Gamechanger: Baby leagues, better coverage and more women's football key to the game's future


With competitive sport in limbo, it's an opportunity for those in charge to rethink how their sports could change. Over the next few weeks, we'll look at some of the most popular sports in India and speak to stakeholders - players, administrators, former players, fans - on what change they wish to see in their sport (and also what they would not change). We started with hockey, before moving on to shooting, followed by boxing. Today, we look at Indian football.

Bhaichung Bhutia (Former India captain)

What change would you like to see?

The first step would be to develop a genuine passion for all sports, including football. The problem in India is that because of our population and poverty, a lot of people don't prioritise sports. But there are countries in Africa and South America where despite the lack of infrastructure, the passion for sports is very high.

The other challenge is that after some time, a child who wants to be a footballer lacks the proper training, platform and competition within India. I'm not talking about the grassroots but once the player is 12-14 years old. Till that age, they can be a street footballer and learn quite a lot but after that, they need to be part of a system. That 12 to 18 age group is very important because that's where talent is identified and nurtured and that isn't happening right now.

How would you do it?

When it comes to popularising football, I don't think the federation can do it. The government has to show interest and promote it, like they did with Swachh Bharat (the Clean India campaign). If the prime minister starts talking about sports and gives it priority, then maybe we can get somewhere. If the message comes from the top, it spreads faster. We need that sort of campaign for football.

The national federation also can't do much when it comes to nurturing kids and getting them to compete systematically once they are 12-years-old. At that level, we need to get more organised. It's not a matter of holding a tournament like the age group I-League. The kids in that age group need to be competing every week. India is too big a country and the I-League age group matches which happen only for a limited period aren't enough.

When I was an advisor to the AIFF, I asked for the state and district level units to take more initiative. That's where players will come out of. Rather than wait for matches to happen at the national level, it's at the state and district level where more matches need to happen. Honestly, we need more passionate people at that level. Sadly, the local level is not passionate enough to promote the sport. They are there more for networking. It's a big obstacle. The national federation needs to try and identify the right people. They also need to have a support system in place because right now the state and district associations are clueless and idea-less. The national federation has to support them with ideas, guide them and if they still don't improve use some sort of pressure.

Derrick Perreira (Coach, Technical Director, FC Goa)

What change would you like to see?

The first priority would be to decide where we want to see the Indian team. If we want to be competitive with the top teams in the world and not just qualify for the AFC Cup once every 30 years, we need to know what sort of players we need to compete at that level. For that, we need a pool of elite players the national coach can choose from. Right now, we don't have (a big) enough pool of players. We need massive grassroots programmes. Right now, there are very (few) grassroots programmes run by teams in the Indian Super League (ISL). I'd like to see more pockets of football culture than the few that we have right now.

How would you do it?

The goal for us has to be building a football culture and developing players at an early age. I'll give you an example of myself. When I was growing up, I used to play on the street with a ball made of old socks. When I was 10-12, we used to have a height-wise tournament but this was only in summer time. Otherwise, we were only playing in the fields. I got my first professional training when I was 17 at Salgaocar. That was too late. At that age, I should be completing my formal football training, not starting it.

Right now, we only have All India Football Federation (AIFF) competitions at U-13 and U-15 levels. We need to start much earlier. We also should have competition not just in these strong football pockets but pan-India. It must be mandatory that every state association has a system of baby leagues going on. Currently, only a few states are doing it. These competitions must also be long term. Presently in Goa, we have five teams who are playing matches to qualify for the AIFF U-13 Championships. They need to play a lot more matches.

What are you satisfied with?

What I'm most satisfied with is the fact that although the change in mindset is slow, it is definitely taking place. There's a lot of knowledge on nutrition and training coming. What's also heartening is that football matches are drawing in crowds. That's a good sign

Jenisha Rani (Media Manager, Chennaiyin FC Supermachans fan group)

What changes would you like to see?

Speaking specifically about women's football, I feel there needs to be more involvement and investment. Yes, we are hosting the U-17 World Cup, but we need to conduct more tournaments to build on the eyeballs that it will catch. We can't just have big tournaments and not have anything after that, because then people will lose interest. I also hope organisers will look to improve their coverage of women's tournaments and not just conduct tournaments because they have to. Another thing that needs to happen is the set up of a grievance redressal cell and an Internal Complaints Committee at the national and state level. Players need to have a platform to voice their grievances. Right now, there are too many cases of high-quality players like Bala Devi and Indumathi being sidelined for very little fault of their own.

How would you go about it?

We need a better calendar. There's either no action or a lot of action happening suddenly. The Indian Women's League (IWL) needs to be extended and played at better venues. A couple of years ago, we had the women's nationals played on a completely waterlogged pitch. Matches should be played at times people can go and watch. Who will watch matches at 10AM-12PM on a weekday?

There is a belief that we are in the current situation because there isn't enough sponsorship or viewership. But unless you make things more presentable, you won't get anywhere. Instead of a broadcast, we only had matches shown on Facebook Live and sometimes the commentary is terrible. Last year, a commentator was misnaming players and referring to them as 'he' because he forgot he was commentating on a women's game. This puts fans back and shows a lack of respect.

Shaji Prabhakaran (President, Football Delhi)

What would you like to change?

There's a lot of positivity in Indian football at the moment. There's more money, better leagues and infrastructure. But we need the momentum of change to be faster. That isn't happening because the key stakeholders aren't as engaged as they should be. There is a huge gap between the state associations and the national federation. The AIFF has moved a lot in the last 10 years but the states have stayed where they are. I'd also like to see some clarity on our elite player development system. Someone like Sunil Chhetri wasn't produced by the system we have. He came into it by accident. It is his hard work and dedication that has taken him to where he is. We need to realign our system to be able to produce players who can be competent at least in Asia.

How would you do it?

In a country like India, if the state associations' capacity is not developed, we cannot bring a significant change in the overall aspect of football in India. The capacity in the system is not the responsibility of AIFF alone. The bigger potential in Indian football lies in the state. There is not enough empowerment at the village, district and taluka level, they need to be included in our football structure as well.

We also need more leaders in football. Right now, there is one leader at the top but we need leaders at every level, who have the capacity to decide and move things. That's how we will see more clubs in the system. We need to encourage the right people to come in. There are people who want to do things but don't get involved in the system. This creates a leadership vacuum. Every person in the system needs to know, 'this is my right, these are my goals'. At present, there isn't enough pressure to change and adopt the best practices

What would you not change?

Now we have reached an understanding of our national league where everyone including the AFC, FIFA and AIFF are in agreement. Now the league structure should not change again. We should not think, 'Let's start something over and above the ISL.' Now we should think how we add more value to it. We can't lose any more energy on it. We need some stability in the system.

This includes the foreign coach (of the national team) as well. Even if he isn't bringing the results over the next two years, don't change him. Progression of the team is just one part. That continuity is required. National team is about results, but we need to be realistic whether we can get a significant result in a short time. Let's invest on them in the long term.

Juhi Shah (Sports management professional, former ISL Competitions Manager)

What would you like to change?

With women's football, there has to be a better roadmap, if you have a good roadmap, you can expect clubs to invest in football. A lot of ISL and I-League clubs have wanted to start supporting women's football, but they said that they didn't see any point in supporting a team if they are only going to be playing for two weeks. They won't invest in the short term. That isn't growth. Once they have a better roadmap, we might even see smaller clubs take the leap into women's football.

How would you do it?

There needs to be a pathway for not just players but also coaches and managers to progress. Apart from a strong grassroots level, there needs to be quality competition too. Some states like Maharashtra and Manipur have structured competitions, which needs to be replicated in other states. It must be made compulsory to have competitions in other states. Once the competition grows, the IWL also needs to be conducted over a longer period.

What would you not change?

It's important that we host big tournaments like the U-17 Women's World Cup. It's not just a way to develop infrastructure but also opens a lot of minds. It will show that we have players who are ready to play at an international level. When we conduct the U-17 World Cup, we will surely find one or two players who are quality and will get the opportunity to go overseas. This will encourage others to go abroad as well.

Asish Rai (Defender, Hyderabad FC)

What change would you like to see?

The grassroots level has to get more focus from all the teams in the league. So that the younger players get proper training and better facilities for learning and training each day. That's how they will improve and we will have even better footballers in our country in the future. My wish is that the younger Indian players experience top-level training at the grassroots level just like the top European countries

What are you satisfied with?

I'm satisfied with the Youth League competitions in our country. It expands all over the nation, with hundreds of teams and thousands of young players taking part. One setup which really makes me happy is the Reliance Foundation Young Champs. They came out with an academy that trains the best talent from the grassroots level providing almost everything. They are definitely one of the top academies in India and hopefully soon some players from it will come into the senior level.