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Let's talk about the future of Indian Football

As India finished at the bottom of the AFC Asian Cup, let's delve into the current state of Indian football, where challenges and shortcomings are evident, spanning from grassroots development to the national team's performances.

Lets talk about the future of Indian Football

Captain Sunil Chhetri 


Aswathy Santhosh

Updated: 27 Jan 2024 8:52 AM GMT

The Indian men's football team exited the AFC Asian Cup in Qatar at the bottom among 24 teams, failing to score a goal or secure a single win. This unfortunate outcome led to their lowest FIFA ranking in the past 5 years. When India faces defeat, fingers point at various factors—be it the head coach, the Indian Super League, or the president of the AIFF.

However, let's broaden the conversation to encompass the broader landscape of Indian football.

India's non-existent sports culture!

India's sports culture, a fundamental pillar of success, has been notably absent, particularly untill the past 5 years. Physical training in schools is meagre and often eclipsed by academic demands, leaving little room for budding athletes.

Parents tend to prioritise conventional careers over nurturing athletic potential, hindering the development of promising individuals. Coaches stress the importance of mastering technical skills by ages 12-14, with the foundational work ideally commencing at age 6. In a scenario where potential football talents are more preoccupied with academic pursuits, the challenge of producing skilled players intensifies.

However, assigning blame solely to the education system and parents would be an oversimplification. The culpability extends to the All India Football Federation (AIFF) and state federations.

AIFF, as the overarching governing body, bears significant responsibility, given its authority to regulate state FAs. Unfortunately, a lack of control over these federations hampers progress. Many state FAs lack age-group leagues or sufficient training facilities for young talents, exacerbating the struggle to cultivate and nurture footballers in the country.

Why is popularity important?

Popularity is undeniably a crucial factor in achieving success in sports. Reflecting on a phrase from Odisha FC's club president, Raj Athwal, in one of our interactions, he stated, 'In 1983, when India won the cricket World Cup, it sparked a remarkable surge in cricket's popularity. Rather than fearing cricket's dominance, we should draw inspiration from its success. I firmly believe that a strong performance by our national football team will have a transformative effect, resonating across the entirety of India.'

Raj Athwal's perspective holds weight — a robust showing by the Indian national football team could indeed bring much-needed popularity to Indian football.

While the Indian Super League has generated substantial interest, its impact remains confined to states with an existing football culture. In contrast, envision the heightened popularity and positive vibes that could emanate from a successful national team performance, even in the face of challenges like exiting as the last-placed team in the Asian Cup.

The attention from global observers, including figures like Fabrizio Romano, could have been significant. However, National Team head coach Igor Stimac seems to prioritise World Cup qualifiers over such tournaments, prompting a discussion on the importance of both competitions.

Indian football team

The national team possesses a unique ability to unite people, transcending club rivalries and leveraging patriotism to draw new individuals into the world of Indian football. The substantial surge in support following India's game against Pakistan in the SAFF Championship serves as a testament to this potential, even if some view it as opportunistic but with good intentions.

In order to increase popularity and attract the masses to football, the national team should strategically focus on achieving some form of short-term success. This approach not only has the potential to create positive momentum but also encourages parents to consider football as a viable option for their children, ultimately contributing to the growth of the sport in the country.

Grassroots is the KEY

The ideal age for football training to begin basics is 6 to 9, focusing on technical development from 10 to 14, followed by a shift to physical development. However, despite the aspirations of many kids to become footballers, not all receive the necessary coaching.

Let's consider two players from the Indian football team – Anirudh Thapa, a product of the AIFF Elite Academy, and Sahal Abdul Samad, not affiliated with such academies. Thapa, honed in the structured environment of the AIFF Elite Academy, reached his prime early in his career. His technical prowess and strategic understanding of the game were evident from the outset, contributing significantly to the national team and his club.

In contrast, Sahal Abdul Samad, not nurtured within elite academies during his formative years, faced a different trajectory. It took years for coaches to polish the raw talent within Sahal, transforming him into the skilled player he is today.

The comparison is not about the players' abilities but serves as an illustration of how early coaching can impact a player's developmental trajectory. It highlights the potential benefits of structured training environments from a young age.

India U-17 team

Comparatively, in Spain, U14, U15, and U16 players engage in a minimum of 35 games annually. Even 11-12-year-olds participate in nine to ten-month-long leagues and training. This surpasses the rare occurrence of senior men's players in India getting 35 games per year.

Japan's consistent performance in the World Cup has always been a talking point, their steady growth stems from a programme initiated in 2003, focusing on children aged six to ten to strengthen the football base. The Japan Football Association received recognition for grassroots football initiatives, winning AFC awards in 2013 and 2015.

While the AIFF runs the Golden Baby Leagues, which spans for a maximum of three months, it falls short of the desired outcomes for a nation of 1.4 billion. The AIFF should leverage state associations to conduct prolonged age category leagues (U-13, U-15, U-17, U-20, and U-23).

Additionally, national-level youth leagues should feature teams selected from these categories. Currently, not every state has baby leagues or age category leagues, emphasising the need for broader implementation.

Nutrition and education

Comments like 'Indian players lack physicality, tire before 90 minutes, and can't withstand high-intensity football' are commonplace during match days. Nutrition plays a crucial role in addressing these concerns, and early focus is essential.

Besides football and fitness lessons, evaluating kids' nutritional intake and educating parents on this matter is paramount. Sunil Chhetri stands as a prime example, consistently emphasising the significance of his diet, evident in his enduring fitness, even at his current age, compared to some younger counterparts who struggle to complete a full 90 minutes.

Beyond football training, the education of players is equally vital. Assessing how many national team players can confidently face the media and articulate themselves like captain Chhetri underscores the need for a holistic approach that includes both physical and communication skills development.

The striker dilemma

The striker dilemma facing Indian football extends beyond national borders, as evident in Spain's experience. Spain shifted their game style, relying not just on strikers but also on wingers and midfielders for goals.

The question of who will replace Chhetri is inherently flawed, similar to the unrealistic quest for the next Messi or Ronaldo. Chhetri's remarkable record of 93 goals for the national team is unparalleled, and expecting a direct successor is unrealistic. Acknowledging this reality is crucial for Indian football fans, easing the pressure on emerging talents like Siva Sakthi, Gurkirat, or Ayush Chikara.

Moreover, another significant challenge arises from clubs often prioritising foreign forwards, limiting opportunities for Indian talents who frequently find themselves playing as wingers in the ISL and I-League. We cannot blame the clubs for wanting goals consistently as they invest huge amounts of money. Addressing these problems and finding a solution should be a priority for the AIFF.

The Indian Arrows project, designed to nurture top-quality players, could have potentially addressed this issue. However, its discontinuation poses a challenge, leaving a void in the development pathway for emerging Indian forwards. Restricting the use of foreign players in state leagues is a positive step that could contribute to providing more opportunities for homegrown strikers.

Amidst these discussions, there is a quiet contemplation on whether it is time to transition from Chhetri, a sensitive topic considering his monumental contributions to Indian football.

While his stature and impact on the field are undeniable, a strategic approach to managing his playing time is necessary to ensure a smooth transition.

Carefully managing Chhetri's playing time becomes paramount, as solely relying on him without planning for the post-Chhetri era may hinder the development of the next generation of forwards. Finding a balance between honouring Chhetri's legacy and nurturing emerging talents is essential for the sustainable growth of Indian football.

Haram ball or Tiki Taka?

The nation stands divided on the preferred playing style for the Indian football team – some advocating for possession-based football, others prioritising results or high-intensity games. However, India has not yet established a distinct brand of football, unlike countries such as Spain with their recognisable style. The reality, as witnessed in the Asian Cup, is that India is not currently equipped to consistently hold possession or execute intricate passing against high-quality opponents.

In such a scenario, the focus should be on playing to our strengths, even if it means adopting a more pragmatic approach. As Jose Mourinho aptly put it, "They can take the ball home; I take three points."

Adapting our strategy based on what we excel at against different opponents is crucial. Some teams may be susceptible to possession-based football or high pressing, and Igor Stimac's role lies in making these tactical decisions.

Reflecting on past experiences, half-pressing games with static possession proved challenging in the Asian Cup. Understanding our limitations and maximizing our capabilities is essential for the senior men's team.

Accepting criticism

Observing the football landscape, one noticeable trend is resistance to criticism within the Indian football community. In a recent discussion, the question arose about why foreign media often highlights the shortcomings of Indian football, a practice that is actually vital for improvement. However, in India, raising such questions can often invite backlash rather than fostering constructive dialogue.

The AIFF's inclination to penalise coaches or staff members questioning substandard refereeing in the top-tier league stifles a healthy exchange of ideas. This approach creates a culture of silence, as individuals fear repercussions for speaking out. To facilitate growth, the federation should embrace constructive criticism from fans and stakeholders, fostering an environment where concerns are addressed rather than ignored.

A concerning trend involves federation chairholders blocking fans on social media who pose questions. Such actions only hinder the growth of Indian football, as open dialogue is essential for addressing issues and implementing positive changes. Embracing criticism, both constructive and from various sources, is fundamental for the continuous development of Indian football.

In the next episode: Igor Stimac's approach and the overall management by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) are separate discussions that warrant comprehensive exploration, though delving into these aspects here would extend this article significantly so let's keep those in the next episode.

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