FIFA.com’s latest report on youth football development focuses on India, where FIFA initiatives are helping to build academies and improve the prospects of the country’s national youth teams.
Football in India is almost as old as the sport itself, with the first match in the country dating back as far as 1868. Yet in terms of popularity, the beautiful game still lags far behind cricket, a sport with an almost religious following.
However, the creation in 2007 of the I-League, with its 14 top-flight clubs, has given the sport fresh impetus. And nowhere is this felt more strongly than in Kolkata, home of India’s two most popular clubs: Mohun Bagan and East Bengal.
Despite an early exit from Asian Zone qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil 2014™, the Indian national team remain on an upward curve. Their last significant success came as recently as December 2011, when they won the South Asian Football Federation Championship (SAFF). And there was another encouraging sign of progress earlier this year when national hero Sunil Chhetri, India’s captain and talismanic striker, signed for Portuguese club Sporting CP.
If recent events have given Indian fans reason to smile, then the future, in particular FIFA’s largely youth-oriented football development programmes, will no doubt have them positively beaming. The Win in India with India project, for instance, has seen world football’s governing body inject USD 8m into the construction of a technical centre and eight artificial pitches in seven different regions.
Additional support in 2012 has come via a Goal project, which is funding the creation of four regional academies in Mumbai, New Delhi, Kolkata and Bangalore. “In close cooperation with FIFA we will be able to open ten academies, most of which will be equipped with an artificial pitch,” said Robert Baan, technical director of the All India Football Federation (AIFF). “We will be implementing a grassroots project and a new programme to train coaches.”
The football schools will recruit players born after 1 January 1999 (1 January 1997 for those in Mumbai), with the aim of training the future elite of Indian football. “We are currently in the talent identification and selection phase,” explained Baan, whose mission is to analyse the status of Indian football and draw up a roadmap for improving the local standard of the game.
“Five additional academies, including an elite academy, will open in 2013,” Baan continued. “These schools will allow us to cover all the age groups that are eligible to qualify for AFC competitions and FIFA World Cups.”
In addition to the infrastructures currently being put in place, India’s young talents also need playing experience if they are to start reaching major international competitions. “U-16 national sides have qualified twice, in 2007 and 2011, for the AFC Asian Cup finals,” India U-19 coach Colin Toal said proudly, while lamenting the lack of opportunities for young Indian players.
“They fielded their own team, the Indian Arrows, in the country’s professional league,” Toal continued. “The first team, made up of lads aged 18 to 21, finished ninth out of 14 in the professional league, and five of them have made their debuts for the national team.”
FIFA’s commitment to supporting youth football development in India is not a short-term process, but rather a long-term investment. Proof of this can be found in the fact that the organisation’s South Asia development office, for many years based in Sri Lanka, recently relocated to New Delhi.
In September, New Delhi will also host this year’s IFA (International Football Arena) conference, with FIFA’s Secretary General, Jerome Valcke, and director of development, Thierry Regenass, both confirmed as participants.