I-League still developing football in India

Indian clubs can’t match the sums of money that have recently

taken Didier Drogba to Shanghai and Alessandro Del Piero to Sydney,

or the cashed-up domestic cricket teams that have the biggest stars

in their sport flocking to the subcontinent.

What they do have is a vast population of potential fans, a

globally popular game and a burgeoning domestic league.

For the sixth season of the country’s professional league,

champion Dempo has recruited former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder

Rohan Ricketts; Prayag United signed Carlos Hernandez, the player

of the 2009-10 season in Australia’s A-League and a member of Costa

Rica’s 2006 World Cup team; and second-tier club Dodsal FC has been

linked to former Manchester United and Arsenal star Mikael

Silvestre.

Imported players are still crucial to the development of the

sport in a country of 1 billion-plus people. Over the years, the

All India Football Federation has relied on government funding –

and even handouts from the Board of Control for Cricket in India –

to sustain a professional domestic competition.

Africans, especially Nigerians, still make up the majority of

imports in the I-League and there are always a smattering of

Brazilians but as well as Ricketts and Hernandez, this season there

are players from, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Lebanon,

Philippines, North Korea and Afghanistan in the league.

I-League CEO Sunardo Dhar believes that this is a step in the

right direction as football strives to prosper in a country

virtually obsessed with cricket.

”These are big players and big signings and it is a good thing

for India,” Dhar told The Associated Press. ”Any positive news is

obviously good. The money that Indian players receive is obviously

good and so it is not a big surprise that good players from

overseas are coming in and playing. Carlos Hernandez refused three

A-League clubs in Australia to come to India.”

For Dhar, it is not just about trying to sign players who can

excite the growing number of middle-class fans in the country; it

is about laying the foundations for long-term growth, just as the

Japan Football Association did two decades ago with its domestic

competition.

”In Asia, we look up to the J-League and they started the

league with big stars such as Zico and Gary Lineker and these

improved the standards, promoted the game and became coaches and

ambassadors,” he said. ”In India, such experience and expertise

is important.”

High-profile clubs and players pull massive crowds in India

during brief visits and friendly matches. Diego Maradona visited

Calcutta earlier this month and was greeted by thousands of fans

when he helped lay down a foundation stone for the Indian Football

School, which is being set up to train young talents and help

spread the sport at a grass-roots level. The 1986 World Cup star

watched an exhibition match with Indian players and wrapped up his

two-day visit by attending a clinic for young players organized by

Indian club Mohun Bagan.

”You have to give a lot of attention and affection to the

players and the game for it to grow,” Maradona told the Indian

media. ”India still has a long way to go. However, I wish all the

best to Indian football.”

While the Argentine football great is a recognizable figure

around the world, his standing in India is nothing like that of the

legendary cricketer Sachin Tendulkar.

The I-League season kicked off in October, with the immediate

challenge for football officials being how to grab attention when

Tendulkar is playing for India in a cricket test series against

England in November.

As an ex- Premier League player, Ricketts, who left Tottenham in

2005 to play in leagues around the world, has the highest profile

of the foreign contingent. According to the former England youth

international, still settling into life in India, it is not always

easy to make a difference.

”I am trying to help,” Ricketts told AP. ”Some people are

open to learning, such as those who have played for the national

team under a foreign coach and have played the game overseas and

seen a different way. The players that have never left the country

are more limited in their outlook.

”There is potential. Cricket is No. 1, but the kids, the next

generation, now find Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo more appealing

than crickets stars such as Sachin Tendulkar,” he said. ”That

generation is starting to play more and follow the game.”

Ricketts said with a population exceeding 1 billion, things were

bound to change, but added: ”There is money here but no

infrastructure.”

”The academies are very important and there needs to be good

coaches and there need to be good coaching courses,” he said.

”Improving the coaching is key and it has to come from the

top.”

By the end of 2012 a third regional youth academy will open at

Bangalore, following existing facilities in Mumbai and Calcutta.

Four more will be in place by the start of 2014, along with one

national elite academy.

In addition, one team in the top tier of the I-League is

reserved for U-23 players who are given regular playing time at a

competitive level and coached by a staff which specializes in

training up-and-coming players.

”The clubs have become more professional and are investing in

youth development and we have seen players coming through the ranks

to graduate to the national team too,” Dhar said. ”The league

should contribute to the national team and that has started to

happen at junior levels over the last few months and that is a good

sign. In five years, we hope that the league will have strengthened

the national team. The academies will also make a difference.”

Australian Scott O’Donell is overseeing that new academy system.

As a former national team coach of Cambodia, he understands the

issues that developing football countries face when it comes to

trying to build for success.

”I think most people would agree that youth development has

been somewhat neglected here,” O’Donell said. ”I would like to

see all I-League clubs have their own system in place, so they will

be less reliant on buying players from other clubs and more focused

on developing their own players, which will save them money in the

long term.”

In the short-term, foreign players can make a difference.

”High-profile foreign players can have a positive impact on the

younger local players as long as they come here with the right

attitude,” O’Donell said. ”All foreign players playing in the

I-League have a responsibility to help the local players become

better players by showing them what it means to be a professional,

what to eat, drink, when to eat and when to sleep.”