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
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
”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
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
”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
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
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.”