A call to address fundamental issues

Over the last couple of months, there has been much displeasure and discussion over India’s loss to 174th ranked Guam in the World Cup 2018 Qualifiers. Everyone, from ex-players and coaches to the guy next door, has shared opinions and theories about why a nation with 1.2 billion people lost to a country whose population is equal to that of a tiny Pune suburb (165,000).

While some have expressed knee-jerk reactions and stated that football in India has hit new lows sparking cries of humiliation, others have been more realistic and recognised that this is a young, inexperienced squad with a new coach who is looking to rebuild the national team.

Hardly a Shocking Result

To us, the defeat didn’t come as a huge shock because Guam is a team comprising players who have gotten their football education through a well-structured school and college sports program in the US. If anything, Guam’s creditable performance against India goes to show how a good training system can help even the tiniest of countries overcome the huge odds of drawing from a very limited population.

The Importance of Investing in Youth Football

This World Cup Qualifier result highlights yet again why it is critical for Indian Super League & I-League clubs to invest resources in building robust grassroots football training programs that begin with Under 8s and continue through age groups right up to Under 16s at the very least. Further, elite talents need to be provided with pathways to grow within the system with the right guidance.

At grassroots levels, the focus is on helping children get familiar with a football while having fun. As they progress through the age groups, kids need to build a solid technical foundation so that they are equipped with the tools to play the game. Once the players reach the Under 15/16 age group, they can be introduced to the tactical, physical and psychological aspects of the game. And if they are still keen on pursuing football as a procession and have the skills/talent to match, full-time academies like the Peninsula Pune FC Football Academy (PPFCA) and Tata Football Academy (TFA) are a couple of great options in India to further develop into professional footballers.

The Results Will Show

Youth Development in football is a difficult business. You only have to look at some of the world’s leading teams to see how many homegrown talents actually make it to the senior team. Apart from FC Barcelona, you would be lucky to see more than 2-3 homegrown players as part of the first XI.

One such local Indian club that has done well in promoting its Academy talents is Pune FC. Established in 2011, the Pune FC Academy has won a fair few Youth I-League championships along the way. Most recently, in the 2014-15 season, its Under 19 team finished a creditable second in the Under 19 Hero I-League, India’s premier youth tournament. Further, the club has supplied as many as 6 players to the India U23 and Indian National Team set up. Dhanpal Ganesh, currently Pune FC’s sole representative in the national team, joined the Academy as a lanky 16-year-old, but has developed to become one of the nation’s premier defensive midfielders. Amrinder Singh, another Academy graduate, is widely recognised as one of the country’s young, up and coming goalkeeping prospects. Meanwhile other PPFCA graduates like winger Nikhil Kadam, striker Thongkhosiem Haokip and playmaker Lalrempuia Fanai too have begun making their mark on the national scene.

The Way Forward

It is important that clubs, coaches and academies are always looking to improve and refine their youth systems. Whether it is a focus on coach education and upgrading coaching licences, organising youth tournaments or providing scholarships to outstanding talents, there needs to be greater commitment to the development of youth football in India. At the same time, it is important for the sports administration to lay greater focus on the development of the game at a grassroots level. Only then will we truly make sustainable progress as a footballing nation.