, only losing out to eventual runner-up France by an 83rd-minute strike by Ismail Bouneb.
While Uzbekistan remains dedicated to improving the youth setup, the clubs also share the responsibility of moulding youngsters for the future.
In India, in contrast, the system is missing; everybody evades responsibilities. Here, things move in the opposite direction – top to bottom - with all attention being paid to the top strata and a commercial league. And the trickle-down effect does not work in football.
Football on the flipside
People interested in working at the bottom level and unearthing talents from the remote villages and grooming them into honed talents are difficult to find.
In another anomaly, it is a widely held view that football in India is centred around only three regions - the North East, eastern India and the southern peripheries of the country.
In reality, it is a hox. Football is one of the most played sports in the length and breadth of the country - in lesser-known regions too. For example, football is extremely popular in rural Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh.
But infightings, lack of opportunities, and knowledge gap do not let it be mainstreamed. Nobody cares about them.
Neeraj Kholiya is a young football evangelist, and he owns a club called Techtro Swades United FC in the Himachal Pradesh League and runs an academy in Lucknow, grooming 125 U4-U8 children.
Giving an account of India’s untapped football scenario, he says, “Nowadays, parents also want their children to become footballers that is the change. We are also not the only one running an academy in Lucknow, there are many. The culture has now shifted. Earlier people used to play from the age of 14 when they were in school, but now at the age of four children are playing football.”
Talking about football in northern India, he says, “This is an absolute lie that there is no football in north India.”
“There are several clubs and many good talents in Himachal Pradesh. Vishal Kaith hails from this state; he is already playing in the Indian Super League. There is a lot of work going on at the grassroots level. Women’s football development is being given priority here. I have seen 20 girls playing at 4 o’clock in the morning. Villagers are also open-minded,” Neeraj adds.
From his deep understanding of football in Uttar Pradesh, he reveals, “People think there is no money in rural UP. There is no league in UP, that is true, but from Sarpanch, the village head, football lovers to local entrepreneurs, everyone is very passionate about football. They spend a lot of money – 20-25 lakhs – to host a tournament. They also pay teams to play there. It is so popular that people would sit on rooftop and trees to catch moments of matches. Footballers receive a lot of respect there. If you play football, they are ready to do anything for you, villagers treat you as God.”
“But due to lack of support and knowledge, they do not know how to build an academy and enrol their teams in district youth leagues. It is a similar story Madhya Pradesh. The only difference is that they have their own state league,” conceded Neeraj.
A rare man
Ranjit Bajaj is a rare man in Indian football whose interest lies only in grassroots development.
A visit to his solidly laid-out academy in Mohali, Punjab, will give you a glimpse of the large extent of football activities going on at the Minerva Academy in a bid to groom and produce technically and tactically solid Indian players. Another aspect of it was seeing visitors coming in from remote areas.
At one instance, I discovered two men from Uttar Pradesh, a not-so-popular destination for football, seeking investment in their Jhansi Football Club.
Bajaj has a reputation for sponsoring such small-scale clubs due to his inclination for well-oiling India’s grassroots system besides managing his own academy, so people come in the hope of earning his patronage.
"I have no interest in football administration nor do I want to own a club in ISL. I am a grassroots man. My idea is about producing technically sound, intelligent and fit players for India who will help the country play at the World Cup one day, and for that I need money, so I am running a club at the moment," says Bajaj, who runs Minerva Academy accommodating 130 young trainees on scholarships along with the Delhi FC, a club currently playing in the I-League.
Bajaj has his dedicated set of coaches, led by Surinder Singh, who is always on a mission to scout talents.
Football is worshipped at the Minerva Academy, with children being trained to think, eat, dream, imbibe football and be creative. You will find 8-9-year-old boys honing their shooting and set piece skills throughout the day. The football knowledge and game awareness they possess are highly impressive.
Their training sessions are overseen by certified Indian coaches. Training of different age groups and dedicated World Cup batches go on throughout the day. They are put through a military-like physical exercise to enhance their endurance. The result, perhaps one of the many to start with, was the Gothia Cup youth club world championship title in 2023 in Sweden.
But as things stand, the Indian football administration, sans leaders understanding the game, continues to disown them and sometimes ties them with red tape, only to serve well their own interest, paralysing India's development in the process.