A KICK AT THE GRASSROOTS

For every Uruguayan, there are about 300 Indians. But footballing achievement wise...well...

If you are hunting for the next Sachin Tendulkar, you can show up at Mumbai’s Shivaji Park. But where do you find the next Bhaichung Bhutia or Sunil Chhetri?

By the time you read this, the World Cup champion would probably have been decided.^ There is an outside chance that it might be Uruguay, the tiny South American country that has made the semifinals. In the worst case, they can still finish 3rd or 4th, a momentous achievement, considering the country has only 3.5 million people.* India has a population 300 times that and is yet ranked no. 133 in World football. Uruguay? 16th and it is likely to improve once the World Cup concludes. You can lament about football in India being overshadowed by cricket, and hijacked by administrators hell bent on nepotism but that argument is banal enough to be passé. One theory though merits closer inspection. It is the theory of large numbers. With a billion people around, by sheer probability, shouldn’t we be able to find 11 decently talented players to put together a team that, if not a world beater, is at least a contender on the world stage? Maybe our scouting process is all wrong. Maybe there aren’t any talent factories around. Maybe, we don’t understand what footballing talent means. Or maybe, all three.

Take the case of Anto Santhosh, a sprightly 22 year old who turns out for a club called the Royals in the super division in Bangalore. Anto was among four players scouted all India by a leading sport brand and had a weeklong trip to the hallowed turf of Old Trafford and Manchester. His skills shone among thousands of aspirants in an all India hunt, something that is unheard of in AIFF circles but once he and the other three chosen ones landed in the UK, the skill levels of 12 year olds training at the Manchester United training grounds in their youth program dazzled him.

There are many like Anto who would like to make football their profession (he is currently planning to pursue higher studies abroad at a University where he can ply his trade as a footballer as well), but the game needs nurturing individual talent at a more nuanced level than cricket which is where the unorganized sector of football academies in the country seem to fall short. A Tata Football Academy (TFA) at Jamshedpur which has contributed players like P Rennedy Singh can be an example to follow, but the fact remains that there is just one TFA.

Writing for the New York Times Magazine in May, Michael Sokolove pointed out that “there are two ways to become a world-class soccer player. One is to spend hours and hours in pickup games — in parks, streets, and alleyways— on imperfect surfaces that, if mastered, can give a competitor an advantage when he finally graduates to groomed fields. This is the Brazilian way and also the model in much of the rest of South America…the other way is…scientific training. Attention to detail. Time spent touching the ball rather than playing a mindless number of organized games.” India has the former only in certain pockets (think Kolkata or Goa) and the latter is pretty much non existent.

Bhaichung Bhutia, the Indian national team’s skipper tells TSI, “I think the federation should (put in) place a system for clubs and academies to support the grassroot level which at the moment is not happening. There are plenty of academies in India which are not properly run and at the same time lot of the coaches who are training the kids are not good enough and they could rather harm the kid with the kind of training they do.” India’s lack of youth development programs are in stark contrast to Europe, home to the famed Ajax Academy in the Netherlands (another World Cup 2010 semifinalist), a breeding ground of some of the best players who impact the leading European leagues. Case in point – Wesley Sneijder, the Dutchman who was part of Inter Milan’s Champions League winning team this year and is now making his presence felt at the World Cup. He started at the academy at age 7. The academy places a huge premium on rigour and the phrase ‘catch them young’ takes on a whole new meaning.

Stanley Rosario, who is poised to take over Mohun Bagan, one of India’s most storied clubs, as head coach next season provides a perspective on how to get into a talent factory mindset. Rosario, who has coached Shillong’s Lajong FC, a tiny club who grabbed headlines by making it to the I-League (India’s top flight) says that the most important thing is passion. Citing the fact that in Shillong, even for a small league game thousands of people show up braving even rain to watch the whole game, Rosario says that the North East manages to produce good players because they have a passion for the game. He talks of his experiences in Portugal (“Football is like nursery school for them”, he says) and Brazil where children “while sleeping also will keep the ball with them and sleep”. He tells TSI that the youth programs in Europe are a model for India to follow and rates the German set up as the best (“If you look at the current German squad, they are mostly a youth team.”). To have law of large numbers work Rosario suggests that “every state, every district should have a well equipped academy so that we can groom some talent”. The Indian national squad recently went to Portugal for training sessions, and that’s because the infrastructure in India is not upto scratch. Rosario points out the irony of the fact that the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata has a capacity of 120,000 but it does not meet all criteria to be certified by FIFA. Rosario should know, since he’s among the very few who hold the AFC A Level licence for coaches in India. Bhaichung Bhutia echoes similar thoughts when asked about the demographic dividend, “Population does not help us field more players in a game than the opponent. The main thing is we work on getting infrastructure and youth development programmes which compared to countries like Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia we are still way behind, forget the gulf countries and the likes of Japan and Korea.” India probably has a lot of footballing diamonds caught in the rough of an infrastructure crunch and the time has come to polish those to shine.

The size advantage can only work if there are huge numbers of talented youngsters whose skills are being honed at the game for which we need to let a thousand nurseries and academies bloom. But it has to be a long term play. Says Rosario, “If we have to think about even qualifying for the 2022 or 2026 World Cup, we have to plan now.” Everyone from parents to scouts to administrators have to wake up to the reality that in Montevideo when a kid picks up a football, he doesn’t need to think twice about letting his life revolve around it. Such an epiphany is needed everywhere in India from Mumbai to Margao to Manipur. As far as football goes (“Talents are there and potential is undoubtedly there” says Rosario), India’s got game. Now to make it beautiful.

[^Spain won the World Cup beating the Netherlands 1-0]

[*Uruguay finished 4th after losing 3-2 to Germany in the third place playoff]

THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE JULY 25, 2010 ISSUE OF ‘THE SUNDAY INDIAN (www.thesundayindian.com)

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