This article was written after the writer learnt much about Indian football at a conference in New Delhi and yet his misgivings towards such events remained strong.
Assigned to cover a convention on Indian football, I found myself questioning the motives of such conferences and wondered whether they continue to be exercises in futility as I entered a medium-sized hall on a moderately cold Thursday morning in New Delhi.
Since the session had already begun a couple of minutes ago, I quickly made my way to the last row without, hopefully, disturbing the speaker or the small audience present to hear him. Almost everyone was, seemingly, listening intently to the frail man, who is currently the technical director of the All India Football Federation (AIFF).
Robert Baan has been involved with football for almost 48 years now, a period which has even seen him don the hat of a caretaker manager for his country Holland in 1981. Baan also spent a couple of years with the Australian national squad as a manager of its U-23 team and later, as a technical director with the national side.
In India since 2011, the 69-year-old has faced many a struggle here since then and he strenuously made the audience aware of his long-standing concerns, most of which remain unresolved. The usual complaints about the lack of sponsorship & infrastructure, fitness issues, few football stars etc were recounted by Baan.
However, to say that Bann’s grievances lacked novelty is not an attempt to diminish the value of his arguments. To the contrary, the fact that such problems have persisted over a significant duration is a greater worry in itself.
As Baan continued to raise pertinent questions, my apprehensions began to wither away and I was somewhat convinced by the man’s vision to uplift Indian football. Interestingly, the Dutchman’s master plan for India, Lakshya 2022, aims to lead the national team to qualification for the FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar.
However, in light of the current state of affairs, the sad reality is that this objective is seemingly impossible to achieve. The Indian team is currently ranked 167th in the FIFA rankings and though the standings are not always reliable, India’s recent loss to Palestine in a home friendly was a more accurate indicator of the side’s position in world football.
The poor Indian display in that match again brought to the fore the low level of technical ability possessed by most of the country’s footballers. The issue is further exacerbated by the reluctance of the I-League clubs, with the exception of Pune FC, to invest in their youth squads. Consequently, the talent pool at the disposal of the national team is significantly low.
Recently, renowned Dutch fitness coach Raymond Verheijen conducted a three-day conditioning conference for trainers, which was only attended by three I-League coaches. Such indifference from the teams in the country’s premier professional league is worrying, to say the least.
AIFF has taken cognisance of this problem in the past and consequently, created the Pailan Arrows in 2010 at the insistence of ex-India coach Bob Houghton.
Houghton was alarmed that very few young Indian players were able to break into the starting XI of I-League sides and hence the AIFF XI, Pailan Arrows’ name when it was founded, came into existence with the aim of nurturing young Indian talent by giving them regular opportunities to play in a competitive tournament.
By the end of Baan’s speech, however, the Dutchman was struggling in his efforts to not paint a gloomy picture of Indian football. Moreover, a couple of sessions followed the 69-year-old’s address and failed to significantly alter the mood set by Baan.
Though many pledges and promises were made by the officials and sponsors present at the conference, the conclusion was hardly promising. A two-day convention had come to an end and everyone was left clutching at the straws.
Unconvinced by the platitudes thrown at me during the day, I wore my cynic’s hat again and left the hall.