India’s inaugural Super League season has been heralded a huge success – the average attendance of 26,505 was the fourth highest in world football in 2014. Little wonder that FIFA President Sepp Blatter has called India “a sleeping giant that needs to be woken up”.
On the evidence of the efforts being made by Indian football, it might not be too long before the country starts to make a noise. In the past, emerging market football nations have merely imported expertise, usually on high wages and short-term contracts, but there is a sea change in that India now realises the potential of the football industry and the need to nurture talent right across the sport.
The Sector Skills Council has identified that India needs 4.3 million people to implement the appropriate infrastructure and network to make football really work. This is a far-sighted approach that not only includes players and coaches, but also nutrition experts, sports psychologists, trainers and the right media. In other words, everything that mature markets have had embedded into their football for many years. “This all has to come from India, not from overseas,” said Kushal Das, General Secretary, All Indian Football Federation.
Peter Reid, the former Everton and England midfielder, has been coaching Mumbai City, one of the eight Indian Super League teams. Reid, whose career has taken him all over the world, was astonished by what he found in India. “We all know that cricket is big there, but football is massive – they are literally football crackers. Enthusiasm among the kids is tremendous.” Surprisingly, football is now being played more among youngsters than cricket. Hard to believe, but apparently true.
But Reid and Indian officials admit that a lot of work needs to be done to bring infrastructure up to the right standard. Again, there are signs that lessons are being taken on board. Northeast India United, for example, have established 40 coaching camps and grassroots leagues. The club comes from an area of India that has provided a conveyor belt of talent for some years. Most of India’s top players over the past 20-30 years have come from this region.
While the rise of the Indian Super League provides hope for the rapid growth of football, the other significant event is the hosting of the Under-17 World Cup in 2017. The Indian team is being developed in Germany and is testing itself against Bundesliga youth sides. In fact, there is every chance that it will be playing in a German youth league soon, an ambitious attempt to benchmark the young Indians against high quality opposition.
Northeast India United has designs on becoming a “feeder club”, exporting the best players to Europe. “We can envisage an Indian player appearing in the English Premier at some stage in the near future. The first Indian player in Europe is coming soon,” predicted Rahul Patil, CEO of Northeast United.
With a population of 1.2 billion and a growing middle class, India has the critical mass to develop football on a grand scale. It remains to be seen if they can install the infrastructure needed and cultivate the expertise required to move their game to a global stage. There’s a lot of energy and self belief being injected into football in India, so don’t bet against it…