When the U-17 Women’s World Cup ended, the headlines were already talking about the potential next big event in India. The Football Federation of India has had no shortage of eye-catching titles over the years, but a suggestion by newly elected president Kalyan Chaubey to explore the idea of hosting the FIFA World Cup was perhaps the most ambitious of all.
Aspirational, certainly. A wandering thought, perhaps. Over the past five years, India has hosted three major international competitions, two global and one continental – the U-17 Men’s and Women’s World Cup and the AFC Women’s Asian Cup. India is also in the running – along with Saudi Arabia – to host the Asian Men’s Cup in 2027. FIFA and AFC chiefs say they are ‘focusing on India’ . The government has also shown its willingness to support sports activities. The pieces are all there.
Or perhaps talk of hosting the biggest sporting event in the world is another talk of which the AIFF, certainly its previous incarnation, is guilty. Board members have thrown around names, plans and numbers with little thought and follow through over the years. Long term plans changed to short term. Development discussions and predictions of imminent World Cup qualifying – predictably still eight years in the future, lest they be caught out before they have another chance to extend the schedule – have flowed freely.
The AIFF has successfully hosted major events. At least for now, it looks like the trend is continuing.
A relevant question: far from qualifying on merit, India is certainly entitled to try to host these events, but what legacy have these events left?
“There’s the perceived legacy and the reality of the legacy. Most countries hope there will be a legacy in hosting World Cups – sometimes it’s infrastructure or a chance for the federation to push on his government to get more funding or improve the level of play in the country,” says Tom Bryer, youth coach and author of Football Starts At Home, who currently works in Japan.
Let’s break it down then shall we?
The 2017 U-17 World Cup was held in six stadiums: Kolkata, Kochi, New Delhi, Guwahati, Navi Mumbai and Margao. The stadiums have had a facelift, not to mention the renovation/addition of 26 training grounds. According to several reports, Rs 95 crore has been spent on infrastructure development.
The latter two also hosted the U-17 Women’s World Cup five years later with Bhubaneswar, while the Women’s Asia Cup earlier this year was held in Mumbai, Navi Mumbai and Pune.
There will be no shortage of stadiums should India host major events. It was also learned that although maintenance has been a challenge, most of the training facilities also remain in use – some for the public and some for training football and other sports.
The hope when hosting an event is also to give the home team an edge and progress well in the tournament, much like South Korea reaching the semi-finals when they hosted the Cup world, with Japan, in 2002.
In the three events they have hosted, India have finished bottom of their groups, losing all six games while conceding 25 goals in the two World Cups. They only scored one goal. India’s Women’s Asian Cup ended in calamity with the team’s bio-bubble ruptured – thanks to a litany of organizational issues – after the first game and were kicked out of the tournament.
India are not at the level to participate in the events and their performances should be looked at with that in mind. No amount of targeted training can bridge this chasm.
The federation tried. The 2017 men’s squad, more specifically the “likely” team of 40-50 players, traveled a dozen countries on “exhibition tours” and played 60 friendlies as well as competitions.
According to the Annual Training and Competition Calendar (ACTC) 2016-17, Rs 8.3 crore was granted for World Cup preparation of which Rs 4.59 crore was earmarked for attendance and exposure international and Rs 1.59 crore at the domestic camp between April 2016 and March 2017. Overall, more than Rs 9 crore was reportedly spent on exhibition tours.
Alarmingly, in the three years leading up to the World Cup in 2017, AIFF’s overall grassroots development budget was Rs 3.15 crore. Of the 21 members of the World Cup squad, only four have played more than 45 games in the Indian Super League in five years.
“There are no such funds,” a state association official said dryly when asked about the AIFF’s aid to states for football development. “So far they haven’t allocated any funds to any state. All the budget they have and nothing comes back to the states.”
In a welcome move on Thursday, the AIFF – now under a new regime – pledged Rs 24 lakh to states to conduct football business and develop the game.
According to the ACTC 2020, preparing the women’s team for the Asian Cup – including domestic camp, international training, competition and exhibition tours – costs around Rs 2.5 crore. is the expense of under 40 players whose opportunity was sorely lost due to the tournament debacle.
Meanwhile, more than Rs 1.1 crore has been spent preparing the women’s squad – again a camp of around 50 players – for the U-17 World Cup. Not to mention the money spent to organize the event.
With the national structure of women’s football held together by a whim and a prayer, unless there is a structural change, the future of the players is perilous, as is the investment.
What is mentioned above is the money allocated by the Sports Authority of India. The AIFF budget also includes funds from FIFA, AFC and sponsors. Can anyone blame SAI for cutting AIFF funding citing poor performance?
While the AIFF was spending freely – focusing on a small group of players destined to wear the Indian jersey for major events – football in India has improved little, and the country is still languishing around the 100 mark. ranks. There is also little evidence that any of these events caused a noticeable increase in the interest or standard of football.
Football chiefs seem to be making an oft-repeated mistake and in many places, including India, have performed poorly when it comes to development.
“If the team is doing well, then there is hope. India have had great tournaments but the question is about performance. Are the players and coaches improving?” Bryer asks.
“In some countries there is a football culture that is conducive to player development. Often other countries focus on the elite, but in reality you have to invest a lot in families and parents.”
Scott O’Donnell, AIFF’s former technical director who left in 2017, agrees.
“One of the challenges in India was that not many states were holding competitions. Those that did, it wasn’t very long,” he says.
“I’m not a big fan of organizing events for fun. I was there for the preparation for the Boys U-17 World Cup. The money spent on this team… they traveled everywhere. .. can you imagine what that money could have done for boys and girls if it had been spent on coach education and grassroots football?” asks O’Donnell, now a member of the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM).
The Australian – it must be said – has resigned from his post at the AIFF.
“It’s great that they invest in the infrastructure. Why not invest in it without having to organize these competitions? A lot of countries that don’t have the infrastructure invest in player development and coach education.”
Japan and South Korea – now World Cup regulars and powerhouses in Asia – took the long view and stuck to the basics. Something for India to learn.
According to Bryer, grassroots football in Japan is a voluntary system. Children between the ages of 6 and 12 are coached by volunteers and parents on school grounds and in clubs.
The Japan Football Association has created a movement to emphasize the importance of focusing on technique for the younger age group by using television, magazines, comics, events, school programs and newspapers to transmit the message. The coaching and tactics part comes later.
In India too, it has been proven to work on a small scale, with Mizoram and Manipur being the biggest examples.
FAM, meanwhile, has launched youth competitions in eight Malaysian states, soon to be more, starting with age groups U-6 to U-16.
In India, about 15 states do not play grassroots football and face no consequences from the national body, sources say.
India has opted for a top-down, national team-centric model of football. However, without a strong nationwide football culture, large talent pool, low match count and scattered youth development, financial and technical planning, we ran blind, bouncing from one wall to wall.
So what is the legacy of hosting these major events and possibly more? Time will tell, but we might not like it.