Scott O’Donell has a big job on his hands. Appointed in November 2011, the 45-year-old Australian is FIFA’s Technical Director of regional academies in India, a vital position in reviving Indian football in the short- and long-term and in building a competitive national side for the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup, a tournament the country is aiming to host.
“I’m setting up regional training centres, which involves identifying candidates, selecting them and training the coaches,” he said, explaining his duties. “The Mumbai centre opened in May, in Bangalore the kids are arriving right now and the programmes getting under way, and we’re just about ready to get going in Kolkata.
“That means we’ll have three centres up and running this year, with five others scheduled to open next year along with the country’s first elite academy, where the national U-16 team will be based.”
O’Donell ran out for several clubs in Asia in his 16-year playing career, which ended in 2000, at which point he devoted his energies to coaching. As well as taking charge of Cambodia’s national team and being named Singapore’s coach of the year in 2003, he has worked as a FIFA instructor and a coaching course director for the AFC. Proving his ability in the process, he was then handed a new brief by FIFA, one that visibly excites him.
His first task is to select young candidates for the academies. It is a vital job and not without its difficulties: “There’s talent all over India. There’s no doubt about that. The thing is you have to be able to pinpoint and find players, and that’s where the Indian states can help an awful lot.
“They choose the players and we come along and select the best ones. We had tried to do it all ourselves, but when we went to Kolkata 1,400 youngsters turned up. There were only three of us and it was an impossible job.”
Scouting key for success
From the off O’Donell has been trying to set up an efficient regional scouting network. “The scouting process in each state has to be effective for the academies to be a success. It takes time but I’m convinced it’s the right way.”
As he went on to explain, he is pursuing more than one objective: “The first goal is to raise standards. As far as we’ve been able to see, Indian football’s weaknesses are a lack of technical skill and a low standard of play.
“I’ve watched youth matches and the central defenders are happy just to clear the ball, as are the goalkeepers. It’ll take time but we’re trying to put the emphasis on building play from the back and on possession, because that style of play is better suited to the size and stature of Indian players, who aren’t the biggest.”
The short-term aim is to build a competitive U-17 team for 2017. Though that deadline is only four years away, there is a very well thought-out plan in place for achieving it.
“Next year we’ll have three academies with 19 players born in 1999 and two academies with 19 players born in 2000,” explained O’Donell. “The latter group could form the basis of the team that could well play in the FIFA U-17 World Cup in 2017 on home soil. After that we’ll have another four academies of players born in 2000, which will give us an even bigger pool for putting a competitive team together.”
The challenges he faces are also considerable. Aside from the problem of detecting players, infrastructures and the training of coaches are two other key areas.
“Take states like Goa or Mumbai, for example, where you need to have artificial pitches because you can’t play on grass at all during the monsoon season,” he commented, before explaining that there is also a need to change mindsets among coaches.
“Some of the older coaches are authoritarian and frighten the youngsters, who often freeze and choose to clear the ball and not make a mistake. We want the opposite. We want young players to feel at ease, to take risks and be creative. That’s something we’ve made a point of stressing in our coaching courses.”
Other obstacles include the difficulty of ascertaining players’ ages due to the fact that births are not always registered, and the near-total absence of youth players at the clubs competing in the I-League.
An ambitious Australian
Undaunted, the Australian has lofty ambitions and would ideally like his academy teams to play at least one competitive match a week, for grassroots football programmes to grow and make the work of scouts easier, and for other private academies to work together more closely.
Whatever the concerns and frustrations he faces along the way, O’Donell is deriving genuine satisfaction from his job and is full of hope for the future: “It’s a real pleasure to work with young Indian players.
“They are disciplined, do everything you ask them to, and they listen. They really want to improve. When we started to work on the principle of keeping possession, you could see straightaway that they enjoyed it more and that they welcomed it. They learned very quickly.”
Though there is no question of him getting carried away with himself, O’Donell’s eyes start to twinkle when talk turns to the future, five years and beyond.
“If India does host the U-17 World Cup, it will be a huge source of motivation for players, coaches, staff and administrators alike. It would be a great opportunity for the players, and would allow us to recruit more Indian coaches and to create better working conditions etc.
“It’s very exciting because it would give everyone a medium-term goal to work towards, not to mention a long-term one, because these players could well go on and form the team that will fight it out for a place at the 2022 World Cup.”