Welcome back to our three-part series that explains why Indian football isn’t getting big or successful anytime in the near future. In the first part, we talked about the dysfunctional structure of the Indian club football system and about how football is overlooked in India by the media and the masses. Those subjects are largely off-the-pitch and don’t have much to do with the on-field aspects of football. That’s why, in this part of the series, we shall be discussing two things that are somewhat a mix of off-pitch and on-pitch matters.
First off, we will go over the state of the grassroots football systems in India and then talk about the dilapidated, old and terrible footballing infrastructure that graces the country. A lot of countries have football as a secondary sport, and their club football model isn’t exemplary, however, they still succeed to some extent and punch above their weight. This is mainly due to the high amount of quality football grounds, teams, whether pro, semi-pro or amateur, fitness centers and such littered across those countries. These facilities, combined with a footballing culture and even a loosely structured grassroots system ensure that football in said countries doesn’t die out and become stale.
You would expect that in a country like India, there would be many playgrounds scattered across large cities in decent condition, full of kids playing football through the day and night, however, the distance of this conception from the truth is immeasurable. Let’s understand how.
Let the following sentence act as something similar to a ‘too long; didn’t read’ line that is often seen at the end of long posts on the internet. India has no proper functional grassroots football system or a cultivated atmosphere that may lead to the conception of one. Now the AIFF claims to have a structured and impressive grassroots programme that aims to ‘attract young players to the sport; allow access to football in a child’s own environment. The webpages for the AIFF’s grassroots and youth development programmes, the source of the above information are eerily similar to the programmes themselves. Old, badly made and abandoned.
It seems the grassroots programme page was last in 2013, which is now five years ago. A page detailing the ongoing and upcoming projects within the scheme tell you how much of a sham and lie it is. As of October 2012, five of the total 35 states and union territories are involved in the AIFF grassroots programme. It claims that three states would become a part of the 2013 programme, and whether they did is anyone’s guess. The AIFF claims it has conducted 47 festivals across 2012, three of which were FIFA affiliated, four were AIFF affiliated, and no one knows about the rest.
Short descriptions of the courses that took place in this time period are given, and these descriptions are what tell you the truth about the state of these so-called ‘grassroots’ programmes. These programmes were all 3-5 day workshops that trained coaches or ‘leaders’ to ready them to lead by example in the AIFF’s grassroots festivals. These descriptions look alright in essence, but how uncertain everything sounds and is all that’s wrong with Indian football in general. “The AIFF will aim to ____”, “The state FAs discussed ____ and made plans for ___”, These organisations took a keen interest in _______.” But did they ever actually do anything? Nope.
Straying away from the infamous comatose webpage, I got to know that the AIFF’s youth football newsfeeds are updated at constant intervals and the newest entries are fairly new. After going to the 10th page of these entries, I found myself in 2015, and for once was pleasantly surprised by looking at anything that had to do with Indian football. The more recent pieces talked about various leagues and competitions taking place in India, whereas the older articles mainly consisted of bits about grassroots programmes happening at different places.
Now I’ve learned a few things about India after having lived here all my life till now. One of them is that in the country, nothing is what it seems to be, corners are cut in everything, and almost everything is all show and no go. People will talk of things and ‘plan’ and ‘discuss’ them in such an appealing manner that you’ll fall in love with said things, however, the final product is so terrible that you’ll end up despising it after the first glance. This is why India is so low in terms of productivity and innovation. Everyone has their head in the clouds and is exceptionally good at pitching things to an audience, and making it seem like they will be world-class, but when it comes to the execution, it’s a complete and utter flop.
This is down to some flaws in the mentalities of many Indian people, and an obsession with copying all that works but abstaining from actually creating and thinking of new ideas that could work well in the Indian scene. This isn’t only visible in the world of football, or sports, it’s everywhere. Everywhere in India, you’ll see someone trying to nab something from America, or China, or anywhere that is considered to be an advanced country. We basically accept we’re inferior to these nations and treat our own selves as their subordinates. It all makes you think as if the Colonials never left.
Why the above paragraph matters is because the AIFF’s grassroots system is so wrong, and so badly executed, that it can be deemed as a complete waste of money, time and resources. With a system, similar to that of its, Indian football can never progress. They say the small things make the biggest differences, and things like the dead web pages, and abandoning of certain programmes gives you a true idea of how casual the AIFF’s approach is towards youth football in India.
Coming back to the news pieces then. After looking through a lot of the web pages that talked about the various leagues and grassroots camps/programmes, I started noticing a few very discouraging trends. The most discouraging of which was that almost every single one of these so-called ‘grassroots courses’ was so directionless and futile in the grand scheme of things. What the AIFF defined as a grassroots course was a short week-long or even shorter group of sessions that involved some basic football training, games, and other vanilla events.
Get some kids together, rent a ground, get some coaches, a few cones, and footballs, stick some fancy boards with motivating words and football images on them, spout some basic football knowledge and boom, you have what the AIFF calls a grassroots programme. Some grassroots ‘festivals’ were single day events that were equivalent to a day of football with the lads, except you had 150 lads on a ground with no grass, and an annoying bunch of coaches looking over your shoulder.
Some of the FIFA courses and a few of the more official courses were admittedly well-planned, long and useful, however, these courses were quite literally one in a hundred. The schemes that the ISL clubs have to start to be eligible for competing in the ISL are as you’d expect in India, tiny and half-baked. Everyone, including the authorities and entities that are specifically made for promoting football in the country, is taking it as a joke.
There is one aspect of Indian youth football that I have to praise though. There has been a dramatic rise in the number of youth football leagues that are being conducted in an organised manner. The youth I-League and numerous baby leagues do give me some sort of confidence and relief; however, it is still too little. The baby leagues for example, only exist in three or four states of the country. How long these youth leagues remain active and alive is also up for debate, as the failure of the entire club football system in India is directly proportional to the failure of these youth leagues. The ISL’s downward spiral will most probably result in complete decomposition, meaning that the youth leagues that contain youth branches of the ISL clubs will probably fail too.
As we approach the end of this section, I have a few things to say to the AIFF and about the entire state of Indian grassroots football. What the AIFF doesn’t understand is that to become a footballing superpower, you need extensive, expansive, active and serious grassroots programmes that actually contribute to the development of players and Indian football. One or two-day festivals that do basically nothing except for giving kids a kick about will add zilch to Indian football.
I’ll even tell the AIFF this. India already has an abundance of amazing young footballers, but just no place to make themselves seen. I’m in school myself, and I’ll tell you this, in almost every school that allows its kids to play football in this country, there are at least one or two great footballers that deserve to be playing on something better than a barren ground and with an old, terrible football.
After seeing the state of the webpages and reading the descriptions and details of these grassroots programme, I’ve concluded that they’re written by someone with the mental level of a middle schooler. From the vague and hollow lists to nonsensical targets and aims, to the copy-pasted definitions, nothing in all of the webpages talking about the programmes is even remotely as professional and well-made as something related to football grassroots programmes should be.
The following is an excerpt from the first paragraph of the Introduction page of the AIFF’s grassroots football page: ‘Grassroots football is simple, fun and easy to organise and is an introduction to the game for any child. It provides children the access to football in a safe, enjoyable and positive environment. A good introduction of football to every child and ensuring that the children enjoy football, will help in the child continuing to participate in the sport in the long run.’ Now go on and tell me that doesn’t sound like something a 12-year-old would say to define grassroots football.
If the state of our national football federation is so bad, how can we ever expect to get good at football? To achieve things, you actually need to work hard and do something that’s different from a rundown and common mould, if only the AIFF and such entities could understand that…
To start this section, I’ll again cite a few lines and pages from the AIFF’s website. After I finished reading about the grassroots pages on the federation’s website, I went over to the ‘Youth Development’ section, and somehow, it is even more depressing than the previous section. It’s fitting that the pages in this section are even emptier and worse designed than the grassroots pages, because football infrastructure is mostly non-existent or terrible in the entirety of India.
The introduction page of the AIFF’s youth development plan talks about a network of schemes that will be implemented to ensure that India becomes a ‘successful footballing nation’ and is able to compete against the best. The page talks of a programme called NYDP, that will give young footballers a platform to play and provide them with a pathway to the highest level. The page says that there’ll be coaching sessions, different types of courses, new facilities, and so on and so forth, you get the picture. The section about the NYDP is full of football jargon and details the workings of the programme, however, the page hasn’t been updated in almost five years, so it’s safe to say that the NYDP is all but dead and gone.
Now this isn’t something that is exactly rare in Indian football, as we’ve come to know. However, I’d just like to point out how flawed and frail everything about the grassroots programmes and youth development programmes is. Entire pages seemingly delve into the concept of these schemes, however, at the end all you get to know is that something is being planned in a desultory manner, and will most probably never come to life.
The endless number of buzzwords in these paragraphs and pages remind me of an episode of ‘The Office’, wherein Michael Scott is seeking ideas for the company, and all it takes to get praise out of him are words such as ‘zing’ and ‘pep’. Just these words made Michael seem as if the team were actually making progress and thinking of legitimate, useful ideas. The same goes for the AIFF, the higher-ups are seemingly content with the abundance of these words in the plans that are being made, and don’t seem to care about if the ideas are actually worth realising or not.
To be fair, Dunder Mifflin is a perfect parallel to the All India Football Federation. There are always problems at the top, nothing ever gets done properly, and most of the people working there are incapable of doing anything.
Coming to football infrastructure in India then. I’ll compare what the AIFF plans to do, and claims to do, to the reality. On the same page as the NYDP, a scheme named the National Facility Plan (NFP) is mentioned. The NFP is apparently supposed to install the right infrastructure to support the NYDP. Some objectives of the NFP are as follows:
- Regional academies in every State for the age groups 12 -19 years
- Football School Centers in every State for the age groups 6-12 years but also:
- Typical football stadiums for each I-League Club
- Training facilities for all I-League Clubs
- Enough natural grass or artificial pitches for matches and training in every State
- Small sided fields in every part of the city and villages
If you spot some grammatical errors and nonsensical statements in the above list, keep in mind that I copied them directly off the AIFF site, so they’re the ones you should be looking at. If we actually analyse these points, we find that they actually are so vague and wrong that it makes you believe that they weren’t even written seriously and are purely hypothetical.
The NFP wants to ensure that every I-League Club has training facilities and ‘typical’ football stadiums. That means one of two things; either the clubs in the I-League are so badly kept that they don’t have training facilities and stadiums, or the points are a load of filler.
The NFP aims to create regional academies and football school centres in all of the 29 states of the country. Now that doesn’t sound like an inherently unrealistic goal, however it is a bit redundant given how private organisations already are operating in almost every state, and delivering a better product than the AIFF or state community could ever give.
The last two points are probably the most absurd points in the entire list. The point about having the optimum number of artificial pitches and grass pitches in every state is too vague, as the socioeconomic aspects and the scale of football culture in every state is different. In fact, I don’t even know how you decide when the number of pitches is enough.
The final point talks about making small fields in every part of cities and villages. India has 300 cities with a population of over 100,000 people, thousands of towns with 10,000+ people and countless villages with varying populations. Making fields, small or big in a country so large and varied when your existing infrastructure is so terrible even in the biggest cities is genuinely impossible.
That sums up the NFP and the AIFF’s infrastructure fantasy. Now let me give you a harsh but honest account of how football infrastructure actually is in India. Keep in mind I won’t be talking about the infrastructure owned by the biggest clubs and the national team and whatnot; mainly because those grounds and facilities aren’t accessible by the vast majority, and very rare.
In a few of the states, particularly those with a lot of football fans and where football is the biggest sport, the infrastructure isn’t too bad. In Kerala, Goa and West Bengal, there are a few decent stadiums and fitness centres/facilities that are sometimes exclusive and sometimes free-for-all. The North-Eastern states are probably the best in terms of football infrastructure and unmoderated grassroots football. In the North East, stadiums are open to everyone and there are an abundance of fields and playgrounds that allow people of all ages to play the game they all love.
I remember a conversation I had in 2013 with one of the controlling members of the lovely Paljor Stadium in the tiny state of Sikkim. The 30,000-seating stadium is open to everyone on most of the weekends, and on certain parts of weekdays. When asked about what he thought of the stadium and football culture in Sikkim, he said something along the lines of “Everyone comes here, and just plays. We don’t charge any money, anyone can come, at any time, and play football!”. The man’s mentality and thought process is a model of inspiration for the AIFF. You don’t need fancy and glitzy programmes for grassroots football and youth development. First, you need to offer a good place to play without imposing any restrictions.
In the North East, the above mentality is quite common. In every state, there is a set of stadiums, whether large or small that allow kids and adults to come and play football for absolutely free. It is hence no surprise that most of the nation’s top footballers originate from the region.
In the parts of India where football isn’t the most popular sport, simple playgrounds and fields are rare to find. Even though football isn’t the lifeblood of the people of these states, the sport is most definitely extremely popular, and played by a lot of people. Yet, even in the large cities with populations in the millions, it’s hard to find a good place to play.
I live in the most populous city in the second largest state of India, and I can confirm that there are thousands upon thousands of football fans here, but all we have to play is a dilapidated, old stadium with rocks everywhere that looks like it hasn’t been cleaned in decades.
This is common in all parts of India bar the footballing states and the metropolitan cities such as Mumbai and Bangalore. Even in those massive cities children have a hard time finding a ground to play. I lived in Mumbai for ten years, and there were no more than three grounds in a 10km radius from my house. All of those grounds had a set of restrictions that prohibited kids like me from playing football. That meant that I had to sign up for the Manchester United Soccer Schools programme and my parents had to shell out thousands of rupees just so I could fulfil my desire to play football.
And that’s only me. I’m privileged to be born in a family that can afford such things. Most of India’s population is too poor, or discriminated against, and can’t afford to just play a game that requires nothing more than a ball and some open space.
To end this piece, I’d just like to say something to the AIFF:
Dear All India Football Federation,
We don’t need your fancy, fake and dysfunctional programmes that will never see the light of day. Just give the Indian public regular grounds that are in decent shape, just give us a place to play, and I promise you, Indian football will be doing exponentially better than it is now.
*this article is the second part of a three-piece series that talks about the various problems faced by Indian football.