Every time the FIFA World Cup is round the corner, almost all Indians ask this one question – Why can’t India, with a population of over 1.2 billion, come up with a team of XI talented players to represent the country at the major tournaments. The question seems justified considering that much smaller countries, both in size and economic development, like Haiti and Zimbabwe sit well above us in FIFA rankings. Unlike cricket, football has only recently emerged as a popular sport in the country. Recent developments like the Indian Super League has helped to increase awareness of the sport by adding more gloss and glamour to it. But has the ISL actually helped improve the quality of Indian football?

ISL has definitely helped Indian football by bringing down players like Florent Malouda and Diego Forlan, stars of the previous generation currently in the twilight of their careers. The experience gained by playing with these legends is invaluable for the local Indian players. But, it is in no way actually promoting youth development in the sport across the country. It’s just a showcase of talents that takes place over just 2 months every year and its commercialization has just made it more of a spectacle than an actual sporting competition. It has helped popularise Indian football, but to call it the ‘Premier League’ of India, is a bit far-fetched.

The teams taking part in the ISL are just a collection of talented individuals bought for one sole purpose – to win the league. There’s nothing wrong with the objective, but the clubs do not focus on anything else. They do not set up youth academies in their city to find and nurture young talents. In most football crazy countries, tournaments with age categories as low as Under-6 exist. That’s how soon the youth academies start their scouting work there. This is problem that India finds itself in, not only in football, but in most sports (and athletic events). There is no feeder system in place to detect talent at an early stage. There are many nationals competitions for various age categories but there are no measures in place to ensure maximum participation.

‘The IPL is a similar league. How come it’s successful?’ It’s a very fair question. Cricket is a sport that the country worships. Cricket coaching begins as soon as a kid goes to school and there are national competitions like Ranji Trophy and International competitions like the U-19 World Cup, where the best talents get centre stage. In a setup like this, having the IPL is very beneficial. Football, on the other hand, is a sport that not many in the country even know of, let alone play. In this case, the ISL is like a glamour filled iPhone exhibition for people who are not taught how to use a smartphone. It creates the interest, but there’s no means to guide them in the right track.

Now, consider the case of Bengaluru FC, an extremely successful I-League team. Since the team’s inception in 2013, BFC have two I-League titles, a Federation Cup and have reached the AFC Cup final. This was possible because they follow a professional system that is similar to England’s. They recently set up a BFC Soccer School in the city to promote youth scouting and development. This is a model that works in the long run and will help improve the quality of Indian football. Sadly, the I-League, a place where most youngsters play before getting their breakthrough to the national team, is treated like a second tier competition. Not many even know of the league with even fewer people following it.

At a time like this, AIFF’s ‘Mission XI Million’ is an initiative that promises to achieve the target of taking the sport to the Indian grassroots. With a target of taking the game to atleast 11 million boys or girls in over 15000 schools across the country before the U-17 World Cup, it will help India set up a football model similar to the one followed in Europe. The Indian youth will also get tremendous exposure playing against the products of the best youth academies in the world. But it should not end there. Mission XI Million is just a start, a blueprint that has to be implemented to be effective in the long run. If Bayern Munich can pick a 11 year old for an Odisha slum to be part of their academy, I’m sure India can find a lot more talents if they set up effective training and scouting units across the country.

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