India football’s freefallhttps://indianexpress.com/article/sports/football/ileague-isl-fifa-world-cup-indian-football-aiff-5515334/

India football’s freefall

Indian football ails in the backdrop of absurd, grand claims, constantly shifting goalposts and shielding the uncertain present by projecting a glitzy future.

As the qualifiers for Qatar 2022 loom and the realisation that the national team isn’t yet World Cup-ready sinks in, it’s only natural that Patel starts talking about 2026.

Dangling the Cup carrot again

Moments after the launch of India’s shiny new kit at a convention hall in the bowels of a plush Lutyens Delhi hotel last week, a remark by All India Football Federation president Praful Patel raised several eyebrows.

At a hasty send-off ceremony for the Indian team leaving for the AFC Asian Cup in the Gulf, Patel said: “If we (at the AIFF) get our mind together and Sunil (Chhetri) and his team gets their feet together, we can definitely qualify for the 2026 World Cup,” Patel’s line was delivered to an audience comprising current and former players, football executives and journalists.

It wasn’t the first time someone had made such an eye-roll-inducing claim. In mid-2010, the AIFF formed its youth team (Indian Arrows) and several office-bearers of the federation believed qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia was a reasonable target. That goal was reset within months, soon after the AIFF signed a 15-year deal worth Rs 700 crore with IMG-Reliance.

In December 2010, Andrew Wildblood — the then executive director of IMG-Reliance — told Wall Street Journal that India qualifying for the 2022 World Cup was ‘not unrealistic’. There can be several volumes of books on the statements and theories offered on India’s qualification chances for 2022 World Cup since then.

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And now, as the qualifiers for Qatar 2022 loom and the realisation that the national team isn’t yet World Cup-ready sinks in, it’s only natural that Patel starts talking about 2026. That, after all, has been the story of Indian football. Of course, it’s a culmination of decades-long policy paralysis, but the last eight years especially have been all about making absurd, grand claims, constantly shifting goalposts and shielding the uncertain present by projecting a glitzy future.

“From our last appearance at the Asian Cup (in 2011) to this, Indian football has definitely improved,” says Football Delhi president Shaji Prabhakaran, also a former FIFA development officer for South and Central Asia. “But a lot of it is just perceptional improvement.”

Blue Lions or Lions’ Blues?

India will enter the Asian Cup ranked 97th in the world. It’s the highest they’ve been since 1996 and a stat the AIFF shoves in your face every time you point out a structural flaw. Credit where it’s due: as much as performances, it was AIFF’s strategic planning that helped India leapfrog 76 places in three years.

India moved from 173 in March 2015 to inside the top-100 by playing a slew of lower-ranked opponents, and FIFA’s ranking system. But Constantine has put together a unit that’s tough to beat, as was evident from the goalless draws against China and Oman. All this suggests the team that will face Thailand, hosts UAE and Bahrain should be better than the one that competed in Qatar 2011.

Jeje Lalpekhlua, Sunil Chhetri’s strike partner, is yet to score in this season’s Indian Super League and has found the back of the net just seven times this year. (PTI Photo)

Frankly, it is not. Going by club form, just four players in India’s squad of 23 can be termed reliable. Two of them — Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and Amrinder Singh — are goalkeepers, while the other two are captain Sunil Chhetri and winger Udanta Singh, whose pace will be invaluable on the flanks. The rest do not paint a pretty picture.

Jeje Lalpekhlua, Chhetri’s strike partner, is yet to score in this season’s Indian Super League and has found the back of the net just seven times this year. Balwant Singh, the third striker, has scored just once in 12 ISL games for ATK while Jamshedpur’s Sumit Passi has struggled for game time.

In defence, Sandesh Jhingan will once again be India’s go-to man. But his club Kerala Blasters has leaked 20 goals in 12 matches so far. Jhingan’s central defence partner Anas Edathodika has played just five matches owing to injury. In their last match before the break, the Jhingan-Anas-led defence conceded six goals against Mumbai City FC.

With full-backs Nishu Kumar and Jerry Lalrinzuala injured, and Rahul Bheke not considered, Constantine will have to rely on Pritam Kotal and Narayan Das, who’ve both endured dismal seasons. The midfield is young, inexperienced and lacking match practice.  Remove Chhetri, and the Blue Tigers become toothless. The 34-year-old is the only Indian striker who has clocked the world average of 3,000 minutes of playing time this year. He has been the highest Indian goal-scorer in the league for the last five seasons. He was India’s best player at the 2011 Asian Cup and the sole reason why India have qualified for the 2019 edition. And he will remain the focal point even in 2026 when India, as predicted by Patel, play the World Cup. Even if he’ll be 42 by then.

Lakshya, a plan on paper

In 2011, when Dutchman Rob Baan joined AIFF as technical director, he suggested a plan to produce ‘dozens of Chhetris’. Baan, one of the brains behind Australia’s ascent in world football, authored a 114-page document titled Lakshya, which listed out everything India needed to do to become a ‘serious’ footballing nation.

In many ways, 2011-12 could’ve been the watershed years for Indian football. The national team had made its first Asian Cup appearance after almost three decades. Chhetri was trying to make a mark overseas (in USA’s Major League Soccer first and then in Portugal) and set a roadmap for others to follow.

The sharp suits of IMG-R were expected to find a solution to revive the I-League, which never really took off from the time it was launched in 2007. AIFF’s academies were mushrooming across the country as Baan presented his paper at AIFF’s platinum jubilee in 2012. “I emphasise, that it is NOT just a plan on paper,” Kushal Das, the AIFF general secretary, assured in his foreword.

Lakshya became the buzzword in AIFF circles in the months that followed. A notion was created that a lot was being done when in truth, very little was actually happening. The national team went almost a year without playing any meaningful matches. The academies, that were to nurture prodigious talents, gradually closed because of lack of funding (just the one in Goa is operational now). No Indian footballer is playing abroad. Out of the 13 teams that participated in the I-League in 2011, only four have survived – the rest have either become defunct or exist only on paper.

And Lakshya? Well, it remained a plan on paper, with Das’s words immortalised in it.

Mission ‘Million’ Impossible

The Mission XI Million programme turned into a great PR exercise but its claim of reaching 11 million girls and boys across India remains dubious. (Source: Twitter)

With the Lakshya blueprint crumpled and thrown into a bin, the AIFF became obsessed with the under-17 World Cup, which was awarded to India in 2013. The refurbishment of stadiums and training facilities for the tournament, bringing them up to a certain standard, is perhaps the biggest takeaway.

However, as far as youth development goes, the Cup’s legacy is far from desired. The Mission XI Million programme turned into a great PR exercise. But its claim of reaching 11 million girls and boys across India remains dubious, and there isn’t any follow-up to it. In September 2017, days before the World Cup kicked off, the AIFF made another headline-grabbing announcement, saying a Centre of Excellence at a cost of Rs 200 crore would be built ‘somewhere near Kolkata’. It’s still stuck at the planning stage and earlier this month, Patel said they were reaching out to corporates to fund the project.

But the U-17 World Cup provided a template to the AIFF to train youth teams: assemble a bunch of players and make them travel the globe, playing obscure clubs and hurriedly-assembled national teams. Along the way, some of their results have been magnified – some deservedly, like beating Argentina U-20 in August; some not so much, like the win over ‘Italy’ last year that never was.

The task of developing youth was largely left to the clubs, who are battling for their own survival – the I-League teams trying not to get run over by the ISL; the ISL sides trying not to crumble under the increasing financial burden imposed on them.

In a different league

The ISL is a fascinating case study. It has, no doubt, brought a semblance of professionalism to Indian football — as far as some of the match-day operations are concerned — since it was launched in 2014. For instance, the quality of playing surfaces marginally improved. The rickety buses were replaced by luxurious ones. Players are put up at comfortable apartments or lavish hotels.

Strict anti-corruption rules have been enforced, on paper at least, and simple things like internet and toilets are easily accessible at venues. The coaches and players, some of whom have made their way to India after years of playing in respectable leagues, have taught the Indian players a thing or two about match-day routines, post-match recovery and such. These are some of the reasons, apart from the money, why Indian players aspire to play in the ISL and not the I-League.

But all these things come at a cost, and with every passing season, the owners are starting to feel the pinch. Already, Delhi, Goa and Kerala have seen changes in ownership while actor John Abraham was close to selling his stake in NorthEast United FC this year. “Sustainability is the biggest concern right now. Unless there is an economic model which ensures there’s some money recovered every season, it’ll become tough for everyone to keep on spending,” says a CEO of a former ISL champion.

As is the case with leagues, all clubs are in the red at the moment. It was also the case with the IPL, where the majority of the franchises were making losses after five seasons. But over a period of time, some broke even while a few have started to make profits. A big chunk of the revenue for IPL franchises comes from media rights that were sold for a billion dollars. According to multiple reports, the share from media rights forms up to 60 to 70 per cent of all revenue earned by IPL teams.

Something like that, however, will never be the case with ISL because one of the owners of the competition is broadcaster Star Sports. The franchises do get a share of central revenue, but that’s a fraction of what they spend. Instead, every club pools in Rs 15 crore each as franchise fee before the start of every season. That money is used for HD production of the matches, marketing and promotion of every club on TV and other media, and such. This is one of the reasons why ISL teams feel entitled to prime time slots on weekends, along with higher visibility in terms of advertisements and brand promotion. And the fact that they get it is something that irks I-League sides.

The standoff between the two reached a tipping point last week, with the owners and officials of I-League champions Minerva Punjab, Chennai City, Neroca FC and Aizawl FC, among others, accusing the Football Sports Development Limited (the governing body of ISL comprising Star, Reliance and AIFF executives) of staging ‘a coup’.

A lot of I-League’s plight is a result of its own inaction. The ignorant attitude of several I-League sides gave birth to the ISL in the first place. Now, once East Bengal and Mohun Bagan complete their expect shift to the ISL this year, other I-League clubs fear they will be made redundant – just like Dempo, Salgaocar and others – especially since ISL will continue to be a closed league, which means there won’t be any promotion or relegation.

But the more AIFF tries to undermine the I-League, which is its own product, the more it fights back. The I-League has offered fascinating narratives in the last three seasons, throwing up unexpected champions and weaving fairytales season after season. No one knows how the underdog fares in its ultimate battle for survival against the behemoth that is ISL.

ISL vs I League

Gourav Mukhi of Jamshedpur FC watches after kicking the ball to score a goal against Bengaluru FC during the Hero Indian Super League (ISL)
Gourav Mukhi of Jamshedpur FC was claimed to be the youngest goalscorer in ISL history but his actual age has brought up controversy. (Source: AP)

A couple of months ago, the ISL made global headlines but not in the way that would have pleased the image-conscious league’s bosses. In an effort to build a narrative of its own, the ISL tripped on its own feet when it announced that Jamshedpur’s Gourav Mukhi became the ‘youngest goal-scorer’ of the league. Mukhi, according to the documents he’d provided to the league, was 16.

But his thick moustache belied his tender age and, soon, old reports of Mukhi fudging his age resurfaced. It turned out that he was punished for faking his age at a national youth tournament three years ago. And based on multiple accounts, it emerged that ISL’s ‘youngest scorer’ could be anything between 16 and 28 years old – no one knows how old he really is!

Mukhi’s Benjamin Button act reached every imaginable corner of the world. But to call it an ISL problem would be misrepresenting the whole issue. Age fraud is one of the biggest issues facing Indian football, which once again brings us to our earlier point: the attitude towards youth football.

The AIFF is relying on government handouts to fund its youth team programmes, which can be described as roulette at best. The ISL clubs are burdened so much by basic costs that youth development becomes the least of their priorities whereas I-League clubs are too busy fighting for survival to care about anything else.

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The lack of a coordinated effort is why India hasn’t been able to look beyond or produce another Chhetri in the eight years between their two Asian Cup appearances. It’s a hollow system, one that’s running just on perception. India’s 2026 World Cup dream will turn into 2030 and 2030 will become 2034. But unless the changes on ground are steeped in reality, the twain shall never meet.