The situation of sport in India can be summed up with the following stat which I saw in a CNBC article recently: Since 1900, Michael Phelps has won more Olympic medals than the entire Indian teams that represented the country so far. Incredible.
When thinking of India, the last sport that is associated with this fascinating nation is football. India was under British rule for 89 years yet chose to adopt cricket, successfully, rather than the beautiful game. If any of you were in India you probably know that everything over there takes time. Well, now it is football’s time to say Namaste and remind everyone that it exists in India.
In 2016, Repucom’s (now part of Nielsen Sport) World Football report revealed that 31% of India’s population shows some kind of interest in football. India’s spot in the list is quite low, but when taking into account that 31% of the population in India is the equivalent of around 370 million people, comes the realization that this is a massive market.
Solely showing interest in football is not sufficient enough to develop football in any country. Repucom’s report shows that in terms of participation around 22% of the population India plays football at least once a week. The level of play is less relevant. Just to put things in perspective, In India, a higher percentage of the population plays football than in European giants such as Germany, France and Spain.
The structure of India’s football is as following, there is the AIFF, which stands for the All India Football Federation. Under this federation operates state federations. As far as competition organisation, there is the I-League which is organised by the AIFF, and then there’s the Indian Super League. The ISL is an independent organisation which was launched in 2013 with the assistance of the well-known agency IMG in order to boost football development in a more commercial model.
The idea of the Super League is nice and featured high profile players such as Lucio, Florent Malouda and John Arne Riise. However, if India really wants to develop football it has to start from the grassroots level together with the education system in order to promote children and youth to participate in football regularly.
The AIFF understood that through the Super League it may be harder to develop football broadly, and especially in grassroots level. Throughout my research, I encountered the next document: Small Sided Games- The Way Forward for Grassroots Development in India (Target age 4-12).
In the report, there is a comparison to countries in which football is already established and realized that most of the professional players learnt an array of skills by playing on the streets, beaches and in open spaces. In today’s modern reality, there are many obstacles and risks on the streets. In 2013 there was an official beach soccer tournament in Goa but since nothing. Many of the open spaces in India are inhabited by wildlife. Therefore, Small Sided Games are a reasonable solution.
Small Sided Games are games that can be played with or without a goalkeeper, the pitch is very small and narrow and so are the goals, all is designed to hand the players the opportunity to get as many touches on the ball as possible, develop technical skills in small spaces along with improving short-term decision making.
This system does not only exist in children and youth level and the AIFF is working on that all of the levels of the national team will play in the same way. Besides the professional relevance of small sided games in player development, one of the main reasons this system was chosen is the fact that in terms of equipment, organisation and infrastructure not much is needed. In India, along with developed areas in major cities, most of the population is spread in remote and rural areas.
Small Sided Games was found not only beneficial towards children. Parents were reporting positive feedback and from a study that was conducted in Australia, it was found that the parents felt that this system benefits them and the kids to be more involved in football.
In 2013 India has won the rights to host the U17 FIFA World Cup. In order to make this tournament a success the AIFF, the Indian government and FIFA issued the Mission XI Million. The goal of this mission is to bring football to at least 11 million kids across India, mainly through the help of local schools. The investment in the project is estimated at $295M and the deadline is October 2017, the date of the tournament.
As of April 2017, the mission managed to reach 2 million children, twenty-seven cities in twenty-two regions and over 3,800 schools. Besides the bodies mentioned earlier, there is another company that is involved. I am referring to “Trans-Stadia”, a company that took on itself to boost the development of sport and football in India, with the flagship project the Stadi-Arena in Ahmedabad in the state of Gujarat. The Stadi-Arena is a model of a stadium that was developed by a team of experts in England in order to make stadiums more financially sustainable.
Most of the traditional football stadiums in the world were designed in a way that football is the main activity. In leagues of 18-20 teams, it turns out that the stadium is occupied in only 17-19 matchdays throughout the year. The Stadi-Arena in Ahmedabad was designed to incorporate secondary uses first to be used as the main ones. The stadium does have a football pitch but actually, there is no regular team to occupy it, future thought.
In 2016, the Indian Premier Futsal league was launched. This league runs for three weeks and the players are composed of high profile retired players, leading futsal players and Indian players who were identified as having future potential. Figures show that more than 100M viewed the league worldwide. One of the key components of this league, besides including stars like Ronaldinho, Ryan Giggs and Hernan Crespo, it is that it was designed to be a TV fitted product.
So how far are we from the first Indian football player in one of Europe’s top leagues? Quite far. A few giant clubs are already operating in India. Manchester United’s commercial activity includes two mega stores in Kolkata and Mumbai, Liverpool operates a soccer school in Pune, and in the ISL plays Atletico de Kolkata which is partially owned by Atletico Madrid. Bayern Munich have also set their sights on India and in an interview with Bloomberg in 2015, Karl-Heinz Rummenige stated the Indian market holds potential for Bayern.
Recently, India’s men’s football team wrote history as it established itself in the 100th place in FIFA’s ranking. The Mission 11 million seems very ambitious. India is a country with a lot of deprived and remote areas which holds a challenge in terms of the reliability and validity of the data coming out of those areas regarding the mission.
All the activities above show a wide and positive approach to develop football. Grassroots, an identical style of play, hosting youth tournaments, top football clubs involvement, constructing new facilities and it may sound unpleasant, but also a certain level of commercialism in order to fit in today’s modern football setup.
The expansion of the FIFA World Cup to 48 teams was intended to provide more places in the tournament for developing football nations such as India. Currently, it seems that the extra spots will go to African nations. The new structure of the competition is expected to run from 2026. With competition among Asian teams not being strong, we may see in the future a strong candidate in the shape of India.