India was once a football force to be reckoned with. We’ve all been told the legend of the barefoot rebel team that refused to participate in a ‘booted’ World Cup in 1950. There’s more to Indian football than that myth. The country enjoyed what was called its ‘golden phase’ between 1951 and 1962, under the guidance of coach and pioneer Syed Abdul Rahim. The success was highlighted by Asiad golds in both these years, in addition to a semi-final appearance in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.

But after Rahim’s sad demise, the successive decades saw a unprecedented depreciation of football in the country. The more recent state of affairs was personified by a video of star Indian footballer Sunil Chhetri literally begging audiences to fill up the empty seats for India’s game during a four-nation tournament in Mumbai recently.

With all the money that has been pumped into the sport of late, the Indian Tigers rank a near-respectable 99 in the world (it was north of 150 not too long ago). Though encouraging, this still is paltry as compared to even some of the minnows of the ongoing FIFA World Cup in Russia.

What’s more notable here is that some comparisons are plain unfair. India’s GDP is 150 times that of Senegal while the population of Iceland is not even comparable to Mumbai’s Andheri suburb. As for Panama, India is 44 times larger in size than the tiny country. None of that though has stopped these countries to stamp their presence on the global football map.

A wise man once said “A good idea can come from anywhere,” and there should be no shame for Indian football to learn a lesson or two from these minnow nations. Maybe we can start with some basic knowledge from here:

Iceland’s domestic league structure

Famous for knocking out England from the 2016 Euros, Iceland have been an equally gritty team at the Finals this year as well, marking their first appearance ever in the World Cup. The 3 lakh-strong nation started revamping their domestic football structure in the mid 90s as a result of which they now have five divisions at national level, supported by strong local leagues in each major city.

They beat the threat from extreme cold outdoor conditions, and backed the leagues by starting to build around 15 domed stadiums known as ‘football houses by 2000. They were supplemented by more than 20 full-sized outdoor artificial pitches and over 100 smaller artificial pitches throughout the country. Additionally, all of the football houses are publicly owned, making access easier and much less expensive than comparable facilities in many other countries.

Simultaneously, the national football association also invested in training of coaches, starting a regular propgramme to equip them with UEFA A and B licenses. By January 2016, more than 180 Icelandic coaches held an A license and nearly 600 held a B license; an additional 13 held UEFA’s highest Pro license.

Not only has India failed to ever produce a world-class coach, there is a severe lack of a proper league system in the country. As things stand right now two leagues (Indian Super League and the I-League) are competing to be the premier one, with a merger on the cards. As of the lower rungs, the lesser said the better.

Panama’s youth development

The father of Panama’s football Gary Stempel has been an instrumental figure in the rise of the sport since the late 90s. Thanks to his experience in Europe, the former London resident brought with him a different approach: everything had to start from the foundations, i.e the youth ranks.

“Many football academies were founded, with the one managed by Stempel himself leading the way: “Proyecto 2000“, that would later become a proper professional club dissolved in 2016, Chepo FC. The new centre would revolutionise the training methods of young players, producing some of the talents that currently play for the National Team,” according to mondofutbol.com.

Stempel also became the first manager to lead a Panama national team, the U20 side, to a World Cup in 2003.

“Another turning point for the Central American country, as from that moment the senior National Team started to benefit from the growth of the youth sides, starting a path that would be littered with downfalls but also showing constant progress. A win in the 2009 Championship of Central America and two Gold Cup finals in 2005 and 2013 got Panama’s name written in the map of international football,” adds the report.

India had hosted the Under-17 FIFA World Cup in 2017, but the hosts couldn’t make it past the first round. Good place to start nonetheless.

Senegal’s passion for football

“Every young Senegalese I met between the ages of 10 and 20 wants to become a professional player in a European club. I told them it was near impossible, that very few aspiring players actually make the cut and that they would be better off focusing on their studies, but they didn’t care. Many seemed to genuinely believe that with a little luck, their talent would be noticed and they would be fast-tracked to Manchester United or Real Madrid,” said a France 24 reporter while making a documentary on the Diambars.

Diambars is one of Africa’s most professional training centres, and possibly one of the richest. New buildings line the school grounds, the pitch is the best in the country, and tuition is entirely free. As a bonus, French football star Patrick Vieira, who co-founded the school, saw to it that every student would be clothed from head to toe in professional football gear.

Football academies come far and few in between for India’s aspiring footballers. There are of course efforts like the Tata CSR facility but no setup of significance has been established otherwise. The Aizawl FC story in 2017 did have a youth development angle in association with the the local government but the need of the hour is to multiply urgently. 

It will all start with a mixture of the right amount of passion for the sport, mixed with infrastructural support from the powers that be. And that’s clearly not the case when the captain of the team begs his countrymen for support.

Will India make it to a World Cup in the coming couple of decades? Maybe not until we learn lessons from the heroic ‘minnows’ of this year.

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