When Anwar Ali, playing for India U-20, curled in an unstoppable free kick against Argentina in the Cotif tournament—an invitational competition held in August in Spain—he made headlines back home. The Indian side, consisting mostly of players from the U-17 World Cup last year, had just defeated Argentina (2-1), winners of two World Cups and six youth World Cups, and the country of Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi.
That same evening, India’s U-16 side beat Iraq 1-0 in the West Asian Football Federation (Waff) Cup. Suddenly, the dream of a bright footballing future had turned into a realistic hope; scepticism had given way to optimism and the All India Football Federation (AIFF) was revelling in the two dream results.
In the case of the two coaches—Floyd Pinto of the U-20 team and Bibiano Fernandes of the U-16—the results got them attention. In the case of the players, it was probably the first time they were welcomed by groups of fans at the Delhi international airport on their return.
But it didn’t take long for questions to resurface. Was the Argentina U-20 side their first-choice team? And was the Iraqi team as good as the one that had won the Asian U-16 Championship in 2016? The answers are anything but simple. Most players in the Argentina squad hadn’t spent a lot of time on the pitch in the tournament until then. But it was still packed with considerable talent chosen from some of South America’s top clubs and coached and managed by former players Lionel Scaloni and Pablo Aimar. And India were a man down after Aniket Jadhav was sent off in the 54th minute.
As for the U-16 match, the Iraqi squad was stretched thin with most of its players banned for lying about their age before the Waff Cup. They faced a humiliating defeat (7-1) against Jordan. But then the Indian U-16 team defeated Jordan too (4-0) in the same event. India also beat Yemen 3-0. They only lost against Japan (2-1), finishing second in the tournament.
“I read about how we (the U-20 team) played the Argentina substitute XI, but even that is a big thing,” says national team director Abhishek Yadav. “Whatever the reaction, this performance is good news. Unless and until you play these sides, you won’t know where you stand.”
What is actually heartening is that AIFF, while harping on the results, is not resting on its laurels. Officials know that these victories are mere pit stops. There is a long way to go and big issues to fix.
I-League CEO Sunando Dhar admits that the country has grappled for a long time with developing the sport top-down—national team first and leagues later—rather than the other way round. AIFF general secretary Kushal Das says things will slowly fall into place, even though many development activities started 20 years too late. The main challenge is to develop the sport at the grass-roots level.
“The key changes coming up are the baby leagues, which will add to the U-13, U-15 and U-18 leagues,” says Dhar. “We realize that players need to start competing at the age of 6 or 7, and some associations have already started. If they hold these leagues according to our requirements, they will be supported by AIFF.” The other big change, according to Dhar, is the player compensation model that guarantees clubs and academies a monetary fee when their players are signed on as professionals by other clubs.
AIFF has appointed development officers in states that are showing promise. One of their key responsibilities is to kick-start the baby leagues. An Asian Football Confederation (AFC) expert is helping in formulating a player compensation model that can be applied across the country.
As a result of such initiatives, there has been a rise in the number of children taking up the sport. Two years ago, there were less than 100 youth teams competing across leagues. Come the 2018-19 season, there will be more than 250. A mobile app called ScoutMe, developed to track these players from the moment they register at an academy, will hopefully help AIFF maintain a database of players, along with birth certificates to avoid age-fudging.
As Dhar says, “We started with grass-roots activities but we no longer want these to be limited to a Sunday afternoon of just kicking a ball around.”
“When the domestic leagues are structured, it makes the national team better. Our main aim is to provide a platform for players to showcase their talent,” says Yadav, adding that players should not turn professionals by accident. “Anwar Ali, who scored the free kick, is a product of I-League scouting and was found seven months before the U-17 World Cup. These things should all be parallel and not either top-bottom or bottom-top in terms of developing the sport.”
The other point of contention is the disparity in investment made towards the development of the national youth teams and the youth leagues.
“The national teams are supported by the Sports Authority of India (SAI) and the Union ministry of sports. The ministry cannot support youth leagues,” says Das. “That has to be done by AIFF and we spend around ₹10 crore on the three youth leagues (U-13, U-15, and U-18).” Das adds that the ministry, SAI and AIFF are discussing the possibility of bringing the youth leagues under the ambit of the Khelo India programme, a government-funded scheme to develop grass-roots talent in schools across the country.
The signs are good but the real test will be to replicate the results of the Waff and Cotif tournaments in showpiece continental tournaments, such as the AFC U-16 Championship in Malaysia from 20 September-8 October. In sport, final whistles mark not only the end of a result but the beginning of many more.
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