Can Indian football make it to the top league?

Yes | Subrata Dutta

If India implements its plan well, it can be in the 2026 World Cup


When small countries like Iceland, Croatia and Serbia figure in the FIFA World Cup, the question I often hear from football fans is, when will India play in the World Cup?

As someone associated with football administration in this country, I can say with a lot of optimism that India can play with the big boys of the game in the future. It is not an impossible dream but an achievable target. We at the All India Football Federation (AIFF) firmly believe that if we move in the right direction and implement our plan properly, we can figure in the 2026 World Cup.

More teams in 2026

My assessment is based on the fact that FIFA is going to expand the World Cup from the current 32 teams to 48, and there will be an increase in the number of Asian countries from five to eight. At present, India is ranked 14th in Asia and I find no reason why we cannot be in the top eight within the next eight years. Of course, strong teams with a legacy like South Korea, Australia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Japan will take up the first five places, leaving the rest of the countries to fight for the remaining three slots. I think countries like India, China, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain will be vying for these slots.

Indian football has improved and the AIFF has chalked up plans to take it to the next level. We now have an excellent youth development programme and our under-16 team is a product of this system. It is doing extremely well and we have won a majority of the matches that the team has played. This augurs well. Now we also have an excellent scouting programme in the country. As a result, we are able to nurture and coach talented youngsters. The fact that football is popular in the country helps.

Government intervention

There have also been specific interventions by the government. Thanks to the government, we are not short of funds. The government has also invested a lot in infrastructure development, which was given a fillip when we hosted the FIFA under-17 World Cup last year. It is good to see that football occupies a pride of place in the government’s Khelo India programme. The AIFF’s Centre of Excellence will become operational soon in West Bengal, and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has extended all help to ensure that the project is implemented according to our plans. We have also taken steps to educate our coaches and start new coaching courses as we need more qualified coaches for our grassroots development programme.

We also want to ensure that our national teams at different levels share the same coaching philosophy. We will also bring in more foreign coaches to ensure that players get scientific and technical help. Moreover, coaching will be backed by technology. Our teams, both juniors and seniors, will get regular foreign exposure. The success of the Indian Super League has proved that we are moving in the right direction. If everything goes according to our plans in these eight years, I see no reason why we cannot play the 2026 World Cup.

As told to M.R. Praveen Chandran

Subrata Dutta is senior vice-president of the All India Football Association

No | Novy Kapadia


Indian football will start growing when we stop dreaming about the World Cup


Every time the World Cup is held, I get asked when India will qualify for it or be in the big league. It never occurs to me as I know we are 30-50 years behind. Initially I used to feel cynical about it but now I feel it is absurd, almost like ‘waiting for Godot’. We keep postponing our objective each time we aim to realise it. In 2002, I received a t-shirt captioned ‘India in 2010’. The same target has now been revised to ‘India in 2026’.

Support for domestic football

Over 14,000 fans have gone to Russia to see the World Cup, which shows there is a growing interest in international football in India. My question to these fans is, will they spend money to watch domestic football? It is true that international football is part of globalisation and everyone wants to be a part of it, but what is lacking is support for domestic or local football. India’s success in the recent Intercontinental Cup drew some interest, which otherwise has largely been localised within pockets like Kolkata, the Northeast, Goa and some parts of Kerala.

Indian football will start growing when we stop dreaming about the World Cup. We have to plan and think 20-30 years ahead and have a system in place that will produce players who can match the best in the world. People have the fallacious feeling that in a large population like ours, there is a Lionel Messi somewhere. But what people do not realise is that Messi is not where he is because of Argentina but because of La Masia, the Barcelona youth academy that made him the superstar that he is. We need to realise that as football is a very difficult game, it is even more difficult for a player to make a mark in the professional world. In all, 210 countries play football. Out of those, 190 countries have it as the No. 1 game. It is not like cricket where the World Cup sees only a handful of countries.

Taking clubs seriously

Are Indian football fans really willing to wait for 20 or 30 years to see their own countrymen do well in the game? Things were much better when it was not that fashionable to be a football fan. Instead of romanticising, we must focus on a sustained youth development process that will involve the clubs more seriously in the process. The academies that have come up have failed in producing players who can play at the professional level. Instead, most of them have catered to people who play the game till they get admission in good universities or colleges. My concern is that Indian football is becoming more of a middle-class phenomenon and the lower-middle class or the working class is getting alienated and moving to cricket, which offers a better livelihood in our country. We have few football academies that are hardly doing sustained developmental work.

Another discouraging factor is that while the number of tournaments is increasing all over the world, the trend is the reverse in India. A number of big tournaments across the country have been shut down or pushed to insignificance. We need to find our own solutions, and in a country like ours, more number of tournaments will allow the players to play the game over a longer time in the season while also allowing new talent to emerge. We must remember that India was an Asian powerhouse in the 1950s and ’60s and tournaments like the Rovers Cup and the Durand Cup introduced players who would go on to represent the country for big titles like the Asian Games and win gold twice.

As told to Amitabha Das Sharma

Novy Kapadia is a sports commentator and an author

It’s complicated | Syed Nayeemuddin


Though there is no dearth of talent, administrators lack vision and most plans remain on paper


Is it a complex process to aspire for football glory on the global stage? We can debate this endlessly because Indian football is an enigma. Given the size of our population and the passion for this beautiful game, it is a paradox that India can’t even dream of a place in the world’s top league. A spot at the World Cup is nothing but an illusion that confronts us every four years. Suddenly, when the best 32 countries take on each other on the world stage, we are reminded of the penury that afflicts Indian football.

What prevents India from claiming a World Cup slot? It is not lack of talent because I can vouch for the fact that there are pockets in the country begging for attention. It is not lack of enthusiasm because I have seen children play the game on the most uneven fields and enjoy every moment of the competition. Of course, that is not to say that we give our young aspirants decent arenas to practice their vocation. We don’t. There are not many attractions and yet we have such a massive following for the game.

Iceland, Tunisia, Panama and Senegal are some of the smallest nations with the biggest aspirations to take on the best. Watching them play the World Cup in Russia leaves me tearful, if not heartbroken. Why is India not there? I have tried finding the answers but the ghost of failure returns every four years to leave a generation of players, coaches and administrators frustrated.

Who creates champions?

I have heard stories of how a small town in Ethiopia produces marathon winners, a club in Jamaica trains outstanding sprinters, and how a village in Punjab gave India many hockey Olympians. Who creates this culture of shaping champions? I have wondered what is wrong, and have come to the conclusion that we don’t have a system by which we can set up the foundation for a football revolution.

The complications come from the fact that the administrators lack vision even as the players strive. Most plans remain on paper. We demand from the team flattering performances without really caring for their needs. You don’t respect the game and the players, and expect gold in return. We deny our young players facilities but want them to conquer the world. Is it fair?

Once a force to reckon with at the Asian level, we continue to plead with the government to clear the national team for participation in the Asian Games. Japan and Korea, Iran and Iraq have left India behind. It is not difficult to understand that these are nations with massive funds to promote and hone their game. There can’t be any comparison.

Put schemes in place first

There are certain factors that trouble me. Why this obsession with foreign coaches? We can have Indian coaches who can understand the team’s culture and also communicate better. Why curtail exposure tours to help the players grow? Why look to deny them what is considered a critical part of a team’s grooming? When I was the national coach, I had to often fight for things like mineral water and fruit at practice sessions. Can you play on an empty stomach?

It is not at all complicated to understand the needs of the players. But it becomes complicated for the administrators who fail to understand that you have to have schemes in place. Look for talent in schools. Give players social security. Insure their legs. Simple needs require simple measures which must be in place if you want India to feature in a World Cup some time in the future.

As told to Vijay Lokapally

Syed Nayeemuddin is a former national player and chief coach

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Printable version | Oct 26, 2021 6:30:40 PM |

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